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The Armor of Love: Octave of Christmas, the Feast of St. Stephen, Deacon and Martyr
By Deacon Keith Fournier
December 27th, 2011
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)
On this Feast of St Stephen the Deacon and Martyr of the Church, let us continue our clebration of the Octave of Christmas by reflecting on this soldier of Jesus Christ whose life was so conformed to the Lord that he imitated him in his death. Let us also pray for our deacons, that they can continue bearing witness to the truths of the ancient faith, following in the footsteps of Deacon Stephen. May Deacons take their place in the New Evangelization of the Church. May they serve as soldiers of love in a new missionary age of the Catholic Church in the Third Millennium
CHESAPEAKE, Va. (Catholic Online) - In the Catholic Church, Christmas is celebrated for eight days (Octave, from the Latin Octava) and opens up into a wonderful liturgical season of Christmas. On this second day of the Octave of Christmas we commemorate the great Proto-Martyr (First Martyr) of the Church, St. Stephen, the Deacon.
To understand why we celebrate a Martyr on the second day of our Feast of the Nativity of the Lord, let us consider the insight of the late Servant of God, Pope John Paul II:
"The Church calls the day of martyrdom a "dies natalis" (day of birth). Indeed, by virtue of Christ's death and Resurrection, the death of the martyr is a birth in Heaven. This is why it is so meaningful to celebrate the first martyr the day after Christmas: Jesus who was born in Bethlehem gave his life for us so that we too, reborn "from on high" through faith and Baptism, might be willing to give up our own lives for love of our brothers and sisters" (Blessed John Paul II, Angelus, Feast of St. Stephen, 2002).
Here is an excerpt from an inspired homily by a great Bishop which gives us food for our continued Christmas meditation:
A sermon of St Fulgentius of Ruspe: The Armor of Love
"Yesterday we celebrated the birth in time of our eternal King. Today we celebrate the triumphant suffering of his soldier.Yesterday our king, clothed in his robe of flesh, left his place in the virgin's womb and graciously visited the world. Today his soldier leaves the tabernacle of his body and goes triumphantly to heaven.
"Our king, despite his exalted majesty, came in humility for our sake; yet he did not come empty-handed. He brought his soldiers a great gift that not only enriched them but also made them unconquerable in battle, for it was the gift of love, which was to bring men to share in his divinity. He gave of his bounty, yet without any loss to himself. In a marvellous way he changed into wealth the poverty of his faithful followers while remaining in full possession of his own inexhaustible riches.
"And so the love that brought Christ from heaven to earth raised Stephen from earth to heaven; shown first in the king, it later shone forth in his soldier. Love was Stephen's weapon by which he gained every battle, and so won the crown signified by his name. His love of God kept him from yielding to the ferocious mob; his love for his neighbour made him pray for those who were stoning him.
"Love inspired him to reprove those who erred, to make them amend; love led him to pray for those who stoned him, to save them from punishment. Strengthened by the power of his love, he overcame the raging cruelty of Saul and won his persecutor on earth as his companion in heaven. In his holy and tireless love he longed to gain by prayer those whom he could not convert by admonition.
"Now at last, Paul rejoices with Stephen, with Stephen he delights in the glory of Christ, with Stephen he exalts, with Stephen he reigns. Stephen went first, slain by the stones thrown by Paul, but Paul followed after, helped by the prayer of Stephen.
"This, surely, is the true life, my brothers, a life in which Paul feels no shame because of Stephen's death, and Stephen delights in Paul's companionship, for love fills them both with joy. It was Stephen's love that prevailed over the cruelty of the mob, and it was Paul's love that covered the multitude of his sins; it was love that won for both of them the kingdom of heaven.
"Love, indeed, is the source of all good things; it is an impregnable defence,- and the way that leads to heaven. He who walks in love can neither go astray nor be afraid: love guides him, protects him, and brings him to his journey's end.
"My brothers, Christ made love the stairway that would enable all Christians to climb to heaven. Hold fast to it, therefore, in all sincerity, give one another practical proof of it, and by your progress in it, make your ascent together."
