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Fr. John Hedges, St. Stephen's Church, New Boston, Mich.: "We need the witness of the martyrs in these times because we're living in an age of martyrs. ... We're heading now into a time when we will have to stand up for Christ — even at the cost of the shedding of our blood."
Just one day after the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, the Church commemorates the death of its first martyr, St. Stephen, in Jerusalem.
Stephen is lauded in the Acts of the Apostles as "a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit."
He was so esteemed that he was elected one of the first seven deacons, consecrated by St. Peter himself.
In the halcyon days after Pentecost, Stephen was renowned for his charisma as a preacher, introducing many people to the good news of Jesus, delivering alms and working miracles.
His star qualities drew great envy from the members of the Sanhedrin.
Hedges: "That's what infuriated his enemies — that he spoke so convincingly of Jesus Christ."
When they questioned him, Stephen delivered a magnificent lesson on the prophets foreshadowing the Messiah.
The saint ended it by admonishing them, "You received the law as transmitted by angels, but you did not observe it."
Because of Stephen's reproach, they were infuriated, and they gnashed their teeth at him.
But Stephen looked up to Heaven and said, "Behold, I see the heavens open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God."
For this, the Sanhedrin falsely accused him of blasphemy, using it as a pretext for their envy. Then they dragged him to the city walls, shouting, "Kill him! Kill him!" and stoned him to death.
Saul of Tarsus, not yet St. Paul, witnessed, and even consented to, Stephen's execution.
Hedges: "Saul was responsible for getting the letter to have Stephen arrested."
In his last breaths, Stephen prayed for his executioners, saying, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them!" — just as Jesus Himself asked the Father to forgive those who crucified Him.
So similar to Jesus was the first martyr, that the Church in Her wisdom juxtaposes the Feast of Our Lord's birth with the Feast of St. Stephen.
And today, as we reflect on the Church's first martyr, we also think of the unprecedented number of Christians being persecuted and killed all around the world in our own time.