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"He Teaches Us to Love the Cross"

VATICAN CITY, JAN. 11, 2007 (Zenit) - Here is a translation of Benedict XVI's address at Wednesday's general audience, dedicated to present the figure of Christianity's first martyr, St. Stephen.

* * *

Dear Brothers and Sisters:

After the holidays, we return to our catecheses. I meditated with you on the figures of the Twelve Apostles and on St. Paul. Then we began to reflect on other figures of the nascent Church. So today we wish to pause on the person of St. Stephen, celebrated by the Church on the day after Christmas. St. Stephen is the most representative of a group of seven companions. Tradition sees in this group the seed of the future ministry of deacons, though we must point out that this name is not present in the book of the Acts of the Apostles. Stephen's importance, in any case, is clear by the fact that, in this important book, Luke dedicates two whole chapters to him.

Luke's account begins by showing a subdivision that took place within the primitive Church of Jerusalem: It was made up completely of Christians of Jewish origin, but among the latter some were natives of the land of Israel and were called "Hebrews," while others came from the Jewish faith in the Old Testament from the diaspora of the Greek tongue and were called "Hellenists." Thus the problem began to take shape: The neediest among the Hellenists, especially widows devoid of any social support, ran the risk of being neglected in assistance for their daily sustenance.

In order to overcome these difficulties, the apostles, reserving for themselves prayer and the ministry of the word as their main task, decided to appoint "seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom" to this duty, that is, to charitable social service. As Luke writes, with this objective and by invitation of the apostles, the disciples elected seven men. We have their names. They are: "Stephen, a man filled with faith and the Holy Spirit, also Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicholas of Antioch, a convert to Judaism. They presented these men to the apostles who prayed and laid hands on them" (Acts 6:5-6).

The gesture of the imposition of hands can have several meanings. In the Old Testament, the gesture has above all the meaning of transmitting an important duty, as Moses did with Joshua (Cf. Numbers 27:18-23), thus designating his successor. Following this line, the Church of Antioch would also use this gesture to send Paul and Barnabas on mission to the peoples of the world (Cf. Acts 13:3). Reference is made to a similar imposition of hands upon Timothy, to transmit an official duty, in two letters that St. Paul addressed to him (Cf. 1 Timothy 4:14; 2 Timothy 1:6). The fact that it referred to an important action, which had to be carried out after a discernment is deduced from what is read in the first letter to Timothy: "Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, nor participate in another man's sins" (5:22).

Therefore, we see that the gesture of the imposition of hands takes place in the line of a sacramental sign. In the case of Stephen and his companions it is certainly about the official transmission, on the part of the apostles, of a duty and at the same time of imploring for the grace to exercise it.

What is most important is that, in additional to charitable services, Stephen also carried out a task of evangelization among his fellow countrymen, the so-called "Hellenists." Luke, in fact, stresses the fact that he, "full of grace and power" (Acts 6:8), presents in Jesus' name a new interpretation of Moses and of the very Law of God, rereads the Old Testament in the light of the proclamation of the death and resurrection of Jesus. This rereading of the Old Testament, a Christological rereading, provokes the reactions of the Jews who interpret his words as blasphemous (Cf. Acts 6:11-14). For this reason, he is sentenced to stoning. And St. Luke transmits to us the saint's last discourse, a synthesis of his preaching.

As Jesus explained to the disciples of Emmaus that the whole of the Old Testament speaks of him, of his cross and of his resurrection, so St. Stephen, following Jesus' teaching, reads the whole of the Old Testament in a Christological key. He demonstrates that the mystery of the cross is at the center of the history of salvation narrated in the Old Testament, he truly shows that Jesus, the crucified and risen one, is the new and authentic "temple."

Precisely this "no" to the temple and its worship provokes the condemnation of St. Stephen who, in that moment -- St. Luke tells us -- on turning his gaze to heaven saw the glory of God and Jesus at his right hand. And looking up to heaven, to God and to Jesus, St. Stephen said: "Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing at the right hand of God" (Acts 7:56). It was followed by his martyrdom, which in fact was conformed with the Passion of Jesus himself, as he gives his own spirit to the Lord Jesus and prays so that the sin of his killers not be held against them (Cf. Acts 7:59-60).

