By Martin Jumbam
Mother Church celebrates Sunday, May 12, 2013, the last Sunday before Pentecost, as the seventh Sunday of Easter – Year C. In the entrance antiphon we pray: ‘Lord, hear my voice when I call to you. My heart has prompted me to seek your face; I seek it, Lord; do not hide from me. Amen. Alleluia.’
It is the Holy Spirit that enables Stephen, the first Christian martyr, to go to martyrdom as witness of his faith in Jesus Christ as we hear in the first reading of this day. In reporting the death of Stephen, Saint Luke draws parallels between his death and the crucifixion of Christ. Both of them preach repentance to the Jews and die praying for the forgiveness of their persecutors. The second reading is from the final part of the book of the Apocalypse. In it, Saint John concludes his account of his visions in a formal, solemn manner with Jesus addressing believers and encouraging them to persevere in their faith. The early Church expected Christ to return immediately and it is the thought of this imminent return which leads John to urge his fellow Christians not to lose hope despite the persecution they suffer. In the Gospel of John, we listen to the priestly prayer of Jesus Christ. It is the prayer that consecrates Jesus’ disciples for their mission, and sanctifies the Church they form. Even though it brings comfort and hope to the troubled hearts of the disciples, who know that he will be arrested and executed, it is a prayer that is also meant for all Christians down the centuries. Let us now listen to the first reading.
First Reading: Acts of the Apostles 7:55-60.
Stephen, filled with the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at God’s right hand. ‘I can see heaven thrown open’ he said ‘and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.’ At this all the members of the council shouted out and stopped their ears with their hands; then they all rushed at him, sent him out of the city and stoned him. The witnesses put down their clothes at the feet of a young man called Saul. As they were stoning him, Stephen said in invocation, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he knelt down and said aloud, ‘Lord, do hold this sin against them’; and with these words he fell asleep.
V/ The word of the Lord.
R/ Thanks be to God.
In this reading, we witness the martyrdom of the first Christian martyr, Saint Stephen. Saint Luke draws parallels between the death of Stephen and the crucifixion of our Lord. Both men preach repentance to the Jews; both are executed outside the city of Jerusalem; and both pray for and forgive their executioners before they die. In Stephen’s witness unto death, the Holy Spirit becomes the principal actor, strengthening Stephen in his profession of faith, and through the spilling of his blood and the ensuing persecution, the Gospel breaks through the narrow confines of the Holy City of Jerusalem and spreads throughout Judaea and Samaria to the ends of the earth.
Shortly before the passage of our meditation, we first learn of Stephen when a conflict arises in the Jerusalem Church between the Greeks and the Jewish converts to Christianity over the sharing of food. The Greeks complain that their widows were being ignored when food is being distributed. To resolve this problem, the apostles call a full meeting of the disciples to elect seven men of good reputation to take care of the needy, thus leaving the apostles the time to concentrate on preaching the word (Acts 6: 1-6). Stephen is singled out as “a man full of faith of the Holy Spirit” and full of grace and power with which he does great wonders and signs among the people (Acts 6: 5-8).
It is not long before Stephen comes into serious conflict with his fellow Greek-speaking Jews, who accuse him of blasphemy. He is brought before the council and accused of claiming that he can destroy the Temple and change the Law. In his defence, Stephen gives one of the longest discourses in Acts of the Apostles. He accuses his detractors of resisting the Holy Spirit and ends by telling them of his vision of Jesus standing at the right hand of God in heaven. When they hear this, the councilors are outraged and rush Stephen outside the city where they stone him to death. The final scene is witnessed and approved by a young man called Saul, who would later experience a dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus, change his name to Paul and become one of the greatest evangelizers of all time.
