December 27, 2010

Homily Two: St. Gregory of Nyssa on St. Stephen the Protomartyr

By St. Gregory of Nyssa

Upon entering the world, Christ brought salvation and founded the Church. The witness to the truth shone forth as well as those witnesses to such a great providence. The disciples followed their Teacher by following in his footsteps, for after Christ there came bears of Christ [Christophoroi]; after the Son of Justice [cf. Mal 3.20], they illumine the world. Stephen was the first to flourish on our behalf, not from the thorns of the Jews, but he was the first fruit for the Lord from the Church's fertility. The Jews placed a crown woven from thorns on the Savior's head [Mt 27.29] since the Cultivator of the vine considered their fruit to be evil. With regard to this the prophet says, "For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the man of Judah is his pleasant planting. I have looked for grapes but behold, it produced thorns" [Is 5.7]. But the works of the evangelical truth are a foretaste of piety and offer to the Lord the holy man Stephen [Stephanos] as the first fruits of what has been cultivated in the form of a crown [stephanos] from the harmony of many and various virtues. First this wonderful man bore witness to suffering and was chosen as a faithful man by the Apostles; he was filled with the Holy Spirit by whose power he became wise. He showed diligence for preaching the divine word, and great wonders of divine power confirmed his teachings. Scripture says, "Stephen, being full of faith and power, performed great signs" [Acts 6.8]. He did not consider sufferings to be an impediment and did not hesitate to demonstrate zeal for his task; as a result, he became a great wonder and had the advantage of assuming hardship with a spirit of love. He endured sufferings, was concerned for souls, nourished them with bread, taught with words, offered bodily nourishment and set a spiritual feast because he was a good man and full of the Holy Spirit. [Stephen] was sustained by the goodness of his will to serve the poor and curbed enemies by the Spirit's power of the truth. Every [thought] ought to be rejected and every premeditation against the truth ought to be dispersed. As it is written, "he cast down arguments and every proud obstacle to the power of God" [2Cor 10.5]. Holy Scripture testifies to such power and mastery of speaking so that "no one can resist the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke" [Acts 6.10]. However the herald of truth stirred up the council of impiety. We should take notice of the protomartyr in order to give him his due which, because of the body's weakness, could not be completed yesterday. Today we wish to make memory of him along with the holy Apostles. Neither can praise of the saints be bound by days or time because "the memory of the just man remains forever" [Ps 111.6]. As a result, their significance will remain unaltered. Therefore [praise of] the martyrs will not be without the apostles nor will the apostles be without the martyrs. The apostles are teachers of the martyrs, whereas the martyrs are images of the apostles. Indeed blessed Stephen bears their image and the stamp of the cross and was first to receive the crown of martyrdom through death. However, the martyr's endurance is a sign for teachers and has indeed become a crown on their behalf. The crown of beautiful teachers is not honor due to celebrity but growth for the Church so that as the divine Apostle says, "My dearly beloved, my joy and crown, stand firm" [Phil 4.1]. But let us return to the task at hand.

The bearer of Christ [Christophoros] has entered the assembly of those slain for Christ; the sheep has entered the pack of wolves but not every sheep fell prey and was handed over to the wolves. For they ripped apart and tore asunder the flock by biting it with accusations; rather, they were cut into pieces by reproaches, threats and denunciations just like them. Let us not pass over these words without notice. I have spoken of this assembly of evil doers which with bold effrontery comprises this pack of wolves and to which applies the reprimand, "You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and hears, you always resist the Holy Spirit as your fathers and those after you" [Acts 7.51]. Thus he who appeared on earth gazes heavenward and being clothed with human nature, has been transformed into the appearance and form of an angel (there is nothing unseemly here; indeed, in the protomartyr it is becoming that the martyrs' dignity become apparent that we may know the effects of such a new grace). The martyr's yearning is not only pleasing to the angelic dignity but opens heaven's gates; no longer are souls handed over to death, but they commend their spirits into Christ's hands. For the man who is Lord cries out on the cross to his Father, "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit" [Lk 23.46]. Stephen, the servant of Christ, extends his hands to the Lord saying, "Jesus, receive my spirit" [Acts 7.59]. Having said these words, he hands over his soul. The angels have received a member of their chorus; rather, they took him up with praise while the Jews below stoned him. However, Stephen received a heavenly inheritance after undergoing such noble struggles. To Stephen all these stones are suddenly woven together as a herald to the divine Gospel and with him are the martyrs who again shine with the beauty of salvation. We have earlier mentioned the brilliance of piety which shines so brightly, namely, Peter, James, John and those leaders of the apostolic unanimity and crowns of the Church's glory. Far be it for me to obstruct [the meaning of] Stephen's name; rather, in many ways I will show how inexhaustible it is, for it knows no end to that perfect blessedness represented by crowns. Therefore, if in a spirit of loving the truth we again enjoy crowns from Stephen and share in their memory, then we hope to participate, [J.101] remain and be glorified with him, for when a promise has been confirmed, fellowship in the faith increases.

