On the Prayer of the First Christian Martyr

“Our prayer, too, should be nourished by listening to God’s Word”

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VATICAN CITY, MAY 2, 2012 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of the Italian-language catechesis Benedict XVI gave today during the general audience held in St. Peter’s Square. On this first Wednesday in May the Holy Father continued his catecheses on prayer by reflecting on the witness and prayer of the Church’s first martyr, St. Stephen.

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Dear brothers and sisters,

In the most recent catecheses, we have seen how in personal and communal prayer, reading and meditation on Sacred Scripture open us to hear God who speaks to us, and infuse us with light in order that we may understand the present. Today I would like to speak about the witness and prayer of the Church’s first martyr, St. Stephen, one of the seven who were chosen for the service of charity to those in need. At the moment of his martyrdom, as narrated in the Acts of the Apostles, the fruitful relationship between the Word of God and prayer is again revealed.

Stephen is brought into court before the Sanhedrin, where he is accused of having declared that “Jesus … will destroy this place, [the temple], and will change the customs which Moses delivered to us” (Acts 6:14). During his public life, Jesus had in effect foretold the destruction of the temple of Jerusalem: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19). Yet, as the Evangelist John notes, “he spoke of the temple of his body. When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word which Jesus had spoken” (John 2:21-22).

Stephen’s address before the tribunal, the longest in the Acts of the Apostles, expands precisely upon this prophecy of Jesus, who is the new temple, who inaugurates a new worship and who replaces the ancient sacrifices with his self-offering on the Cross.  Stephen wants to show that the accusation made against him of subverting the law of Moses is unfounded and to illustrate his vision of salvation history, of the covenant between God and man. Thus, he reinterprets the whole biblical narrative, the itinerary contained in Sacred Scripture, in order to show that it leads to the “place” of God’s definitive presence, which is Jesus Christ, particularly His Passion, Death and Resurrection. 

Stephen also interprets his discipleship of Jesus within this perspective, following him to the point of martyrdom. Meditation on Sacred Scripture thus allows him to understand his mission, his life, his present circumstances. In this, he is guided by the light of the Holy Spirit, by his intimate relationship with the Lord, so much so that the members of the Sanhedrin saw that his face “was like that of an angel” (Acts 6:15). This sign of divine assistance recalls the radiant face of Moses as he descended from Mount Sinai after having encountered God (cf. Exodus 34:29-35; 2 Corinthians 3:7-8).

In his address, Stephen begins with the call of Abraham, a pilgrim to the land indicated by God, which he possessed only as a promise; he then passes on to Joseph, who was sold by his brothers but was assisted and liberated by God, to finally reach Moses, who becomes God’s instrument to liberate his people but who also meets many times with rejection by the same people. What emerges from these events narrated by Sacred Scripture, which show Stephen’s devout hearing, is God, who never tires of going out to man even though he often meets with obstinate opposition, and this is true in the past, the present and the future. Therefore, he sees in the whole of the Old Testament the prefiguration of the coming of Jesus himself, the Son of God made flesh, who — like the ancient Fathers — encounters obstacles, refusal and death. Stephen therefore refers to Joshua, to David and to Solomon, who were brought into relationship with the construction of the temple, and he concludes with the words of the prophet Isaiah (66:1-2): “Heaven is my throne, and earth my footstool. What house will you build for me, says the Lord, or what is the place of my rest? Did not my hand make all these things?” (Acts 7:49-50).

In his meditation on God’s action in salvation history, by emphasizing the perennial temptation to reject God and His action, he affirms that Jesus is the Righteous One announced by the prophets; in him, God himself has made himself present in a unique and definitive way: Jesus is the “place” of true worship. Stephen does not deny the importance of the temple for a certain period of time, but he underscores that “God does not dwell in houses made with hands” (Acts 7:48). The new, true temple where God abides is His Son, who put on human flesh; it is the humanity of Christ, the Risen One who gathers the nations and unites them in the Sacrament of his Body and Blood.

