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On St. Stephen

1/11/2007 - 5:45 AM PST

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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.

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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 ...

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