By Father Anthony F. Raso
In recent weeks, all of us have been horrified by the incomprehensible acts of violence perpetrated by terrorists and others who have taken the lives of innocent people, young and old alike.
Suicide bombings in Sri Lanka took place on Easter Sunday as Christians gathered together to celebrate the Risen Lord. Six days later, a gunman opened fire on Jewish people in a San Diego synagogue. These acts challenge the faith of all good people.
Nevertheless, the hand of God was seen in the actions of some who have responded to the occasion with courage and goodness.
At that synagogue, an incredibly valiant woman named Lori Gilbert-Kaye, who was there to pray for her late mother, jumped up and threw herself in between the gunman and her rabbi and took a bullet
for him. It cost her life to do so. Even in the midst of such terror, she represented in the last act of her life the goodness of God and His love for His people.
She was simply a gloriously good woman and her memory ought to live forever in our hearts. However, a question inevitably arises: Would I do that? Would I have that much courage, and would my instincts be as beautiful as were those of Lori Gilbert-Kaye?
As a priest, I certainly preach about goodness such as this. Do I have such goodness myself? Does any one of us have that sort of goodness? Is this what God expects of me?
Well, according to our first reading today from the Acts of the Apostles, not only is this what God wants from us, but also from the beginning of the Christian story, there have been those who understood His will so completely that they have delivered to Him exactly what He needed them to be.
A few weeks ago, a noble Jewish woman in San Diego showed us the face of God. At the beginning of our story, it was another glorious person named Stephen.
Even in the light of some wonderful and inspiring stories of the martyrs, the story of the last moments of the Deacon Stephen should take our breath away.
He believed in his Lord Jesus Christ and was ready to proclaim Him, no matter the price to be paid. As we hear today, he did so with courage and goodness and love. He was filled with the Holy Spirit and had the vision of Christ before his eyes. He asks the Lord to receive his spirit and then offers his last words, which echo the first words of Christ on the cross: “… he fell to his knees and cried out in a loud voice ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them’ and when he said this, he fell asleep.”
We should not ever grow so used to this well-known story that we make the mistake of failing to be moved by it. Our hearts should be inspired, challenged and changed.
There really have been people as good as this, and while Stephen was the first of them, he was hardly the last of them. Why were they able to do this? The answer seems to be difficult to understand, but as a matter of fact, it is not so difficult at all.
Why did Stephen do what he did and with his last breath say what he said? It was because he truly believed in His Lord. He had faith and that faith ruled his actions and his words and his heart.
The Book of Revelation was proclaimed long after Stephen died but his every instinct knew what it would say: “I … heard a voice say to me ‘Behold: I am coming soon … I am … the bright Morning Star … Let the one who thirsts come forward and … receive the gift of life-giving water. … Yes, I am coming soon’ Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!”
When his moment of glory was presented to him, Stephen heard those words. Jesus had never disappointed him and so he decided not to disappoint Jesus.
We have been blessed through the centuries by the example of St. Stephen, and now, as Jesus says to us in our Gospel, it is our turn to be a blessing for others.
Jesus says today: “Holy Father, I pray not only for (My Apostles) but also for those who will believe in Me through their word.”
He is praying for us, for you and I, here and now. It is all too chillingly clear that we are living in an age as least as dangerous as that in which He and Stephen lived, and the task of proclaiming His message is every bit as necessary now as it was then. What He needs from us is to go out into the world and not only admire someone like Stephen, but to be someone like Stephen.
The cost may not be as dramatic for us as it was for him, although Lori Gilbert-Kaye was ready to pay that cost. Nevertheless, we must be deter- mined to do what Jesus needs us to do. Can we do it? Stephen was only the first in a long line of those who could.
May Our Father grant us the same courage and love that they had so that we can see Jesus brightly and clearly when we, like Stephen, come to our moment when we fall asleep in this world and open our eyes to His light in the next.