"As they were stoning Stephen, he called out, 'Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.' "
It is the second day of the Church's twelve-day celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, and today the Church recalls a death, and a brutal one at that.
Stephen is described in Acts 6:5 as "a man filled with faith and the Holy Spirit." Because he was "filled with grace and power," Stephen was able to work "great wonders and signs among the people" (Acts 6:8).
Yet despite the evidence and goodness of his deeds, some witnesses argued with him, and when they couldn't find fault with him over the truth (because he spoke with "wisdom and the spirit," Acts 6:12), they lied about him to the religious authorities. The Sanhedrin—sort of the Jewish Supreme Court—could see the innocence in Stephen's face when they asked him whether the charges being brought against him were true.
Stephen made it clear that he knew the history of his people and their relationship with God. "You stiff-necked people," he concluded, "you are just like your ancestors, who put to death those who foretold the coming of the righteous one," for now they had become the "betrayers and murderers" of the righteous one Himself.
Stephen was murdered for his insight. Yet his final words before he "fell asleep" were these: "Lord, do not hold this sin against them" (Acts 7:60).
Stephen's last two utterances echo two of the last seven phrases that Jesus spoke as he was dying on the Cross. This was a man who exhibited, as I wrote yesterday, "the qualities" that Jesus "will call us to imitate as we follow him, carrying our cross."
Why focus on a story like this during a season of "comfort and joy"? Why not wait until at least after the Wise Men have visited the newborn baby?
In my own life, I find the answer to this question in another death. In the middle of Christmas afternoon, a man named Dave, the 66-year-old brother of a dear friend (a woman named Mary who is married to a man named Joseph), "went home to Jesus," as her text message later that afternoon told me. He'd stood up to cancer on and off for five years; his death, while not as brutal as Stephen's in its final moments, was nevertheless not the kind of departure that he or his family and friends would have chosen if they could have.
Before they threw him out of the city and started stoning him, Stephen cried out, "Behold, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God." Stephen saw Jesus waiting for him in the place to which he was about to go—the place to which Dave, also a man of faith, went on Christmas afternoon.
It is because of the faith of Stephen, and of countless numbers of Christian martyrs since Stephen, that Dave received the Good News about Jesus that Stephen preached and for which Stephen died. The Christmas season began with the birth of a baby, but the reason we celebrate that birth at all is so that we can understand the significance of Stephen's life, death, and last words, and the confidence that Dave's family has because of Dave's faith and their own.
In an e-mail to the many friends who had been praying for Dave, Mary wrote the following (which I share here with her permission):
"One Christmas song that stands out in my mind from my childhood pertaining to my brother Dave is 'I'll Be Home For Christmas.' He was in the air force when I was a little girl—we are 12 years apart—and I missed him terribly. There was one Christmas when he couldn't come home. I cried every time I heard that song played but now he truly has gone 'Home for Christmas' and that song has new found meaning for me."Here's to you Mary. Here's to you, Dave.
Until you meet again.