[Consonant with both Anglicanism’s and monasticism’s love of patristic theology-spirituality, I occasionally post selections from Durham University’s two-year lectionary for the Divine Office that draws mostly from patristic writings. The lectionary was initially edited by Stephen Mark Holmes (University of Edinburgh School of Divinity) and subsequently re-edited and formatted by Michele Freyhauf (Durham University). Click here for the link to the lectionary.]
Patristic Lectionary—25 April, Saturday in the Second Week of Eastertide
[The image is of Annibale Caracci’s “The Stoning of Saint Stephen” (ca. 1580)]
Acts of the Apostles 7:44-8:3
End of Stephen’s Sermon and His Martyrdom
Stephen said to the Council, “Our fathers had the tent of witness in the wilderness, even as he who spoke to Moses directed him to make it, according to the pattern that he had seen. Our fathers in turn brought it in with Joshua when they dispossessed the nations which God thrust out before our fathers. So it was until the days of David, who found favour in the sight of God and asked leave to find a habitation for the God of Jacob. But it was Solomon who built a house for him. Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made with hands; as the prophet says, ‘Heaven is my throne, and earth my footstool. What house will you build for me, says the Lord, or what is the place of my rest? Did not my hand make all these things?’
“You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. 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, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.”
Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth against him. But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God; and he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing at the right hand of God.” But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together upon him. Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him; and the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. And as they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And he knelt down and cried with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep. And Saul was consenting to his death.
And on that day a great persecution arose against the Church in Jerusalem; and they were all scattered throughout the region of Judea and Samaria, except the Apostles. Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the Church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.
Sermon 316, 3-5 (Works of Saint Augustine , translated by Edmund Hill, O.P.)
What did Stephen do? First take a look at the one whom this good friend was imitating. While the Lord Jesus Christ was hanging on the Cross, he said, Father, into your hands I commend my spirit. He, though, said, Father; Stephen said, Lord Jesus. What else did he also say? Receive my spirit. You spoke to the Father, I to you. I recognize the Mediator; you came to lift up the fallen; you hadn’t fallen with me. Receive, he said, my spirit.
That was his prayer for himself; something else came into his mind, in which he might imitate his Lord. Recall the words of the one hanging on the Cross and mark the words of the one who was being stoned for confessing him. What did the former say? Father, forgive them, because they know not what they do. Possibly, Stephen was at that time among those who did not know what they were doing. Many of them, you see, afterward came to believe. And we are not certain which group the blessed Stephen came from, whether he was one of those who had previously believed in Christ. If not, then that prayer also availed for him: Father, forgive them, because they know not what they do.
And yet Saul too was one of those. When Stephen the lamb was being stoned, he was still a wolf, still thirsting for blood, still thinking his own hands were not enough to stone him with, and therefore keeping the coats of those who were doing the stoning. So Stephen recalled what had been said for him, Father, forgive them, because they know not what they do; and to imitate his Lord even in this respect, in order to be his friend, he too said, Lord, do not hold this sin against them. Do you suppose Saul heard these words? He certainly heard, but he jeered; and yet he was included in Stephen’s prayer. He was still rampaging around, and already Stephen was being heard on his behalf.
Such a lovely picture this is: where you see holy Stephen being stoned, you can see Saul keeping the coats of those doing the stoning. This man is Paul, an Apostle of Christ Jesus, this man is Paul, the servant of Christ Jesus. Yes, you listened very well to the voice saying Why are you persecuting me? You were laid low, you were raised up; laid low as a persecutor, raised up as a preacher. Tell us, let us hear it: Paul, the servant of Christ Jesus by the will of God. Certainly not by your will, was it, dear Saul? We have seen the fruit of your will: Stephen was slain by your will. We can see your fruits that came by the will of God: you are read everywhere, chanted everywhere, everywhere you are converting to Christ the hearts that oppose him, everywhere as a good shepherd you are gathering huge flocks.
You are reigning with the one you stoned, reigning with Christ. There you can both see each other, can both now hear my sermon; both of you please pray for us. He will listen to you both, the one who crowned you; first one, and then the other; one who suffered persecution, the other who did the persecuting. Then the first was a lamb, the other a wolf; now, though, both are lambs. May the lambs acknowledge us and see us in the flock of Christ. May they commend us to him in their prayers, so as to obtain a quiet and tranquil life for the Church of their Lord.