The honour of the first feast after Christmas Day is given to the Church's first martyr, the Deacon Stephen. St Luke is at pains to record the sermon and witness of St Stephen in the Acts of the Apostles fully aware, no doubt, that here the Church sees the fulfillment of the Lord's prophecy regarding martyrdom and offering for our veneration the man who became for all the disciples the example of how to die for Christ.
Stephen's homily is a remarkable profession of faith, a catechesis aimed at helping the Jews to understand that Jesus, whom they have crucified, is their Messiah. On his feast day I think it is worth reading and reflecting on:
The Sermon of St Stephen
(Acts 7: 2-53)
'My brothers, my fathers, listen to what I have to say. The God of glory appeared to our ancestor Abraham, while he was in Mesopotamia before settling in Haran, and said to him, "Leave your country, your kindred and your father's house for this country which I shall show you."
So he left Chaldaea and settled in Haran; and after his father died God made him leave that place and come to this land where you are living today. God did not give him any property in this land or even a foothold, yet he promised to give it to him and after him to his descendants, childless though he was.
The actual words God used when he spoke to him are that his descendants would be exiles in a land not their own, where they would be enslaved and oppressed for four hundred years. "But I will bring judgement on the nation that enslaves them," God said, "and after this they will leave, and worship me in this place."
Then he made the covenant of circumcision with him: and so when his son Isaac was born Abraham circumcised him on the eighth day; similarly Isaac circumcised Jacob, and Jacob the twelve patriarchs.
The patriarchs were jealous of Joseph and sold him into slavery in Egypt. But God was with him, and rescued him from all his miseries by making him so wise that he won the favour of Pharaoh king of Egypt, who made him governor of Egypt and put him in charge of his household. Then a famine set in that caused much suffering throughout Egypt and Canaan, and our ancestors could find nothing to eat. When Jacob heard that there were supplies in Egypt, he sent our ancestors there on a first visit; and on the second Joseph made himself known to his brothers, and Pharaoh came to know his origin. Joseph then sent for his father Jacob and his whole family, a total of seventy-five people.
Jacob went down into Egypt and after he and our ancestors had died there, their bodies were brought back to Shechem and buried in the tomb that Abraham had bought for money from the sons of Hamor, the father of Shechem.
As the time drew near for God to fulfil the promise he had solemnly made to Abraham, our nation in Egypt became very powerful and numerous, there came to power in Egypt a new king who had never heard of Joseph. He took precautions and wore down our race, forcing our ancestors to expose their babies rather than letting them live. It was at this time that Moses was born, a fine child before God. He was looked after for three months in his father's house, and after he had been exposed, Pharaoh's daughter adopted him and brought him up like a son. So Moses was taught all the wisdom of the Egyptians and became a man with power both in his speech and in his actions.
At the age of forty he decided to visit his kinsmen, the Israelites. When he saw one of them being ill-treated he went to his defence and rescued the man by killing the Egyptian. He thought his brothers would realise that through him God would liberate them, but they did not. The next day, when he came across some of them fighting, he tried to reconcile them, and said, "Friends, you are brothers; why are you hurting each other?" But the man who was attacking his kinsman pushed him aside, saying, "And who appointed you to be prince over us and judge? Do you intend to kill me as you killed the Egyptian yesterday?" Moses fled when he heard this and he went to dwell in the land of Midian, where he fathered two sons.
When forty years were fulfilled, in the desert near Mount Sinai, an angel appeared to him in a flame blazing from a bush that was on fire. Moses was amazed by what he saw. As he went nearer to look at it, the voice of the Lord was heard, "I am the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob." Moses trembled and was afraid to look. The Lord said to him, "Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground. I have seen the misery of my people in Egypt, I have heard them crying for help, and I have come down to rescue them. So come here; I am sending you into Egypt."
It was the same Moses that they had disowned when they said, "Who appointed you to be our leader and judge?" whom God sent to be both leader and redeemer through the angel who had appeared to him in the bush. It was this man who led them out, after performing miracles and signs in Egypt and at the Red Sea and in the desert for forty years. It was this Moses who told the sons of Israel, "From among your own brothers God will raise up a prophet like me." When they held the assembly in the desert it was he who was with our ancestors and the angel who had spoken to him on Mount Sinai; it was he who was entrusted with words of life to hand on to us. This is the man that our ancestors refused to listen to; they pushed him aside, went back to Egypt in their thoughts, and said to Aaron, "Make us a god to go at our head; for that Moses, the man who brought us here from Egypt, we do not know what has become of him." It was then that they made the statue of a calf and offered sacrifice to the idol. They were perfectly happy with something they had made for themselves. God turned away from them and abandoned them to the worship of the army of heaven, as scripture says in the book of the prophets: Did you bring me sacrifices and oblations those forty years in the desert, House of Israel? No, you carried the tent of Moloch on your shoulders and the star of the god Rephan, the idols you made for yourselves to adore, and so now I am about to drive you into captivity beyond Babylon.
'While they were in the desert our ancestors possessed the Tent of Testimony that had been constructed according to the instructions God gave Moses, telling him to work to the design he had been shown. It was handed down from one ancestor of ours to another until Joshua brought it into the country that had belonged to the nations which were driven out by God before us. Here it stayed until the time of David. He won God's favour and asked permission to find a dwelling for the House of Jacob, though it was Solomon who actually built a house for God. Even so the Most High does not live in a house that human hands have built: for as the prophet says: With heaven my throne and earth my footstool, what house could you build me, says the Lord, what place for me to rest, when all these things were made by me?
You stubborn people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears. You are always resisting the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. Can you name a single prophet your ancestors never persecuted? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Upright One, and now you have become his betrayers, his murderers. In spite of being given the Law through angels, you have not kept it.'