Stephen, filled with grace and power, was working great wonders and signs among the people. Certain members of the so-called Synagogue of Freedmen, Cyrenians, and Alexandrians, and people from Cilicia and Asia, came forward and debated with Stephen, but they could not withstand the wisdom and the spirit with which he spoke.
When they heard this, they were infuriated, and they ground their teeth at him. But he, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked up intently to heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and he said, "Behold, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God." But they cried out in a loud voice, covered their ears, and rushed upon him together, threw him out of the city, and began to stone him.
The witnesses laid down their cloaks at the feet of a young man named Saul. As they were stoning Stephen, he called out "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit."
Jesus said to his disciples:
"Beware of men, for they will hand you over to courts and scourge you in their synagogues, and you will be led before governors and kings for my sake as a witness before them and the pagans. When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say. You will be given at that moment what you are to say. For it will not be you who speak but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. Brother will hand over brother to death, and the father his child; children will rise up against parents and have them put to death. You will be hated by all because of my name, but whoever endures to the end will be saved."
When the priest Zachariah of Jerusalem was put to death by stoning, his last words were a shouted curse, "may the Lord see this and avenge me!" (2 Chron 24:22). It was an understandable response to unjust violence done to him. But contrast this with the dying words of Saint Stephen: "Lord, do not charge them with this sin." The Old Testament "Eye for an eye!" we can readily understand, since crimes of violence and injustice cry out to heaven for vengeance. In light of what the enraged mob did to Stephen, we can only be amazed at his final words, praying to God to pardon his killers. His crime was to have spoken some hard truths that his audience did not want to hear. As a result, the frenzied mob put him to death by stoning. Under a rain of rocks that crushed out his life, Stephen commended his spirit to Jesus, and with his dying breath prayed for his killers.
How do we get from Zachariah's shouted curse, May God punish them! to Stephen's Lord forgive them ? What or rather who has made the difference? The one who speaks in today's gospel, Jesus himself. He foretold that the missionaries sent out to spread his message would be rejected and chased from one town to another and that some of them would be killed. One would expect his next words to be words of woe to the killers. Instead, they are words of divine mercy: "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."
Father, forgive them! Jesus himself made this prayer from the cross; he knew what it was to suffer unjustly, to be betrayed, abandoned, mocked, scourged, and nailed to the cross. His blood did not cry out to heaven for vengeance. Instead, it cried out to God for mercy. Unconquered by hatred, Jesus conquered hatred with love -- and so did Stephen, the first of many Christian martyrs, who echoed those saving words: Father, forgive ..
Yesterday we celebrated the joy of a child's birth; today we celebrate the death of an innocent man. In some ways, the birth of Jesus led to the death of Stephen. Stephen was martyred because of his faith in Jesus, and for publicly declaring him as the glorious Son of Man standing at the right hand of God. Luke describes Stephen dying with two prayers on his lips, a prayer of surrender, "Lord, Jesus, receive my spirit," and a prayer that God would pardon his executioners, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them."
Luke had earlier described Jesus as dying with two similar prayers on his lips, a prayer of surrender, "Father, into you hands I commend my spirit" and a prayer of petition for his executioners, "Father, forgive them for they know not what they are doing." Whereas Jesus prays to the Father, Stephen prays to the risen Lord. Mary's child is now risen Lord and can be prayed to as we would pray to God. In the church we often pray to the Father through Jesus, but we are also invited to pray directly to Jesus. Stephen died as Jesus died because, in the words of the reading, he was "filled with the Holy Spirit." We have been given the gift of the same Holy Spirit, and it is the Spirit who empowers us both to live like Jesus and to die like Jesus. On this feast of Saint Stephen, we pray for a fresh outpouring of that Spirit into our lives.