Today’s first Mass reading is the martyrdom of Stephen recorded in Acts. We always here this reading almost immediately after Christmas, but I found it particularly powerful to read it this morning, during this Easter Season and as we await the coming of Pentecost.
Stephen has been “speaking truth to power”, as the saying goes, reprimanding the elders and the scribes for their “stiff-necked” behavior. The fury and threats of those disquieted by his speech did not deter him, however, for Stephen was “filled with the Holy Spirit.”
And filled with that Spirit, Stephen saw “the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” Filled with the Holy Spirit, Stephen was able to face his stoning with peace. (“Lord, receive my spirit.”) Filled with the Holy Spirit, Stephen’s dying words were words of forgiveness for those who killed him.
Reading this passage this morning, I was reminded of a homily once given by Archbishop Oscar Romero. Romero was preaching at the funeral celebration of Father Alfonso Navarro Oviedo, who had been assassinated. It was no isolated occurrence for Romero to be preaching at the mass of someone assassinated in El Salvador; just the previous day he presided over another one.
He began his homily with a story that he called a legend that became reality in their midst. It was a story about a caravan that was traveling through the desert and being guided by a Bedouin. The travelers had become desperate and thirsty and were searching for water in the mirages of the desert. Their guide said: Not there, over there. He had spoken these words so many times that the members of the caravan became frustrated, took out a gun and shot the guide. As the guide was dying, he extended his hand one last time: Not there, over there. And he died pointing the way to the water.
Romero remarked that even after they took an act that would mean his death, the Bedouin was still able to care about the wellbeing of his charges. Likewise, Romero pointed out, the assassinated priest Father Navarro “died forgiving those who shot him.” Romero sharing the testimony of the woman who cared for the priest as he lay dying: “She asked him what hurt, and Father responded: I have no pain except the forgiveness that I want to give my assassins and to those who shot me and the only sorrow I have is sorrow for my sins.”
Could I die with forgiveness on my lips if someone brought about my death as did Stephen and Fr. Navarro?
On my own, the answer clearly is no. But, if I can allow myself to be filled with the Holy Spirit, God’ grace has the power to allow me to do what I cannot do on my own.