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Thursday, December 26, 2019

St. Stephen's Feast Uncovers the New Dwelling Place for God

by Lawrence Fox 

Today on Dec 26, 2019, the Universal Church commemorates the martyrdom of St. Stephen the Deacon.
It may seem a little strange that on the first day after the Nativity of the Lord, we would celebrate a martyr's death. 

There is a real connection between the birth of Jesus Christ and the death of Stephen.

With the life and death of Stephen (Acts 6-8), the Church reflects upon first, the life of the infant Church; second, the beginning of the diaconate -- the calling and anointing of deacons (diakonoi) within the life of the Universal Church; thirdly, the human and divine desire to build a dwelling for God among His people; and fourth, the Divine Birthday of the Saints.

Stephen is identified in the Acts of the Apostles as one of seven adult males  chosen by the apostles to serve officially within the life of the Church (cf. Act 6:1-7). One can safely say that the Infant Church at this stage after Pentecost was primarily composed of Jewish disciples from Jerusalem, Judea, and various territories from within the Roman Empire (cf Acts 2:7-12). 

Those converted to “The Way” were identified as “devoting themselves to the apostles' teaching (didachē) and to participation in the divine life of the grace of God (koinōnia), to the breaking (klasei) of bread and to the prayers (proseuchais).” (cf. Lk 24:30, 35; Act 2:42)

Stephen was baptized into this infant Church. In faith, he lived as a servant and dwelling place for God by grace.

Stephen was identified as a man full of God’s grace and power working great wonders and miraculous signs among the people. (Acts 6:8) This language is the same language used by St. Paul to identify the apostles. As such, seven men (and subsequently deacons)
did not only “wait upon tables” but they intimately participated in the ministry of the apostles: "the signs of a true apostle were performed among you with all perseverance, by signs and wonders and miracles.” (2 Cor 12:12)

Deacons were a ministerial succession to the apostles in the life of the Church along with bishops (episkopoi), and presbyters (presbyteroi). (cf. Act 14:23; 1 Pt. 5:1; 2Jn 1:1, Titus 1:5; 1 Timothy 3:2,12) This pattern continues to this day in every movement historically rooted in the apostolic foundations.

Stephen was a profound witness to the Good News of Jesus Christ. Luke notes that many people attempted to contradict the words of Stephan but could not. Eventually he was arrested and paraded before the Sanhedrin (Act 6:14). Stephen gives a defence of his calling by outlining Salvation History beginning with Abraham’s calling followed by the history of the Patriarchs, Moses, King David, King Solomon, the Prophets and finally ending with the birth of Jesus Christ. 

Stephen identifies the manner in which God willed to intimately dwell among His people
and the manner in which some people of God willed God to dwell among them.

God commanded the building of the Ark and the Tent of meeting (cf. Ex 25-31). David wanted to build God a dwelling place (cf. 2 Sa 7:2). Solomon for 20 years built a Temple (1 Kings 9:10) which was later destroyed and rebuilt (cf. Ezra 3:7-13; Neh 2:11-20). Note: The temple was rebuilt by the horrid King Herod, the Edomite. But God does not dwell in a house made by men. This house would have to be prepared by God.

What is most important are Stephen's words, "David found favour in God’s sight, and asked that he might build a dwelling place for the God of Jacob.” (Acts 7: 45-46) Luke uses these same words in the Gospel. Stephen then goes to explain that God does not dwell in a house made by human hands. God already predestined a dwelling for His Son among men within the womb of a Virgin.

In the Gospel, Luke records the angel Gabriel saying to the Virgin Mary, “Do not be afraid, Mary; for you have found favour with God. And behold, you will conceive (syllēmpsē) in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name Him Jesus,” (Lk 1:30,31)

Between the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles, the reader is able to observe the manner in which grace moved David to desire a dwelling place for God and the manner in which grace enabled Mary to desire and become a dwelling place for God, “Behold, the handmaiden (doulē) of the Lord; may it happen (genoito) to me according to your word.”

The word genoito is Optative in Koine Greek; a word which expresses “desire.” Once Mary understood “the who, the how, and the why” she expressed this desire to be the Mother of the Son of God; the Mother of the Messiah; the Mother of the Redeemer; the Mother of the King of David's House forever. She desired to give the Eternal Word of God the most intimate dwelling place within human nature. In fact Mary’s words, “Behold, the handmaiden (doulē) of the Lord” fulfil several Messianic images within the Old Testament." (Cf. Ps 86:16; 116:16). 

One last point. Stephen is dragged outside the city walls and the members of the Sanhedrin began to stone him. Jesus -- it should be remembered -- was also put to death outside the city walls of Jerusalem (cf. Heb 13:12). Jesus -- being the perfect lamb of God and being taken outside the walls of the city to die -- marks the end of the earthly Jerusalem as the centre of divine worship, “Woman, believe Me, an hour is coming when neither in this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father.” (Jn 4: 21)

Stephen -- while being stoned -- saw heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God. (Acts 7: 57) Stephen reminds the leaders of the Sanhedrin of the words of Jesus Christ, “But from now on the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the power of God.” (Lk 22:69) Stephen then called on the Lord and said, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” (Lk 7:59) Within one more prayer imitating his Master he asks Jesus to forgive his persecutors and then dies. This is his birthday in heaven.

Two points, Stephen asks Jesus to "receive his Spirit." Jesus said the same words on the Cross, "Father into your hands I commend my Spirit." (Lk 23:46) He also said to the Good thief, "Today you will be with me in paradise." (Lk 23:43). The saints don't sit around in the ground waiting for paradise. They go straight to heaven.

Paul says, "to be absent from the body is to be home with the Lord." (2 Cor 5:8) And finally the disciple John sees on the Island Patmos the souls of men beheaded for their testimony of Jesus Christ. (cf. Rev 20:4) Those who die in Christ Jesus are home with the Lord; awaiting the resurrection of their body at the end of time. This is the Communion of Saints.

On the day after Christmas, the Universal Church commemorates the Church's infancy, desire for God, becoming a dwelling place for God, the role of servants, and our destined eternal birthday -- all compacted together.