The Martyrdom of Saint Stephen - by CARRACCI, Annibale - from Musée du Louvre, Paris
Stephen, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked to the sky above and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at God's right hand. "Look"! he exclaimed, "I see an opening in the sky, and the Son of Man standing at God's right hand". The onlookers were shouting aloud, holding their hands over their ears as they did so. Then they rushed at him as one man, dragged him out of the city, and began to stone him. The witnesses meanwhile were piling their cloaks at the feet of a young man named Saul. As Stephen was being stoned he could be heard praying, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit". He fell to his knees and cried out in a loud voice, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them". And with that he died.
Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20
I, John, heard a voice saying to me: "Remember, I am coming soon! I bring with Me the reward that will be given to each man as his conduct deserves. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End! Happy are they who wash their robes so as to have free access to the Tree of Life and enter the city through its gates"!
"It is I, Jesus, Who have sent My angel to give you this testimony about the churches. I am the Root and Offspring of David, the Morning Star shining bright".
The Spirit and the Bride say, "Come"! Let him who hears answer, "Come"! Let him who is thirsty come forward; let all who desire it accept the gift of life-giving water.
The One Who gives this testimony says, "Yes, I am coming soon"! Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!
Father, may they be one in us! Jesus looked up to Heaven and said:
Jesus often used images to describe His Work when He spoke to His Disciples. On Holy Thursday, Jesus speaks to them after washing their feet. Jesus tells the Disciples, "As I have done, so you must do". I find that phrase fascinating, because I have often imagined that what Jesus meant is that the Disciples must do exactly as He did - act as a servant to others.
I think we need to open our Imaginations and recognize that Jesus had something much bigger in mind than just being a servant. He may have been saying that the process He has just experienced - Life, Death and Resurrection - is a process He longs for us to also undergo.
As Jesus Prays for the Church before His Ascension, He says, "I want them to be in union with Us, Father. I want them to know that it was You Who sent Me". If we see God as the One Who created everything and Who is in charge of the Universe, then we are in the perfect disposition of attentiveness. We then have Faith in Jesus' Message - a Message of Life and of a God Who wants us to possess Life more than anything else. If we submit to the Plan as Jesus did, then we, too, will find Life. This process that Jesus experienced is not just something we should consider passively, saying, "Isn't it interesting how God became flesh and walked this earth. Then He went through all of this pain and suffering, all kinds of disunity, until He was killed by His very own. Miraculously, He rose and ascended. He tells us we will all be with Him someday". Seeing all these events as occurring in Jesus' Life as a means of getting something in return is to miss the point. Jesus clearly tells us, "What I have done, so you must do".
When God became Flesh in the Person of Jesus, He not only revealed the Secrets of the Kingdom, He also invited us into a process so that we will know how to live in this world and be a part of this Kingdom. There are three steps in doing this, what we call the Paschal Mystery.
After we are Incarnated into this Body, after our Soul becomes Flesh and we walk this earth, we are invited to experience a process of Death, Resurrection and Ascension. One of the best ways I can describe this invitation from Jesus is that He invites us into a process of Transformation. Transformation is very different from calling a group of people together and saying, "I want to impart some information. I want to tell you how to live your life. I want to describe the rules and laws for you, and tell you that this is how you are to live. You do it out of your own strength, and then I will reward you according to your performance". There is no Transformation in any of that. The Work of the Kingdom focuses on the image of Change and of letting go. It's about letting things Fall Apart as we let go of the old. Then, we have to endure a Period of Confusion before the new really takes shape. After that, comes New Life and awareness. This process of experiencing something like Death that leads to Life is at the heart of the Work of Transformation. It's important to believe that Jesus is the One, God has sent because He is asking us to do something that is very Difficult. Jesus always describes the process leading to the Kingdom as Difficult and Painful.
Jesus uses a wonderful image of a woman in labor. She is Apprehensive as her time approaches, but once her child is born she forgets the Pain. Why would Jesus make so much of this image of Pain and Suffering unless it is real? Unless there is something really Difficult about this Kingdom? I don't really find anything Difficult about being told what to do. But I do find it Difficult if someone asks me to change my World View or to change the way I've been seeing things most of my life. When the Truth comes along and exposes that I've only been dealing with part of the Truth, it's very Difficult to let go of the half-truth. Unless we let go, we cannot experience what we call "New Life".