The place of Stephen's martyrdom in Jerusalem is situated traditionally just beyond the Damascus Gate in the north, where in fact the church of St. Stephen now is, near the well-known "Ecole Biblique" of the Dominicans. The murder of Stephen, Christ's first martyr, was followed by a local persecution against Jesus' disciples (Cf. Acts 8:1), the first verified in the history of the Church. It was the concrete opportunity that drove the group of Hebrew-Hellenist Christians to flee Jerusalem and be scattered. Expelled from Jerusalem, they became itinerant missionaries. "Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word" (Acts 8:4). The persecution and consequent scattering became mission. The Gospel was thus propagated in Samaria, Phoenicia, and Syria, until reaching the great city of Antioch where, according to Luke, it was proclaimed for the first time to the pagans (Cf. Acts 11:19-20) and where the name "Christians" resounded for the first time (Acts 11:26).

In particular, Luke specifies that those who stoned Stephen "laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul" (Acts 7:58), the same one who from persecutor would become a famous Apostle of the Gospel. This means that the young Saul must have heard Stephen's preaching, and knew the main contents. And St. Paul was probably among those who, following and listening to this discourse, "were enraged" and "ground their teeth against him" (Acts 7:54). Thus we can see the wonders of Divine Providence: Saul, hardened adversary of Stephen's vision, after the encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, takes up the Christological interpretation of the Old Testament made by the first martyr, furthers and completes it, and thus becomes the "Apostle to the Gentiles." The law is fulfilled, he teaches, in the cross of Christ. And faith in Christ, communion with the love of Christ, is the true fulfillment of the whole Law. This is the content of Paul's preaching. He thus shows that the God of Abraham becomes the God of all. And all believers in Christ Jesus, as sons of Abraham, become sharers in the promises. Stephen's vision is fulfilled in St. Paul's mission.

Stephen's story tells us much. For example, it teaches us that we must never disassociate the social commitment of charity from the courageous proclamation of the faith. He was one of the seven entrusted above all with charity. But it was not possible to disassociate charity from proclamation. Thus, with charity, he proclaims Christ crucified, to the point of also accepting martyrdom. This is the first lesson that we can learn from the figure of St. Stephen: Charity and proclamation always go together.

St. Stephen speaks to us above all of Christ, of Christ crucified and risen as the center of history and of our life. We can understand that the Cross occupies always a central place in the life of the Church and also in our personal lives. Passion and persecution will never be lacking in the history of the Church. And, precisely persecution becomes, according to Tertullian's famous phrase, source of mission for the new Christians. I quote his words: "We multiply every time we are harvested by you: The blood of Christians is a seed" ("Apologetico" 50,13: "Plures efficimur quoties metimur a vobis: semen est sanguis christianorum").

But also in our lives the cross, which will never be lacking, becomes a blessing. And, accepting the cross, knowing that it becomes and is a blessing, we learn the joy of the Christian, even in moments of difficulty. The value of the testimony is irreplaceable, as the Gospel leads to him and the Church is nourished on him. St. Stephen teaches us to learn these lessons, he teaches us to love the cross, as it is the way through which Jesus always makes himself present again among us.

[At the end of the audience, the Holy Father greeted pilgrims in several languages. In English, he said:]

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

In today's catechesis we consider St. Stephen, the first martyr. The Acts of the Apostles tells us that Stephen, "a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit" (Acts 6:5), was one of the seven men, traditionally considered the first deacons, appointed by the apostles to assist the Greek-speaking widows in the Jerusalem community. The apostles then "prayed and laid their hands on them" (6:6) as the sign of handing on a specific office within the community as well as beseeching the grace necessary to fulfill it.

In addition to his ministry of charity, Stephen also preached the Gospel, and his fearless proclamation of Jesus as the fulfillment of the Mosaic law led to his death by stoning. His martyrdom in imitation of Christ unleashed a local persecution which resulted in the preaching of the Gospel beyond Jerusalem and, eventually, to the pagans. As we know, Stephen's death was witnessed by the young Saul, who, after his dramatic conversion to Christ, would take up and develop Stephen's preaching of the Gospel as centered on faith in Christ, rather than the observance of the Law.

Stephen's example shows us the inseparability of faith and charity, and reminds us that every persecution can become an opportunity for the spread of the Gospel and the growth of the Church. Let us have the courage to take up his example of bold witness!

I welcome all the English-speaking visitors present at today's audience, including the young members of the Focolare Movement. May your visit to Rome be a source of inspiration to renew your commitment to share the Good News of Jesus Christ. Upon all of you I invoke God's blessings of joy and peace.

© Copyright 2007 - Libreria Editrice Vaticana

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