This Feast has a special meaning to me. St Stephen was not only the first Martyr, but he was a Deacon.I was called to ordination as a deacon in 1996.
Deacons have a vital role to serve in what is now called the New Evangelization of the Church. They are to be an icon of Christ the Servant, in word and deed. They are called to live life in the "real world", but live a life that is not "of this world". (See, e.g. Romans 12:2, 1 John 2: 15 - 17)
They are to be a witness of the Church, the "new world" - to use a term loved by the early fathers - and thus a a seed of the kingdom to come. They are called to live as leaven in the loaf of human culture, elevating it from within.
Deacons go from the altar and the ambo into the street. As a result of their experiences, they are often good homilists. Church history recounts the great homilies of Deacons, such as Ephrem, the "harp of the Holy Spirit" and others. Then there are the deacon martyrs, including Stephen and Lawrence and so many others. Their act of sacrificial love continues to inspire the whole church as a perpetual homily!
In 1996, on the Feast of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ (Corpus Christi), I was ordained to the Order of Deacon in the Catholic Church. When I lay prostrate on the floor that day in preparation for the imposition of the hands of my Bishop and the reception of the Book of the Gospels, I knew my life would never be the same.
My ordination did indeed create a "mark" on my soul as our theology teaches. I now serve as a member of the Catholic clergy in everything I do: evangelization, apologetics, and ecumenism, as well as in my professional life in the world.
The diaconate has a rich history. During the Church's first five centuries, this ministry flourished everywhere. But for various reasons, the order declined in the West as a distinct rank of clerical service, and eventually disappeared. It was relegated to a "transitional" order given to candidates on their way to priestly ordination. In the Eastern Church, the diaconate remained a part of the permanent rank of sacred orders without interruption from the time of the Apostles until now.
The Council of Trent (1545-63) called for the restoration of the permanent diaconate for the entire Church. But it was not until the Second Vatican Council, four centuries later, that this direction was implemented. The Council Fathers explicitly stated their purpose as threefold: to enhance the Church, to strengthen with sacred orders those men already engaged in diaconal functions, and to provide assistance to areas suffering clerical shortages.
According to "The Directory for the Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons," issued jointly by the Congregation for Catholic Education and the Congregation for the Clergy, the deacon is "a sacred minister and member of the hierarchy." He is ordained to the first rank of sacred orders, not to the priesthood or the episcopacy. He is no longer a layman, but a member of the clergy.
Like other clerics, the deacon participates in the threefold ministry of Jesus Christ; the "diaconia of the liturgy, the word, and of charity." He represents "Christ the Servant" in his vocation. The deacon teaches the Word of God, sanctifies through the sacraments, and helps lead the community in its religious life.
He assists at the altar, distributes the Eucharist as an ordinary minister, blesses marriages, presides over funerals, proclaims the Gospel and preaches, administers viaticum to the sick, and leads Sunday celebrations in the absence of a priest.
Because they receive the Sacrament of Holy Orders, deacons are sent by Christ to serve God's people. They are called to do so out of the depths of an interior life centered in the Eucharist, and fueled by a life of prayer, which proceeds into action. Like other clerics, they recite the Divine Office and cultivate the habit of penance.
They are called to link their love for the Lord and His Church to a love for the Blessed Virgin Mary, who in her "Fiat" represents the full surrender of love to the invitation of God. Since most deacons are married and have children, they are called to demonstrate the grace of the Sacrament of Marriage and the holiness of a consecrated family life. They are called to "give clear witness to the sanctity of marriage and family."
It is important to note that although what we call the "permanent" diaconate has been opened to married men of mature age; it is also open to and encouraged as a permanent rank of orders for celibate men. The decision for marriage or celibacy is to be made before ordination to the order of deacon.
On this Feast of St Stephen the Deacon and Martyr of the Church, let us continue our clebration of the Octave of Christmas by reflecting on this soldier of Jesus Christ whose life was so conformed to the Lord that he imitated him in his death.
Let us also pray for our deacons, that they can continue bearing witness to the truths of the ancient faith, following in the footsteps of Deacon Stephen. May Deacons take their place in the New Evangelization of the Church. May they serve as soldiers of love in a new missionary age.
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