Summary: St Stephen's sermon was very aggressive, and would not really be expected to work, but his core truth is real.
St. Stephen December 26 2013
I grew up in the fifties and sixties, and being a Catholic was “okay” with the culture back then. So this quote from Jesus about being hated by all seemed to be referring to anti-Catholic bigotry from the early 1900s. After all, wasn’t Prohibition the high-water mark of Protestants interfering with Catholic culture? Well, all that has changed, hasn’t it? Just the other day, the LGBTP activists made such a noise about “anti-gay bigotry” that Catholic entertainer Bob Newhart cancelled an appearance before a Legatus group–merely because they were Catholic. Mark my words, the culture has one main objective–to destroy the Catholic Church.
So the story of St. Stephen is very relevant. The Church places it right after Christmas to emphasize that the Nativity story is not just about a cute little baby in a manger, with angels and shepherds and wise men circling about. Jesus came to bring about the will of God in our hearts and minds. He refuses to do it by force–it only comes about by a radical conversion of our innermost being to God’s will. We tend to be coy about this demand. For instance, last Thursday the Lectionary gave the whole story of Zechariah’s annunciation, complete with his stupid refusal to believe an angel of God. Today, it omits the core of the Stephen story in Acts, which was Stephen testifying to the synagogue, using the long story of the Hebrew call by God and their various rebellions, about the Jews’ consistent rejection of God’s will. The statement that infuriated them so much that they murdered him was this: “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. 52 Which of the prophets did not your fathers persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, 53 you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.” (Acts 7:51-53)
Now I am not going to defend Stephen’s rather aggressive method of evangelization. If I tried anything like that, I’m sure I’d be in the Archbishop’s office the next day. But his message is true. The core human reality is this–God knows best how we should live, and if we reject His will, thinking we know better how to be happy, we’ll end up miserable in this life and condemned never to see God’s face.
Stephen was so blunt because he loved his Jewish brethren. When we love another, and they do things that hurt themselves, we want to stop them. As the popes have been teaching, faith and love are impossible to separate. Most people follow Wittgenstein. They believe that “believing can be compared to the experience of falling in love: it is something subjective which cannot be proposed as a truth valid for everyone.19 Indeed, most people nowadays would not consider love as related in any way to truth. Love is seen as an experience associated with the world of fleeting emotions, no longer with truth.
“But is this an adequate description of love? Love cannot be reduced to an ephemeral emotion. True, it engages our affectivity, but in order to open it to the beloved and thus to blaze a trail leading away from self-centredness and towards another person, in order to build a lasting relationship; love aims at union with the beloved. Here we begin to see how love requires truth. Only to the extent that love is grounded in truth can it endure over time, can it transcend the passing moment and be sufficiently solid to sustain a shared journey. If love is not tied to truth, it falls prey to fickle emotions and cannot stand the test of time.
“True love, on the other hand, unifies all the elements of our person and becomes a new light pointing the way to a great and fulfilled life. Without truth, love is incapable of establishing a firm bond; it cannot liberate our isolated ego or redeem it from the fleeting moment in order to create life and bear fruit.
“If love needs truth, truth also needs love. Love and truth are inseparable. Without love, truth becomes cold, impersonal and oppressive for people’s day-to-day lives. The truth we seek, the truth that gives meaning to our journey through life, enlightens us whenever we are touched by love. One who loves realizes that love is an experience of truth, that it opens our eyes to see reality in a new way, in union with the beloved. In this sense, Saint Gregory the Great could write that “amor ipse notitia est ”, love is itself a kind of knowledge possessed of its own logic.20 It is a relational way of viewing the world, which then becomes a form of shared knowledge, vision through the eyes of another and a shared vision of all that exists.”