On December 25, we celebrate Christmas, Jesus’ birth, where the infinite God becomes Himself one of the human family. It is a momentous occasion in the sequence of our Church year (and one which has captured the imagination of religious and secular society.) If you follow the Church calendar, you will notice that this feast is immediately followed by the feast of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr (December 26), St. John the Evangelist (December 27), and the Holy Innocents- children murdered by King Herod in an attempt to wipe out the Messiah whom he perceived as a threat to his throne (December 28- see Matthew 2:16-18).
Stephen, a deacon of the infant Church, was unceremoniously stoned to death for his faith in Acts 6 as Saul (later St. Paul) looked on in approval. His ‘birth into eternal life’ comes the day after Jesus’ birth into our world, and it is no coincidence as the Heavenly reward given to martyrs (and to which we, as Christian people, aspire to receive) is possible because of Christ’s coming.
As I was praying and thinking of this yesterday, I read this:
“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.” – St. Fulgentius of Ruspe
By every interpretation of Stephen’s martyrdom I have ever heard, Saul is understood to bear some if not most of the responsibility for Stephen’s death. Saul persecuted Christians with a passion, as he sincerely felt they were perverting his faith. Yet St. Fulgentius dares to write that Stephen ‘delights’ to share Paul’s company in Heaven. Implicit here is the idea that every Christian martyr- Stephen, Thomas More, Maria Goretti, Maximilian Kolbe (and on and on) – would ‘delight’ if their persecutors came to faith in Christ and attained the beatific vision of Heaven. Even the Holy Innocents could be said to hope this for Herod.
How is this possible or plausible?
It comes down to a simple concept we call mercy. We pray for it at Mass (“have mercy on us”), and it is implied in the Lord’s Prayer (“forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”)
In his article, The Meaning of Mercy, Dr. Marcellino D’Ambrosio defines mercy thus:
“Mercy is simply love’s response to suffering.“
God always responds with love. It is who He is and how He chooses to deal with us. When we suffer as the result of someone else’s sin, He holds us in His love. When we screw up and turn to Him in Reconciliation, He showers love. When we act out of our brokenness and lack of faith, He turns to us in love. This isn’t an immature view of God, but one of the mysteries which drives our faith: a God who loves so totally that He not only gives us all of who He is, He gives us the ability to reject Him completely.
Dr. D’Ambrosio goes on to point out that mercy is meant to be a universal gift, available to everyone – not only those like Stephen who seems to have lived a good and Holy life, but also those like Paul, who have an ugly past. This means that mercy is available to Paul, Herod, King Henry, Alejandro (the boy who attacked St. Maria Goretti, the Nazi soldiers who executed Fr. Kolbe, to those who commit unspeakable crimes today… and to you and to me, for all the ways in which we fall short of who God has intended us to be.
I have heard mercy explained in the most simple way like this, contrasted with our (often) self-righteous sense of justice: justice occurs when someone gets what they deserve. Mercy occurs when someone gets what they don’t. When St. Paul encountered the risen Christ, and realized Christians were not perverting his faith, he changed. He changed so much that he wrote most of the New Testament before being martyred himself. When Stephen delighted to see Paul join him in Heaven, it by no means meant that either he (or God) endorsed what Paul had done in his past. It simply means that God chose to extend his mercy to Paul because He loves him, and Stephen – free from unforgiveness, bitterness, or any desire that ‘justice ought to be served,’ could embrace a brother in Heaven.
That’s mercy. It means leaving judgment to God and not binding yourself to a desire to see someone ‘get what they deserve.’ God doesn’t hold us to that standard… why would we expect Him to do that for others when we neither know nor understand their hearts of the motivations for their actions?