Tradition recognizes Stephen as the first martyr of the Christian age. Like Christ, Stephen dies forgiving his executioners. Father Denis McBride, C.SS.R. says that “Like Jesus his master, Stephen’s final act is not a scream of hate but a word of forgiveness. His last act is a refusal to mirror the hatred he sees in his executioners. His martyrdom is not an appointment with hate but with forgiveness. And forgiveness turns up to keep the appointment – dead on time. 1”
The Fathers of Vatican II Council remind us that “Some Christians have been called from the beginning, and will always be called, to give the greatest testimony of love to all, especially the persecutors. Martyrdom makes the disciple like his Master. […] Therefore, the Church considers it the highest gift and supreme test of love. And although it is given to few, all must be prepared to confess Christ to men and to follow him along the way of the Cross amidst the persecutions which the Church never lacks.”2
Like Christ, Stephen dies commending his soul to God and praying for his persecutors. Like his Master, he prays for his killers, like Saul, who stood by and approvingly watched the scene. Saint Augustine says that “If Stephen had not prayed to God, the Church would not have had Paul.”3
Let us say this short prayer for Christians facing persecution around the world: “O Lord God, your Son Jesus Christ suffered and died for us. In his resurrection he restores life and peace in all creation. Comfort, we pray, all victims of intolerance and those oppressed by their fellow humans. Remember in your kingdom those who have died. Lead the oppressors towards compassion and give hope to the suffering. We make our supplication through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. Alleluia.”
Second Reading: Apocalypse 22: 12-14. 16-17. 20.
I, John, heard a voice speaking to me: ‘Very soon now, I shall be with you again, bringing reward to be given to every man according to what he deserves. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End. Happy are those who will have washed their robes clean, so that they will have the right to feed on the tree of life and can come through the gates into the city. I, Jesus, have sent my angel to make these revelations to you for the sake of the churches. I am of David’s line, the root of David and the bright star of the morning. The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come.’ Let everyone who listens answer, ‘Come.’ Then let all who are thirsty come; all who want it may have the water of life, and have it free. The one who guarantees these revelations repeats his promise: I shall indeed be with you soon. Amen; come, Lord Jesus.
V/ The word of the Lord.
R/ Thanks be to God.
Our passage is taken from the final pages of the Book of Revelation. It reads like a dialogure between Christ and Saint John. The early Christians believed in the imminent return of Christ. Christ tells the seer: “Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my reward to repay everyone for what he has done” (Ap 22:12). That is why the early Christians looked forward to Christ’s coming and promise of reward for the faithful with eagerness, believing it would happen during their life time. The Revelation is, in fact, John’s ardent prayer of Jesus’ victorious return. It is the thought of this immediate return of the Saviour that leads John to contemplate his Master and give in Christ’s words the promise to the faithful who persevere in their faith despite the persecution they suffered.
Christians needed to be consoled and strengthened in the trials they were facing. They were urged to keep on pressing for the end was in sight when the Messiah would return and save them from their persecutors. The seer makes it clear that Christ would make a judgment upon his return using the judicial authority assigned to him by God the Father.
The message contained in this passage is meant to reassure the Christians that our Lord has not abandoned them to their own devices. That is why Christ addresses them in a formal, solemn manner, telling them that he has sent his angel to reassure them that he is “the root and the offspring of David, the bright morning star” (Ap 22:16).
The Bride Saint John refers to in this passage is the Church which, in reply to Christ’s promise that he is coming soon to reward the righteous, prays ardently for his coming. The prayer of the Church is inspired by the Holy Spirit. Every Christian is invited to join in this prayer and discover in the Church the gift of the Spirit. With this gift, the Christian tastes in anticipation the good things of the Kingdom.
Christ himself replies to the supplications of the Church and of the Spirit by saying: “I am coming soon.” Commenting on this passage, Blessed Pope John Paul II said, among other things: “Therefore, let Christ be your sure point of reference, let him be the basis of a confidence which knows no vacillation. Let the passionate invocation of the Church, “Come, Lord Jesus!” become the spontaneous sigh of your heart, a heart never content with the present because it always turn towards the ‘not yet’ of promised fulfillment.”4
Let us imitate the first Christian and shout out loud: “Come, Lord Jesus!” and the Lord will surely come to our assistance. Let us therefore, as Blessed Paul John Paul II recommends, “set out along the ways of the earth, feeling greater unity and solidarity with one another, and at the same time bearing in our heart the desire that has become more eager to make known to our brothers and sisters, still enveloped by the clouds of doubt and depression, the ‘joyful proclamation’ that there has risen over the horizon of their lives ‘the bright morning star’, the Redeemer of man, Christ the Lord’”5 We make our supplication through Christ our Lord. Amen. Alleluia.
