Homily upon St. Stephen's Day
[2 Chronicles 24:17-22; Acts 6:8-7:2a, 51-60; Matthew 23:34-39]
One cannot help but notice the contrast. At the end of the first reading, Zechariah's dying words: "The Lord look on it and avenge!" and at the end of the second reading, St. Stephen's dying words: "Lord, do not charge them with this sin."
Zechariah's words we understand, for do not all the horrid crimes of injustice cry out to heaven for redress? We remember the words of the Lord to Cain: "What have you done? The voice of your brother's blood cries out to me from the ground." And the blood of how many of his brothers and sisters has mingled with Abel's blood to stain the earth since then, all pleading to God for justice!
But then what on earth are we to make of St. Stephen's final words? Here was a man who simply spoke the truth that his hearers did not want to listen to. As a result, he was judged worthy of death by stoning. Under the rain of rock, tearing his flesh and crushing his bones, he prayed and commended his spirit to the Lord Jesus and with his final words begged absolution for those who were murdering him.
How does one get from Zechariah's "go get them, God!" to St. Stephen's "pardon them, God!" What intervenes? Well, we should of course ask it differently: Who intervenes?
The One who speaks in today's Gospel reading, that's who. The Lord Jesus Himself. He made no bones about the fact that those He sends to speak His words will not be welcomed and honored. They will be ridiculed and some will be killed and even crucified, some they will beat, and some will be chased from one town to another. So it happens, said Jesus, that all the blood of the ages from Abel down to Zechariah "comes on you."
Given such a prediction, one would have expected His next words to be words of woe and warning. Instead, they are words that break open the deep recesses of God's heart for all to see the mercy that beats there: "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing. See, your house is left to you desolate."
This is the God revealed in Jesus Christ. The God who does not like to take the sinner's "Go away and leave me alone" as the sinner's final word. Who always hopes for repentance and so in mercy keeps on trying to speak to his people the Word that will shake them up and turn them from their sins and bring them home to Him. This is the God who when the holy City of Jersualem got hold of Him, handed Him over to the Romans, and took Him outside the city gate, and nailed His arms and legs to the wood of the cross. And it was as He was being nailed to the cross that He prayed it. The words that change everything: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."
Father, forgive. He could pray that. He who knew what it was to suffer unjustly, betrayed by a friend, abandoned in his pain, ridiculed and mocked, scourged, and pummeled. And it was as his blood - which is truly the blood of God, for He is the Word Made Flesh as we celebrated yesterday - as his blood touched the earth that everything changed. For here was blood that did not cry out for vengeance and retribution. Here was blood that cried out for mercy and for pardon. Unconquered by the hatred it received, it conquered hatred with love. With each drop running down the cross, staining the earth, smearing across the face of His beloved Mother as she kissed his feet, and pouring from his side with the water as the spear ran him through – with each drop, I say, the cry was heard in heaven louder and louder: "Father, forgive! Father, forgive! Father, forgive!"
And so all the blood of the righteous dead in all the world met together upon that generation: for all their cries for vengeance were heard and answered, but in a way that none could expect or anticipate.
The blood of Jesus winning pardon did more achieve forgiveness of sins. It positively destroyed the power of death itself. Christ's own resurrection was the sign from God that death has been destroyed for all who trust in the blood of Jesus to wipe away their sins. And if we remember that, we can perhaps see why Zechariah, who did not know of the power of Jesus' blood to forgive sins and to overcome death, could only pray as he lay dying: "Lord, don't forget me and the injustice I have suffered." The blood of Jesus was God's answer to Zechariah's prayer: "I have not forgotten you, but I have come to share your fate and to raise you from the dead!" But Stephen, who knew the power of Jesus' blood and who knew precisely what that blood meant, could meet his death without any desire for revenge and without fear. He knew that his sins were covered by the blood of God in the flesh and he knew that His Lord and Master lived again on the other side of death and would call him out of death into eternal life. He saw his Lord stand up to bid him come home and to welcome him into His embrace? So why cry for vengeance? Rather, joining his martyr's blood to the Lord's, he cries for pardon. And who knows if it was not precisely that prayer that saved Saul, who was there consenting to Stephen's death and who became Paul, the great Apostle?
Rather a bloody homily and subject matter for Christmas some might be thinking. Banish the thought! We still live in a world where atrocities of injustice happen with alarming regularity and where the innocent are still slain. In fact, our government is preparing to tax us and use the money to pay for the slaughter of unborn children. Lord, have mercy! How good to remember that it was to win forgiveness for all the sins that bring sadness into this world that our Lord was born! How beautiful it is to remember that the Eternal Word became a fetus and was born of Mary so that He might become also the first-born from the dead, that He might destroy the might of the devil himself and fling wide open the doors to the Kingdom! In the blood of St. Stephen's Day the Church remembers why we so desperately need this Child and the life that is found in His blood – blood He still bids us to receive at His altar, crying for our pardon and promising us His unending life; blood that enable us to join St. Stephen in praying that God would bless and forgive our enemies. Amen.