Again, brothers, enjoyment of the good occurs when the martyrs' memory illuminates the Lord's day of resurrection. Through these preceding remarks the brilliance belonging to the glory of Christ's Gospel has illumined our minds in which the rays of salvation invigorate justice and banish the gloom of impiety once they have shed light upon souls by knowledge of the truth. To me this is especially wonderful and noteworthy. We feel the sun which rises early and whose rays foreshadow the coming of day by casting its rays upon everything under heaven. It hides and obscures the stars' chorus so that we can no longer perceive their heavenly circuit. But our Lord Jesus Christ rises to us from on high as the prophet says of him, "whereby the sun's rising will visit up from on high" [Lk 1.78]. Not only does [the sun] hide like stars those holy persons who were its precursors, but it makes them shine more brightly and causes others to gleam more intensely. For the prophets radiated after his coming rather than before. Upon coming into the world the Savior illumined and rent the obscurity of prophecy with regard to the Scribes' decrees, having fulfilled the Law and prophets [cf. Rom 13.10], for he did not come to abolish the Law and the prophets but to fulfill them [Mt 5.17]. The Savior said with regard to himself concerning the new order of grace, "I am the light of this world" [Jn 8.12]. The fountain of goodness coming from the good Father did not scorn to allow his servants participate in himself but said to his disciples, "You are the light of the world" [Mt 5.14], and "Let your deeds shine before men" [Mt 5.16]. We again confirm her our words by the Lord's grace: John the Baptist was called a lamp [Jn 12.27], and in the Psalms [Christ] was announced and witnessed to by the Lord. The prophet says in the person of the Father in one of the hymns, "I have prepared a light for my Christ" [Ps 131.17, lxx]. That is, I have prepared a helper and precursor for the light. The Lord confirms this voice of the Father by saying, "He [John] was a burning lamp" [Jn 5.35]. However, such a light withdrew and became obscure at the Lord's coming who was the sun of righteousness [cf. Mal 3.20]. In this way, the baptist might radiate all the more as a proclaimer of [Christ's] divinity. John therefore was called a lamp because he illumined through one [sun] alone the house of Israel [cf. Mt 5.15]. The Apostles of the Savior were neither lamps, lights nor stars but messengers of light not illumining one region or area but brightening every place under heaven. The most important leaders were Peter, James and John who were designated as witnesses by Christ, running to the end of their lives and expending themselves by various forms of witness. For he whom the Lord designated as leader of the apostolic chorus obtained proper glory. By the cross he expressed the lordly image of the king (I mean the image of the cross of which he was not ashamed of suffering but took it as a great trophy. Neither we nor any other person, as Paul says, can say that Jesus Christ is our Lord. Thus Peter radiates with much holiness and reverence when he is suspended upside down on a cross in order not to equal himself with his Savior's glory which spread through his crucifixion to humanity in its entirety and whose embrace included the entire world. James was beheaded [cf. Acts 12.2] out of love for Christ his true head. As the Apostle says, Christ is the head of man and the entire church [cf. 1Cor 11.3, Eph 5.23]. Blessed John endured many, diverse conflicts and succeeded in various positions with regard to fostering the religion. He underwent an unsuccessful attempt at being drowned and was judged to be numbered among the martyrs' chorus. [John] was held in esteem not by his suffering but by his desire to undergo martyrdom, a type of death which became an immortal tribute who by his death had graced the churches. It is indeed fitting to recall those special men not only with regard to their outstanding piety but their noble character. Together they hold special rank among the other apostles, and their courage does not belong to human reasoning but is in accord with the judgment of divine truth.

