By Fr. Francis Xavier Weninger
St. Stephen, whom Holy Scripture calls a man full of faith and of the Holy Ghost, full of grace and strength, was the first who had the happiness to give his blood and life for the Gospel of Christ; hence he is called “Proto-martyr.” He is also called Archdeacon, because he was the first of those seven men, who were chosen by the Christian community and ordained deacons by the Apostles.
All present at his martyrdom looked fixedly into the face of the accused to notice any change which fear or apprehension might work in it; but, contrary to their expectation, the countenance of the holy Archdeacon was so illuminated by God, as a sign of his innocence, that they deemed it the face of an Angel. And in truth, he might have been called an Angel, not only on account of his angelic purity, but also on account of his fearless zeal in defending the honour of God. Is it therefore, to be wondered at, that an angelic brightness shone in his countenance?” Because he was pure and chaste,” writes St. Augustine, “therefore was his face that of an Angel.”
St. Stephen, during his martyrdom, fixes his eyes on the heavens, and sees them open, and Christ standing at the right hand of His heavenly Father; soon after, he kneels down, in the midst of the hail of stones thrown at him, and prays for his executioners: “Lord, lay not this to their charge.”
First, learn from this, where you should turn your eyes in suffering, that is, upon the Crucifix, towards Heaven which is open to you, if you suffer patiently. Jesus is ready to strengthen you, and to reward you eternally, after you have ended your struggle, in submission to His will. Gazing upward will lighten your burden, however heavy it may be. The contemplation of Christ, always ready to strengthen you, will not permit you to become faint-hearted and despondent.
Secondly, consider St. Stephen’s prayer. St. Maximus writes: “At a moment when another would have forgotten his best friends, the holy Levite thinks of his enemies and persecutors, and prays for them.” He had doubtless heard that Christ Our Lord had prayed for His enemies, saying: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” This beautiful example of His divine Master, St. Stephen, as a faithful disciple, followed. What are you doing if you entertain in your heart malice against any one who has wronged you. Cleanse your heart from it, and pray yet today for all those who have ever offended you. The example of Jesus Christ, your Saviour, demands it of you, who have not suffered as much as He.
“If you say to me,” writes St. Augustine, “Christ could do it, because He was God and Man; I cannot, because I am only human; look at St. Stephen, your fellow servant. Was he a man, or was he God? Surely he was only human. He was what you are. Well then, if you cannot follow the Lord, follow your fellow-servant; follow St. Stephen; follow all the holy Martyrs.”
St. Stephen beholds the heavens open, and enters into it by his heroic martyrdom. Heaven is also open to you; it is open to all men. You, as well as all men, may be saved. There is none who can truthfully say that he cannot gain salvation. Oh, how great a consolation, especially for those who are oppressed here on Earth, and have many trials! How great a consolation for sinners! To all men Heaven is open; all may enter it; all may gain salvation; because all, with the grace of God, can do what God required of them.
But do not forget, that Heaven is open to you only whilst you live; that is, as long as you are in this life, you can do all that is necessary to gain salvation; but after your death, this will no longer be possible. Hence, if you have neglected to work out your salvation, death closes for you the gates of Heaven for all eternity. As you do not know how long you will live, or when your last hour will come, you do not know how long, how many weeks, years, months, or days, Heaven will remain open to you. There is no day, no hour, in which it may not be for evermore closed.
If then it is your earnest desire to gain Heaven, postpone not for a day that upon which you know your salvation depends.