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St. Stephen, martyrdom, and witnessing through suffering

It is the feast day of St. Stephen, the first martyr of the Church. St. Stephen gives the example of leaving the new life of Christ which we receive at Christmas. With the coming of our blessed Lord, we have the gift and ability of entering into divine life in and through he who has entered into our human life. With Jesus comes the dawn of grace. Truth and grace have entered into the world, as St. John tells us towards the end of his prologue. Grace is what allows us to enter into Christ’s own life. In coming to enter into Christ’s life, which happens in baptism, we are empowered to live as the new Adam. And we are empowered to give testimony to him, truth with grace.

St. Stephen was “filled with grace and power,” and was “working great wonders and signs among the people.” He saw the very heavens opened and beheld the “Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” (Acts 6 – 7) He was not afraid to give testimony to Christ. He was given at that moment what to say. And it was not he who spoke but rather it was the Spirit of his Father speaking through him. (Matthew 10:17-22).

Martyrdom affords the opportunity to give witness to Christ Jesus in public. It is the chance to say, “You may kill me but know that it is for the sake of Christ Jesus – – he will give me back my life because I lived for him. I die with him and I will rise with him. He strengthens me and gives me the power of his Holy Spirit by which I testify before you. Therefore, I am not afraid.” And others witnessing our faith and hope and example of love may be convicted by the courage which does not come from us.

Is not by chance that the word martyr, derived from Greek, means witness. A martyr is a witness of the power of God at work in their life. And a witness is often times a martyr. By their martyrdom, they give witness. However, no matter whether one is killed for the sake of Christ or not, every Christian is called to be a witness. There is something called “white martyrdom,” a term used by St. Jerome and others to describe giving one’s life for the sake of Christ, giving witness to him by living for him. A white martyr suffers with Jesus without shedding physical blood. A white martyr says, “I am suffering in union with Jesus who loved me and gave his life for me – – with him, in him, and through him. He is my good Shepherd who goes before me; he gives me courage. If I suffer with him in love I know I will live with him in love, forever.” This is someone who strives to live in the knowledge that “this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, because we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen; for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.”

As I said above, in some way or another, every Christian is called to be a white martyr. And if called. we are given the grace of the Holy Spirit for it.

I have had many experiences of white martyrdom. Through suffering with a physical disability and remaining steadfast in my face through the grace of God, I have opportunities of giving witness. The courage and strength in me are clearly not of me but are of a power working in and through me. One experience in particular stands out for me today. On this day many years ago, I was rushed to the hospital. I lay unconscious due to a lack of oxygen. Thanks be to God, the paramedics arrived right on time. I found myself in the hospital, intubated with tubes going into my nose, receiving oxygen directly. Anyway, throughout the time, at the end of which I finally received a tracheostomy, I was given the grace to remain steadfast in faith and courage. While I could not speak from much of the time of my hospitalization and subsequent stay in the nursing home for recuperation, there was a kind of witness that just exuded out of me. The holy pictures, especially of St. Therese with her subtle smile, and cards on my wall testified to those who treated me that I was a believer, a Christian, a Catholic. (A few times I think my sister played some praise and worship music on my little boombox). It could be deduced then that the strength I seemed to exhibit had something to do with my practice of faith. I really really don’t know how I could have gotten past the whole ordeal without God, without the power of Christ in me, without the Holy Spirit living and active in my life. I know that people were affected some way or another by seeing me lying there in the hospital and in the nursing home. I was in fairly good spirits for being in such a condition and I did my best to smile and remain positive. It was a witness of white martyrdom of sorts.

St. Stephen prayed for his enemies and persecutors, for their eternal good. In white martyrdom, we can pray for the conversion of those who need the mercy of God and the grace of the Holy Spirit that changes everything for the better. Know my prayers for the good of all who read this, make every good yours in abundance, especially the good that matters the most. Nothing is in vain with God, absolutely nothing.

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