Such persons recognized by their great wonders are only known by the Lord in their steadfast fidelity and true witness. This was the vision on the mountain when the Lord was transfigured in resplendent, divine glory only before Peter, James and John [[cf. Mt 17.1ff.]. Both Moses and Elias were present with him, and his brilliance which was overshadowed by a cloud revealed the king's great image. Such was the case with Jairus' daughter whom [Jesus] brought back to life [cf. Mt 26.37], only in this instance they were witnesses to the miracle. Without delaying further, we see that [Jesus] took these same men at the time of his saving passion when he encouraged and confirmed them to be faithful by saying, "Now my soul is troubled" [Jn 12.27]. We do not relate these words to cast a bad light upon the rest of the apostles but as a testimony in remembrance of their virtue. If we must excellency among the saints is not restricted by human discernment but by God's judgment and truth. We have been made worthy of sharing them by recalling such men and must give thanks not so much because we are obliged (this is impossible) but in so far our capacity (this indeed is possible). The saints accept our honor not in order to gain something but only that we might share a common benefit. Again I think we should recall not only Peter, James and John but celebrate the memory of all the apostles. If anyone attains the truth which is in accord with their teachings, this person serves to complete the form of one body. As the Apostle says, "if one member is glorified then all the others are glorified" [1Cor 12.26]. Thus truth is especially present in those blessed, perfect men who share the same faith and the same blessing of piety and who solemnly participate in the truth. Who does not gladly exult and is filled with the Holy Spirit once he has been deemed worthy of sharing the apostolic chorus, of guiding the entire world into the knowledge of truth, of filling the true religion's net with the world? Such a person has ensnared with traps whatever belongs to the truth in order to seize every type of evil which afflicts mankind and to lead men to him who both tames and saves them? "To every place on the earth goes their sound" [Ps 18.5]. Here are the foundations of the Church, the columns and supports of truth which are the eternal fountains of salvation from which with great abundance the streams of divine teaching flows. With regard to these matters the prophetic voices says to us, "You will draw water with joy from the fountains of salvation" [Is 12.3].

Peter, the chief of the Apostles, is recalled and the remaining members of the Church are glorified with him for indeed the Church of God is established upon him. This is accord with the Lord's words who made him the firm and most solid rock upon which he had built his Church [cf. Mt 16.16ff]. Then we have mention of James, John and as sons of thunder whom the Savior had named and who had brought rain clouds; for the gathering of clouds by necessity herald rain. Thus the clouds represent Apostles and prophetic words; although times of preaching differ, nevertheless the laws of true religion are in harmony and one spirit is the source of various gifts. But who can explain for those who are incapable their courage and worthily recall apostolic virtue? We do not refer to Simon who was known for his fishing or for his ambition to receive praise but to his steadfast faith which made the entire Church firm. Neither again do we mention the sons of Zebedee but the Boanergoi, that is, the Sons of Thunder. How does such a faint sound is now so insufficient transformed into thunderous words which penetrate every ear? Therefore we desire to dismiss an ineffective silence with regard to studying the saints, being fully aware that their memory makes us worthy of being with them and of imitating their virtue. We do not celebrate their lives by words but by keeping their manner of life in ours minds. We show ourselves as worthy disciples not through irrational words but by reverence, good speech, by having the same opinion and ardor. Do you honor the martyrs' memory and hold them in veneration? Fellowship with their memory implies agreement with their mind. Does not the light of knowledge by the Gospel's glory concerning Christ illumine such persons [cf. 2Cor 4.4, 6]? Is not grace poured out by them? Their commands, way of life, struggle, judgement of truth are one and make us worthy by the prayers and intercession of the saints whom we recall through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom be glory and power forever. Amen.