Good King Wencelas looked out on the feast of Stephen...
The "Feast of Stephen" would be today, the day after Christmas. The saint, for whom this day gets its name, was among the first seven chosen by the apostles in the early church to assist in caring for the poor, particularly the Greek widows, as the spreading of The Way began to reach into new populations. The harvest was plenty, but the laborers were few... as it says in the gospel, and the apostles needed some extra hands. And so, Stephen, along with six others, became the first deacons of the church (even though they weren't called that at the time.) Stephen, apparently, was a bold speaker. And it was that boldness, and unflinching willingness to speak truth to power, that made him a threat. Those who didn't like his challenging practices within the Temple trumped up charges of blasphemy and such to put him on trial. According to the account given in the Acts of the Apostles, putting Stephen on the witness stand only gave him a forum to tell them what he really thought:
‘You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are for ever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.’
Well, this didn't sit well with his persecutors. They dragged Stephen out into public and began stoning him. They got themselves so worked up into a froth that they were hurling off their coats, which landed at the feet of a witness to this mayhem, a young man named Saul of Tarsus. Saul liked what he was seeing here, and would go on to search for other followers of The Way and have them killed...until, of course, he heads to Damascus and a funny thing happens to him along the way. As Stephen is dying, he lets out a remarkable cry of compassion for his executioners:
‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’
Not the cheeriest of stories to hear the day after we've been singing songs of welcoming the birth of Jesus. But it is the reminder of what is to come for this "newborn king." His presence, and his teachings, are going to rub some people the wrong way. Stephen's strong words for his accusers are very similar to the words Jesus used to dress down the religious leaders who had turned the Temple into a trading post rather than a place of prayer. And, as we know, Jesus gets killed for standing for Love by a world that didn't want to change.
I know that for many of us who have worked for justice and mercy for any number of minority groups, the resistance of those in the status quo can feel very similar to what I think Stephen must have encountered as he challenged the Temple authorities. Most of the time, when a minority challenges how those in the majority are doing something, the result is more resistance... and even retaliation. We've seen it with the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. The suffragettes went through hell to get women the right to vote in the 1920s. LGBTQI activists know very well the suffering of a Stephen, sometimes to the same literal end.
What always strikes me as remarkable in the story of Stephen's martyrdom is his ability to seek to see past any of his own anger and pray for forgiveness for his persecutors. I have adopted the practice of praying for my enemies, especially at times of great conflict. The prayer helped to transform my heart and how I responded to the the hateful, and ignorant, things people were saying against the queer population. Where it became clear to me how truly effective it had been was when I saw a clip of me from an interview with one of the TV stations and the video of one of the opponents to this proposal to extend civil rights protections to LGBTQI people. I was amazed that my face was relaxed and I spoke clearly and calmly. The person who was my counterpoint was clearly full of rage. I credit the prayer for keeping me centered in the face of such palpable hostility. The lasting legacy of the late South African prisoner-turned-president Nelson Mandela was his ability to come out of an experience of being in jail for almost three decades and emerge as a man able to forgive his jailer. I'm sure that Mandela realized that to hold onto anger would do nothing to give him back the lost years of his life, and, in fact, would simply make him a freed man still living like a prisoner in his mind.
Part of learning to live in Love, for me, has been the constant shedding of layers of anger and hurt. I have a long way to go before I can claim to have the perfection exhibited by Stephen. But both Stephen and I have the same Source that reminds us to love our enemies. This doesn't mean we have to accept or agree with them; but we must still love them. Love is the road to freedom from our prisons in our heads and hearts.