Stephen Conway recalls the life of his saintly namesake
It is very apt to invite a Stephen to preach on St Stephen’s Day at St Stephen’s. I have been made very welcome and I am thrilled to be here. But, I admit to a certain discomfort. Do you ever have that experience of being in the company of a living saint and finding yourself tongue-tied and nervous because their loving gaze sees right through you? Well, the contemplation of the triumphant saint, St Stephen, has sometimes had that effect on me. ‘Stephen’ in the Greek means ‘crown,’ but in the context of our feast not just any kind of crown, but the crown that comes from the imitation of Christ: a crown of thorns.
Some years ago, I was invited to the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican. It is the traditional home of the Holy Father. It was in the time of Benedict XVI. I was taken to pray in the Pope’s private chapel, which was last altered in the papacy of Pope Paul VI. There is a stained-glass altarpiece with an image of Christ on the cross, but the Christ figure is not wearing the crown of thorns. The Holy Father asked the artist why so. The artist replied that the Pope was now wearing it as the chief pastor imitating Christ, with us and for us.
This is the pattern of Stephen the Protomartyr. The young Rembrandt’s first painting on a Biblical theme is The Stoning of St Stephen. In the painting Stephen’s face shines like an angel. The light upon him is the light of heaven, just as his face shone when he addressed his hearers. He has a luminosity like that of the prophet Moses, of whom he speaks, because he is also an imitator and mediator of God. We hear that Stephen performed many wonders—not in his own strength, of course, but because the close imitators of Christ manifest Christ in their actions and bearing. The stigmata manifested in saints like Francis, and more recently Padre Pio, is not a psychotic disorder revealed in the flesh, but a painful sign that bearing the cross daily brings us close to the wounds of Christ. What does fascinate me is the psychology of the conversion of Saul into Paul. Saul is the solitary mounted figure in Rembrandt’s painting. His conversion starts here in the shedding of Stephen’s blood, whose manner of death imitates the saving death of Christ. There are twenty-four gifts of the Spirit identified in the New Testament. Martyrdom is one of these. An author averred that this gift could only be exercised once. In fact, every act of witness by us in which we die to ourselves and live for Christ, in the stranger as well as our neighbour, is a martyr’s witness which may open the way to a person’s conversion to Christ.
God’s call to sacrificial service is what the New Testament calls ‘diakonia,’ once described to me as ‘discipleship with a mop and a bucket in hand.’ Stephen was called first to wait at tables and feed the widows and holy virgins and orphans and to anticipate the provision for people, to release the apostles for more preaching and teaching. Seeing how beautifully kept your church is, I reckon there is plenty of mop and bucket discipleship and passion with polish going on here among you. This is the beauty of the Body of Christ at St Stephen’s being its true self; in the beauty of holiness being manifest in both the celebration of Mass and in service to the people of Central Lewisham.
Stephen discovered that his calling required both the practical perspective on the world from his knees in service of people’s physical needs, and the wider perspective in the service of people’s spiritual need from the platform as a preacher. In the early sixteenth century Carpaccio painted a sequence of paintings for the School of St Stephen in Venice about the life of St Stephen, one of which is entitled The Sermon of St Stephen. It is now in Paris. Stephen discovered in his imitation of Jesus that living the love and proclaiming the truth of Christ are indivisible. In Rembrandt’s painting, St Stephen is depicted wearing a beautiful dalmatic, worn by the deacon still as you will have seen for yourselves today. Any deacon is a real servant of the incarnation of Jesus, the servant of the humanity of Jesus revealed at Christmas and the agent of the proclamation of the divinity of Christ to the nations at Epiphany. And although the bishop and the priests are servants of our transformation in the passion and resurrection of Jesus through the Mass, we are still deacon-shaped priests. A bishop is often robed for Mass in a dalmatic as well as a chasuble. Although the apostolic ministry of a bishop is expressed in all the sacraments of the Church and in the teaching office, like all priests a great deal of the bishop’s ministry is spent doing diaconal things: in pastoral care, in administration and in guaranteeing good hospitality.
I have said that living the love and proclaiming the truth are indivisible, but that is not always how we operate as Christians. Sometimes there is no love in our proclamation. Evangelicals have discovered what Catholics always knew, which is that evangelism grows out of relationship and deepens in fellowship with the saints in the Mass. Love is our meaning. However, our desire to love and welcome everyone can make us hold back from saying what we know to be true in our Christian profession. Yesterday I said Mass for the prisoners at a prison for sex offenders. Someone said to me in prison a while ago that he was not a sinner. Our following conversation came as a bit of a shock to him. We know that Christians are sometimes pilloried by our self-defining identity culture because we say that truth is not variable to suit our human interest. So be it, then. What St Stephen modelled to his hearers and critics was the truth spoken with real love. Jesus never defined himself over and against those who opposed him. He revealed false words and behaviours, but he died for all. St Stephen imitated Christ in this way, too.
Of course, we Christians can talk about speaking the truth in love as a way of saying nasty things to other people and getting away with it. Stephen knew that to speak the truth in profound love would have the crowd grinding their teeth at him and rushing to stone him to death. Luke uniquely records Jesus’s words from the cross, commending his spirit to the Father’s hands. He records Stephen deliberately echoing the words of Jesus, but commending his spirit, not to the Father but to Jesus. His last words are his greatest act of evangelism because he proclaims Jesus as Lord and Saul hears it. Saul persecuted Stephen, but Paul delighted in Stephen’s prayerful protection from heaven during his apostolic ministry. Stephen now delights in Paul’s companionship in heaven, for love fills them both with joy.
It was a great privilege to carry the relic of St Stephen in the procession. Relics are signs of the active presence of the miraculous materiality of our faith: we believe in bodies as Christians, and the resurrection of the body from the dead. In the relic we rejoice that in some way St Stephen is still with us and encourages us to believe in the hope of the resurrection of the whole of us as persons. As we venerate this holy relic, we share in the joy of the heavenly love with which he and St Paul are filled. People sometimes wonder out loud why St Stephen’s Day and his martyrdom are commemorated immediately after the joy of the Feast of the Nativity. It’s obvious really. The birth of the king of heaven means heaven is open to his soldier. We pray that we may wear a crown like Stephen and know his joy in the Lord.
The Rt Revd Stephen Conway is the Bishop of Ely. This sermon was preached on St Stephen’s Day at St Stephen’s, Lewisham.