December 26, 2003 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Feast of Saint Stephen
Reading (Acts 6:8-10, 7:54-59) Gospel (St. Matthew 10:17-22)
In today’s feast of the first martyr for Our Lord, we have an interesting juxtaposition of things: As Our Lord is born into this world, we celebrate the birth of Saint Stephen into eternity. It is the purpose for which Our Lord came into this world – that we could get to heaven – so it is fitting that we would celebrate the feast of the first martyr the day after Christmas because when we consider that the purpose of Our Lord’s entrance into this world was to die so that we could live, to enter into our world so that we could enter into His, we have then the celebration of the first person who was willing to make that stand for Christ, who was willing to put his life on the line because of his faith. He was not going to deny God in order to save his own life. In fact, Our Lord had said that anyone who would save his life would lose it and anyone who would lose his life would save it. Saint Stephen, knowing these things, was willing, out of love for God and out of his conviction of the truth, to die for that truth that he knew and loved.
As we look at this, then, and we apply it to ourselves, we hear what Our Lord told us in the Gospel, that we are going to have to give witness on His account, that some are even going to have to give up their lives, that we will be hated by all on account of His Name. These are things that, for the most part, we have not really had to deal with. We do not know exactly what is going to happen, but, with the political winds blowing as they are, it is certainly very possible that if you believe in Christ this would be enough to cause one to be martyred, or at least to be hated. If we think back to events that have occurred just even within the last century in various parts of the world, knowing that there were more martyrs in the twentieth century than in the previous nineteen combined, we realize that hatred for Christ is not diminishing but it is growing. And while we have been somewhat insulated from it, it is not necessarily that way throughout the world. We look at different countries like back in Germany in the 1930’s and 40’s; you can look at what is going on in China; you can look at what has happened in Russia; you can see what has happened in some of the African countries and the Asian countries. The hatred for Christ is growing. It is not diminishing at all.
Even in our own country it is pretty evident. Yesterday, in the Minneapolis paper that I noticed on someone’s table, the headline on Christmas Day was that they had done a poll and it said what percentage of people in Minnesota believe in a god. Here it is Christmas Day, God being born into the world, and the Minneapolis newspaper is undermining the faith of anyone who is Christian. If you believed in a rock that was equal to belief in God. It did not matter what you believed in and they were not interested in a god, meaning one god, they were just interested in anything and everything; the faith of Christians really did not matter in the least. So you see it is a very subtle form of undermining things. Sometimes it is not nearly so subtle in the way that they bring out their hatred for Christ, especially for the Catholic Church. And so we realize that we could be in the same situation as Saint Stephen.
We are called to witness to Christ and that witness will take place in a variety of forms. The word martyr is the Greek word for “witness” – marturia is the word that is translated as “witness”. So when we think about how we are going to witness to Christ, it has to be first and foremost by the way we live our lives, by the words we speak, by the way we act. But also, we need to look at things and ask the simple question, “If my life were being threatened for being Catholic what would I do? Would I be afraid?” It is an odd thing that a Christian should be afraid of dying because the whole point of this world is to go to heaven. And if you get to be a martyr there is no Purgatory; it is a straight shot to heaven. It should be cause for kicking up our heels and rejoicing if someone actually wants to put us to death because, first of all, it gets us out of this mess, but it gets us straight to heaven, which is what the goal of life is all about anyway! But if the initial reaction is one of fear, then one needs to look a little deeply and ask, “Where is my faith? Do I really believe in the things that I profess and, ultimately, in the Person in Whom I profess this faith? Am I more in love with this world than I am with heaven? Am I more in love with myself than I am with Jesus Christ?” These are the things that we need to look at. When we see what Jesus did for us, that He was willing to come down from heaven and take on our humanity, that He was willing to humble Himself to that point and then to die for us, what are we willing to do for Him?
These are important questions because even if we never have to put our faith on the line to that level we still have to look at it for ourselves because one day each one of us will die in one form or another, and if death is something that terrifies us then our faith is not very strong. That is why we need to look at this because, regardless of how it is going to happen, we have to be clear about where our faith is placed, who our faith is in, and what we really believe. We need to embrace our faith in its fullness and never, ever back away under any circumstances. Prudence, yes; infidelity, no. Jesus did not back off; the apostles did not back off; the saints did not back off; neither can we. To deny Jesus Christ and eternal life in order for a few moments or a few years more of life in this world is not worth it. Who wants to stick around here any longer than we need to anyway? The goal is heaven and to deny Jesus Christ in order to stay alive here for a few more years and then go to hell for denying Him is not the right choice. That is why this is an important point. Look at that little Baby in the crib and ask yourself simply, “Do I believe? And if my answer is ‘yes’, what does that faith mean to me?”
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.