We don't experience Resurrected Life. As Jesus experienced this Resurrected Life, He spent some time on earth talking to His Disciples. We mark that period of time with the Season of Easter. The Ascension reveals that the Ultimate Goal of this New Life was for Jesus to sit at the Right Hand of the Father. From there, Jesus could give us Grace and Strength. Ascension is ultimately the Goal for us, too. We experience Transformation so we can see things more clearly - to live and understand the Truth.
Living in the Truth, though, is not the Final Goal. The Final Goal, to be with the Father, is much more exciting. It's about living in a new place. One of my favorite descriptions of this place is that it's a place "where there are no more questions". Everything seems to fit. How many times I have wondered what I would say to God when I entered into Heaven! All the questions I would ask, such as: Why is there so much Pain? Why do children Suffer? Why is Christ's Church sometimes His greatest Enemy? Why is there so much Tension in communities that should be drawn together by the same Christ? And on and on. When we get to Heaven, we will know something that will make all of these questions somehow unimportant. Perhaps at that point we will realize that those aren't the real issues.
The real issue is the burning desire in our Souls for union with that which created them. We want to find Peace. The Book of Revelation describes the Kingdom, this New Jerusalem. John tells us that the people in the Kingdom are very Happy because "they have washed their robes, they have free access to the Tree of Life, and they have entered into the city through its gates". We find the same Trinitarian idea of Death, Resurrection and Ascension. "To wash our robes" is to undergo Tribulation and Hard Times. "Free access to the Tree of Life" is the call that our Tribulation brings us to - the place of Resurrected Life. In that place, we find images of Healing and Unity. Then, we are able to "enter into the city", the ultimate place we long to find where there are no more questions.
We have an image in the Acts of the Apostles of a person who has entered into this Kingdom - Stephen, the First Martyr. There's another figure in this reading, Saul, who would later come to the Kingdom. One of the things that this passage says to us is that the Gift of the Kingdom enables us to truly see.
Stephen must have had to let go of so many illusions, so many half-truths, to arrive at the place of Resurrected Life. He could literally see the Heavens open and view the Son of Man at God's Right Hand. To me, that's like saying, "I've seen what the message of Christ is like because I've seen the goal. I understand that through death we achieve resurrection, and now we will be with the Father. I can participate in that. I can be one with that". Stephen is not Afraid of the Suffering. He's not Afraid of the Death. He's not filled with resistance toward those who would take his life.
Stephen is the perfect image of the Christ Figure on the Cross. When Stephen is dragged outside of the city by the mob and stoned, he senses that this is not the end. This is the Moment of Transition. This is the movement from one place to another. Ultimately, Stephen knows he will be in the place that he saw, with Christ sitting next to the Father. Stephen knows he will one day be with Them. He Prays at the moment of his Death in words that make us realize that the Spirit of Jesus lived in him: "Father, do not condemn them. Father, do not blame them for what they are doing because they are doing it out of blindness". Our challenge as we conclude this Easter Cycle and anticipate the Feast of the outpouring of the Spirit in Pentecost is to understand this period we have just experienced. It's certainly a time that reminds us of the Dignity and Beauty of being Incarnate in this world, of possessing the Life that God has given to our Souls. God longs to bring us through this Process of Life to a place of even Greater Life. Our challenge is to believe unshakably, absolutely, in this Process. It's interesting that Scripture reveals our Salvation in terms of Faith rather than Performance. There has to be something very important to Believe in. Why would we need to Believe in a Process so deeply if it always made Perfect Sense? It's always Messy, Confusing and Painful. It's always filled with things that don't make any sense. It's always filled with twists and turns that are Difficult to understand. Faith enables us to get through this Process. The other key is to know that all of the events in our lives take place the way things are supposed to be. There's no reason for Discouragement. Jesus tells His Disciples: "I want you to know that this is the way events will unfold. You will be persecuted. You will experience painful and tough times. I'm telling you now so that when these events take place, you won't lose hope". Our challenge is to embrace the Work of Transformation - the breaking down, the falling apart of things we have held onto so tightly. We need to endure the periods of Confusion when things aren't yet formed to take place of what's been Destroyed. Then we will be able to Delight when they do take form. This Transformation and New Life allow us to ultimately enter into the place of union with God.