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Sunday, 22 May 2016

Inspired to Follow: The Martyrdom of St Stephen

Here is my reflection from today's "Inspired to Follow: Art and the Bible Story" at St Martin-in-the-Fields, using ‘The Martyrdom of St Stephen’, possibly by Antonio Carracci, c.1610 (Location: National Gallery: not on display, see

Saint Stephen was the first Christian martyr, and was stoned to death. Saul (the future Saint Paul) guards the clothes of those who stone Saint Stephen outside the city. In the Acts of the Apostles, Stephen is described as one of the seven deacons whose job it is to care for the widows in the early Church in Jerusalem. His eloquent speech before the Sanhedrin, in which he shows the great sweep of Jewish history as leading to the birth of Jesus, the long-expected Messiah, and his impassioned plea that all might hear the good news of Jesus, leads to his inevitable martyrdom by being stoned to death. As the author of Acts, Luke's description of Stephen bears direct parallels to that of Christ: for example, the passion; being filled with the Holy Spirit; seeing the Son of God as the right hand of God, as Jesus promised he would be; commending his spirit to Jesus, as Jesus commended his to the Father; kneeling as Jesus did in Gethsemane and asking forgiveness for his persecutors. Witnessing to Jesus by acting like Jesus in every way is thus seen by Luke as of the essence of the Christian life.

If this painting is definitely by Antonio Carracci, a date of about 1610 would seem likely. Carracci was born in Venice. His father Agostino Carracci was an artist. His godfather was Tintoretto. He began his art studies early and proved an apt scholar. He was taught first by his father, then his uncle Annibale, and he also assisted Guido Reni. So, he was part of a well-connected family of artists and this shows itself in his work; both in the fluency of his technique (which was much admired among his contemporaries) and in his maintenance of the Carracci style. He developed a deep affection for his uncle Annibale, with whom he went to Rome, where most of his work was done. In 1609, when his uncle and teacher, Annibale, died, he showed his devotion by burying him with great solemnity near the tomb of Raphael. In Rome, Cardinal Tonti employed the talented youth to decorate his chapel, and on its completion he was commissioned to paint the chapel of St. Charles Borromeo, and a fresco in one of the rooms of the pope's palace at Monte Cavallo. Unlike the martyr he depicts, his was an uneventful career (yet one in which through his art he was a witness to Christ).

The Greek word "martus" signifies a "witness". It is in this sense that the term first appears in Christian literature; the Apostles were "witnesses" of all that they had observed in the public life of Christ. The Apostles, from the beginning as the story of St Stephen makes clear, faced grave dangers, until eventually almost all suffered death for their convictions. Thus, within the lifetime of the Apostles, the term martus came to be used in the sense of a witness who at any time might be called upon to deny what he testified to, under penalty of death. From this stage the transition was easy to the ordinary meaning of the term, as used ever since in Christian literature: a martyr, or witness of Christ, as a person who suffers death rather than deny his faith.

There continue to be Christians who experience persecution or martyrdom today and we must pray for and support our brothers and sisters in the persecuted Church. It is, probably, unlikely that we will share with St Stephen in this experience, even so, we can still share with St Stephen in the other meaning of martus; that of being a witness who gives testimony. The missiologist Lesslie Newbigin has explained that testimony is what is given by a witness in a trial. A witness makes his or her statement as part of a trial in which the truth is at stake and where the question, ‘What is the truth?’ is what is being argued. Newbigin has argued that this is what is “at the heart of the biblical vision of the human situation that the believer is a witness who gives his testimony in a trial.”

Where is the trial? It is all around us, it is life itself? In all situations we encounter, there is challenge to our faith and there is a need for us to testify in words and actions to our belief in Christ. Whenever people act as though human beings are entirely self-relient, there is a challenge to our faith. Whenever people argue that suffering and disasters mean that there cannot be a good God, we are on the witness stand. Whenever people claim that scientific advances or psychological insights can explain away belief in God, we are in the courtroom. Whenever a response of love is called for, our witness is at stake.

What is the content of our testimony? Witnesses are those who have seen or experienced a particular event or sign or happening and who then tell the story of what they have seen or heard as testimony to others. That is what Jesus called us to do before he ascended to the Father; to tell our stories of encountering him to others. So, we don’t have to understand or be able to explain the key doctrines of the Christian faith. We don’t have to be able to tell people the two ways to live or to have memorized the sinner’s prayer or to have tracts to be able to hand out in order to be witnesses to Jesus. All we need to do is to tell our story; to say this is how Jesus made himself real to me and this is the difference that it has made.

Witness for Jesus, man of fruitful blood,
Your martyrdom begins and stands for all.
They saw the stones, you saw the face of God,
And sowed a seed that blossomed in St. Paul.
When Saul departed breathing threats and slaughter
He had to pass through that Damascus gate
Where he had held the coats and heard the laughter
As Christ, alive in you, forgave his hate,
And showed him the same light you saw from heaven
And taught him, through his blindness, how to see;
Christ did not ask ‘Why were you stoning Stephen?’
But ‘Saul, why are you persecuting me?’
Each martyr after you adds to his story,
As clouds of witness shine through clouds of glory. (Malcolm Guite)


Gracious Father,
who gave the first martyr Stephen
grace to pray for those who took up stones against him:
grant that in all our sufferings for the truth
we may learn to love even our enemies
and to seek forgiveness for those who desire our hurt,
looking up to heaven to him who was crucified for us,
Jesus Christ, our Mediator and Advocate,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.


Pēteris Vasks - O Lord Open Our Eyes.

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