For the Feast of Stephen
“You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised. You are just like your ancestors: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your ancestors did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him— you who have received the law that was given through angels but have not obeyed it.”
When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”
At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.
While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep.On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him.
I tried in vain to hide MY tears from my companions as we lay the body of our friend on the floor of my mother’s home. Many had been crying openly there outside the city walls, where he had died. Where they had killed him. But not many of those who were part of the Way were when it happened like me. The brutality of the moment — rocks flying in a hail of death! They hadn’t seen the injustice of it — Stephen had only spoken the truth — words rising like mist in the morning up to God. There was no water in my eyes to cry. My sadness lagged second behind a heart-numbing fury. No, I confess, it was third. First came fear — fear that they would do the same to me if they knew for certain that I was with Stephen.
But now, the murderous mob was gone, the difficult and practical work of bringing his body here to be prepared for burial was complete, and I was finally letting go. In that moment of physical relief — in the safety and comfort of the home in which I had once been so small — in the subsiding of my fear and anger — came upon me a profound sadness I could not control.
But I didn’t want to cry. My companions, Nicanor, Nicolas and Philip had shed so many tears already. I didn’t want to start us up again. When they had arrived at the body, they pushed through the crowd and fell upon it, unashamed in their grief. I stood by, incapable of accessing the depth of sorrow they so instantly expressed in wails and tears. It was as if they meant to begin his washing with the water of their own faces. But my face was locked like a gate of iron bars, each muscle flexed in attempt to become iron itself. My teeth clenched, my neck bulged, my brow deeply furrowed, my nostrils permanently flared, my ears twitching and hot. It was the custom to mourn as Nicanor, Nicolas and Philip, but I could not. Not then. And now it seemed too late, or too far gone. I preferred not to begin another bout of crying among my brethren. Could we pray, or sing a hymn instead, as we washed the body?
Swallowing those first tears, I suggested a song without betraying my welling emotions. As Nicanor obliged with his beautifully resonant voice, my mother appeared in the door with the water. I looked into her eyes and gave in, crumpling upon Stephen’s body with the sobs that had finally come. Nicolas joined me in the crying, but Nicanor continued to sing, placing his hand upon my back as Philip rose to help my mother with the water.
The dammed emotions burst through me as a torrent from the top of my head to the tips of my toes. Tumulting through the hardness of every muscle. What I had felt as iron proved to be only hardened clay, and soon the liquid of grief had softened every part of me which for several hours had been forcefully held solid. The initial burst quickly sloshed me into quiet, and as Niconor finished the hymn I joined him for the final line.
Raising up from the body, I looked at my dear friends. All eyes were wet. I was so far from alone. With a nod, we set about the work of washing the blood and dirt from the body of this blessed man.
My mother tirelessly left and returned, left and returned, fetching more and more water from the cistern a half mile from our home. We wiped away the hate, the anger, the misunderstanding, the violence and the unholy thirst for power that caked Stephen’s body. In basin after basin of red-brown water we wrung out our cloths. Then, dipping them in the fresh clear water my mother provided, returned to the body for more, until it was done.
Other followers of the Way were assembling quietly outside the house for fear of those who had done this to Stephen. They had brought a bier and burial clothes which they passed in to us. We wrapped him in them and placed him on the bier. Nicanor and Philip took the front, Nicolas and I the back. The sun had already set and the moon was rising. We went without torches or lamps through the nearby city gate and out to my family’s grave. Stephen had no family but us.
Nicanor sang again outside the tomb and the small group of us quietly dispersed still wary of what would come upon us if we were discovered in such an assembly.
“What are we to do now, brothers?” I asked them as we at last also turned away from our friend’s grave.
Nicanor responded, staring up at the moon, “We return to the work we have been given to do, Parmenas. Surely this will make things much worse for our people. There will be even more who will be in need. Peter and the other apostles will know what is next.”
“And we must do as you have told us, Parmenas, that Stephen asked our father before he died, which will indeed be yet more difficult than feeding all within our care,” Nicolas added, “We must not hold this sin against them.”
Philip startled and turned to us, “Did not John say that the Lord said the same when they did this to him? Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do?”
“Yes, that is what the Lord has told us to do.” I whispered in humble resignation, “And that will be harder than anything we have yet done.”
Nicanor shouted, “But the Lord is with us!”
And none of us urged him to be quiet.