The expression of the temple as “not made by hands” is also found in the theology of St. Paul and in the Letter to the Hebrews; the body of Jesus, which he assumed in order to offer himself as a sacrificial victim for the expiation of sins, the body of Jesus is the new temple of God, the place of the presence of the living God; in Him, God and man, God and the world are really in contact: Jesus takes upon himself all the sin of humanity in order to cast it into God’s love and to “burn it” in this love. To approach the Cross, to enter into communion with Christ, means entering into this transformation. This is what it is to enter into contact with God, to enter into the true temple.

Stephen’s life and words are interrupted suddenly when he is stoned, but his martyrdom is the fulfillment of his life and of his message: he becomes one thing with Christ. Thus, his meditation on God’s action in history, on the divine Word, which in Jesus finds its complete fulfillment, becomes a participation in the same prayer of the Cross. Before dying, in fact, he exclaims: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (Acts 7:59), taking as his own the words of Psalm 31 (verse 6) and following the last words of Jesus on Calvary: “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46). Lastly, like Jesus, he cries out in a loud voice before those who are stoning him: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60). Let us note that, if on the one hand the prayer of Stephen harkens back to Jesus’, it is addressed to someone different, because the invocation is addressed to the Lord; that is to Jesus, whom he contemplates glorified at the right hand of the Father: “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing at the right hand of God” (verse 55).

Dear brothers and sisters, St. Stephen’s witness offers us several pointers for our prayer and for our lives. We may ask ourselves: where did this first Christian martyr find the strength to face his persecutors and in the end to attain to the gift of himself? The answer is simple: from his relationship with God, from his communion with Christ, from meditation on the history of salvation, from seeing God’s action, which in Jesus Christ reached its summit. Our prayer, too, should be nourished by listening to God’s Word, in communion with Jesus and his Church.

A second element: St. Stephen sees the figure and mission of Jesus prefigured in the story of the relationship of love between God and man. He — the Son of God — is the temple “not made by hands” where the presence of God the Father becomes so close that it enters into our human flesh, in order to lead us to God — in order to open to us the gates of Heaven. Our prayer, then, should be a contemplation of Jesus at the right hand of God, of Jesus as Lord of our, or my, daily life. In him, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we too can address God, we can make real contact with God, with the faith and abandonment of children who turn to a Father who loves them infinitely.  Thank you.

[Translation by Diane Montagna] [In Engli
sh, he said:]

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

In our catechesis on Christian prayer, we now consider the speech which Saint Stephen, the first martyr, delivered before his death.  Stephen’s words are clearly grounded in a prayerful re-reading of the Christ event in the light of God’s word.  Accused of saying that Jesus would destroy the Temple and the customs handed down by Moses, Stephen responds by presenting Jesus as the Righteous One proclaimed by the prophets, in whom God has become present to humanity in a unique and definitive way.  As the Son of God made man, Jesus is himself the true temple of God in the world; by his death for our sins and his rising to new life, he has now become the definitive “place” where true worship is offered to God.  Stephen’s witness to Christ, nourished by prayer, culminates in his martyrdom.  By his intercession and example may we learn daily to unite prayer, contemplation of Christ and reflection on God’s word.  In this way we will appreciate more deeply God’s saving plan, and make Christ truly the Lord of our lives.

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I greet all the English-speaking pilgrims and visitors present at today’s Audience, including those from England, Ireland, Norway, Sweden, Nigeria, Australia, India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Canada and the United States.  I offer a cordial welcome to the delegation from the Christian Council of Norway and to the ecumenical groups from Sweden.  I also thank the traditional choir from Indonesia for their song.  Upon you and your families I cordially invoke God’s abundant blessings.

© Copyright 2012 – Libreria Editrice Vaticana

[In Italian, he said:]

Lastly, a thought goes to young people, to the sick and to newlyweds. May the joy of Easter continue to enliven your lives; dear young people, do not extinguish the aspiration to happiness characteristic of your age, by knowing how to find true joy, which only the Risen one can give; dear sick, may you courageously face the trial of your suffering through the awareness that life should always be lived as God’s gift; and may you, dear newlyweds, know how to draw from the teachings of the Gospel all that is necessary for building an authentic community of love.

[Translation by Diane Montagna]
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