Gospel: John 17: 20-26.
Jesus raised his eyes to heaven and said: ‘Holy Father, I pray not only for these, but for those also who through their words will believe in me. May they all be one. Father, may they be one in us, as you are in me and I am in you, so that the world may believe it was you who sent me. I have given them the glory you gave to me, that they may be one as we are one. With me in them and you in me, may they be so completely one that the world will realize that it was you who sent me and that I have loved them as much as you love me. Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, so that they may always see the glory you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. Father, Righteous One, the world has not known you, but I have known you, and these have known that you have sent me. I have made your name known to them and will continue to make it known, so that the love with which you loved me may be in them and so that I may be in them.
V/ The Gospel of the Lord.
R/ Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ.
Chapter 17 of Saint John’s Gospel, from where the reading of our day is taken, is generally called the ‘Priestly Prayer of Jesus’. It is given that name because in it Jesus addresses his Father in a very moving dialogue in which, as Priest, he offers him the imminent sacrifice of his passion and death.
The Priestly Prayer consists of three parts: in the first part (vv. 1-5) Jesus asks for the glorification of his holy human nature and the acceptance, by his Father, of his sacrifice on the cross. In the second part (vv. 6-19) he prays for his disciples, who will soon go out into the world to proclaim the redemption which he is about to accomplish; and in the third part(vv. 20-26), from where our meditation is taken, he prays for unity among all those who will believe in him over the course of the centuries, until they achieve full union with him in heaven.
In the passage of our meditation, Christ prays for the unity of his Church. Pope Paul VI says that “We believe that the Church founded by Jesus Christ and for which he prayed is indefectibly one in faith, in worship and in the bond of hierarchical communion.”6 The source of the unity of Christ’s Church is the intimate unity of the three divine Persons: God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit, three in one.
Christ prays for the Church, for all those who, over the course of centuries, will believe in him through the preaching of the Apostles. As the Fathers of the Church tell us: “That divine mission, which was committed by Christ t the Apostles, is destined to last until the end of the world (cf. Mt 28:20), since the Gospel, which they were charged to hand on, is, for the Church the principle of all its life for all time. For that very reason the Apostles were careful to appoint successors in this hierarchically constituted society.”7.
The successors of the Apostles are the Pope, Francis, who is the direct and visible successor of Saint Peter, and the bishops, the successors of the other Apostles. As the Fathers of the Church say: “The sacred synod teaches that the bishops have by divine institution taken the place of the Apostles as pastors of the Church, in such wise that whoever listens to them is listening to Christ and whoever despises them despises Christ and him who sent him.”8 Together, they constitute the teaching authority of the Church, hold the same authority and proclaim the same teaching as the Apostles. So Christ is consecrating them too in truth.
Christ prays for unity among his followers. In like manner, the Fathers of Vatican II strongly recommended that we pray for Christian unity, calling it ‘the soul of the whole ecumenical movement.’9 That is why, each year from the 18th to the 25th of January, the Church prays for Christian unity, that we may all be one as Christ and his Father are one (Jn 17: 21).
Christ concludes his prayer by pleading with his Father to help all Christians to attain the blessedness of heaven. God wants that all of us be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Tim 2:4), which is the fundamental mission of the Church, that of saving souls.
Let us pray: Holy Spirit, help me to hear Christ’s prayer and keep his commandments, especially the commandment of love of God and love of my neighbour. Amen. Alleluia.
1. Denis McBride, C.SS.R: Seasons of the Word: Reflections on the Sunday Readings, St Pauls, 1991, p. 159.
2. Vatican II, Lumen gentium, 42.
3 Saint Augustine, Sermons 315, 7.
4 Blessed Pope John Paul II, Homily, May 18, 1980.
6 Pope Paul VI, Creed of the People, 21.
7 Vatican II, Lumen gentium, 20
9 Vatican II, Unitatis redintegration, 8.