Witnesses of the Word: St. Stephen the Protomartyr

Witnesses of the Word: St. Stephen the Protomartyr

In striving to be Modern Martyrs, there’s a lot to learn from the saints who have gone before us. What is it we can take from the lives of the martyrs and confessors that we can apply to our everyday life on campus? Well, a good place to start is at the beginning. St. Stephen the Protomartyr (it means he was the first one) who is commemorated on December 27th has a few lessons to share with us. You can read his entire story in Acts 6-7.

Icon by the hand of Dn. Matthew Garrett, used with permission.

Icon by the hand of Dn. Matthew Garrett, used with permission.

His purity was striking. Right before Stephen gives his account before the high priest and his council, we are told, “And gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel.” And just a little before that, Stephen is described as “full of grace and power.” Stephen’s first and primary witness to the world was his inner peace and his pure heart. Even as the council is looking for ways to destroy him, they can’t help but notice God’s grace radiating through him. This should be our first and primary goal in bearing witness to Christ: that we, too, shine from within with Christ’s love, grace, and power.

His authority was scriptural and ecclesial. When Stephen proceeds to speak on behalf of Christ, he doesn’t do so on his own authority, but instead, places his own experience and the gospel message into the context of the entire history of salvation, starting from God calling Abraham out of Ur. On the one hand, his authority relies on the evidence of Scripture, on the many stories he must have known from childhood that told of God’s work among the people of Israel. On the other hand, the way in which he frames that history is ecclesial, or community-oriented, in the sense that he places himself and his contemporaries and the events of their own day into that same scriptural history. He sees a unity in God’s works that stretches from the past and into the present. Likewise, when we are called upon to speak for Christ, we should know and rely on Scripture to give context to our own experience, and we should speak from the perspective not of ourselves, but of the Church, the community of saints beginning with Abraham and coming down to our own time. This is an inheritance we can claim as Orthodox that gives our witness a full authority–our own experience is confirmed and supported by the witness of Scripture and the great cloud of witnesses of the whole Body of Christ throughout history.

His response to abuse was forgiveness. As the stones started flying toward him, Stephen did more than just bear suffering with strength and fortitude. He kept his eyes on heaven and asked Christ for mercy upon his persecutors. Like Christ on the cross who asked the Father to forgive the ignorance of those who crucified Him, Stephen allowed himself to suffer innocently and did not hold the sin of his murderers against them. When we face rejection for our faith, abuse for our attempts at purity, or suffering when we bear witness to Christ, St. Stephen again is our model. We bear all things for the sake of Christ and do not hold sin against others. We do not pick up a stone and throw it back, either with real violence or with our words. Instead, we humbly ask God for His mercy upon those who defame Him (Him, not us) and assume the best of intentions of those who dismiss and reject us.

Holy Protomartyr and Saint Stephen, pray to God for us.

Keepers of the Temple of the Holy Spirit

There are a lot of things that make us different from one another and that make our stewardship vary: some of us have been given little plots of land to care for while others have been given vast kingdoms to rule, each of us based on our talents. But there’s one thing all of us have that we’ve been asked to prepare for the coming of the King.

Our bodies.

Every one of us has been given a particular set of appendages and features, organs and bones. All of our cells are working together in a crazy and delicate way to animate our unique souls. We aren’t, well, ourselves without our bodies.

Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God? You are not your own; you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body. (1 Cor 6:19-20)

Ok, and like everything else, our bodies are not our own, but are God’s gift to us to that we might use them to come to know Him and glorify Him. It is through our bodies that we taste the sweetness of the Eucharist and with our bodies that we embrace one another in love. As St. Paul tells us, our very flesh is filled with the Holy Spirit. Sure, we also know that it’s often (though not only) through our bodies that we fall, but it is with the knees we’ve been given that we fall down in contrition and with the eyes we have that we shed tears of repentance.

So what can we do to be faithful stewards of God’s temple? Here, I could probably give a long list of things not to do (and I would 100% stand behind that list). But probably you’ve heard them before. Good stewardship requires a heaping portion of temperance, but let’s look at it from a different angle.

We should treat our bodies with the utmost respect as hand-crafted creations of the Creator Himself. Think about it like this: if you were given a beautiful, one-of-a-kind, handmade bowl by someone you love, you’d probably treat it differently than a paper plate you got at a dollar store in a pack of 100. You’d probably save that bowl for special meals, when you could serve others and not just yourself. Of course, you wouldn’t put the bowl on a shelf never to be looked at or used–it is a bowl after all. You’d use it as such, but when it got dirty, you’d probably wash it carefully and store it somewhere safe. If the bowl ever got a chip or a crack, you’d probably be a little sad and do your best to repair it–not only because the bowl is beautiful, but because someone special gave it to you.

The paper plate, on the other hand, you’d probably use once to eat some greasy pizza and then toss out without a second thought.

Alright, maybe the metaphor is strange, but you are the beautiful, one-of-a-kind, handmade bowl. When you treat your body as such a prized possession, or rather, as a possession of the King lovingly entrusted to you, your body will be an instrument of grace and glory. It will be a temple that is used as a temple should be: for prayer and worship, a place where offerings are made and purification is found.

Ponder how you were molded. Consider the workshop of nature. The hand that received you is God’s. May what is molded by God not be defiled by evil, not be altered by sin; may you not fall from the hand of God. You are a vessel divinely molded, having come into being from God. Glorify your Creator. For you came to be for the sake of no other thing except that you be an instrument fit for the glory of God. And for you this whole world is as it were a book that proclaims the glory of God, announcing through itself the hidden and invisible greatness of God to you who have a mind for the apprehension of truth.  -St. Basil the Great, On the Origin of Humanity, Discourse 2

This week’s challenge: let your body express the virtues of your soul.