In the name of God, source of all being, eternal Word, and holy Spirit. Amen.
The modern martyrs in their deaths and in their lives follow a pattern, a pattern we can follow back through the lives of saints to the early martyrs of the church. There is some formula to this, not out of laziness, without care for factuality, but intentionally as a pointer to us later followers of Jesus that they are indeed followers of Jesus, even into the lion’s mouth of death.
Janani Luwum, Archbishop of Uganda, arrested and called at night to the palace of the tyrant Idi Amin, was confronted by the dictator himself: Will you stop speaking out for your people? No! He refused. And so the dictator pulled out his own pistol and shot him down on the spot. Later his body was found, he’d been “shot trying to escape” or words to that effect.
Kaj Munk, the Danish playwright, premiered a new play in the days of the occupation, just at the feast of the Holy Innocents, after Christmas. It compared Hitler to Herod. That was too much. His body was found in a ditch, he’d been shot by the Gestapo.
Medieval martyrs and ancient witnesses, earlier in the history of the faithful, made testimony at the cost of their lives to the truth of the gospel.
Early Christians took heart, knowing that they followed the footsteps of their Lord.
And so we have Stephen, the deacon, the first martyr of the church, remembered this day, in the story of the book of Acts. His story patterns for us how disciples might joyfully follow Jesus, even in the midst of persecution and the threat, and fact, of imminent death.
Three times we see his story pattern after Jesus’ own passion. First, he sees what Jesus promised; his Lord at the right hand of the Father. This infuriates the crowd (already pretty upset for his description of their folly). And so they move in. As they begin to put him to death he cries out in words that resonate down the centuries, and back to the Cross of Christ, “Forgive them, they do not know what they are doing.” And then, as he succumbs, the prayer “I put my soul into your care”.
These words are his witness. The story of his witness is a gift to us.
We do not know much about who was there; apart from Saul (later Paul) no one is named.
We do have much more to go on, in the accounts of the resurrection of Christ. And first among the witnesses to his resurrection are the women at the tomb.
The angel said to the women,
The angel said to the women,
“Why look for the living among the dead?”
“He is not here, he is risen!”
“Go tell my friends, set out for Galilee, there they will see me.”
It is the women, among them Mary of Magdala, who are the first witnesses to the empty tomb and the first to carry the message of the risen Christ.
And among them, as after his ascension they await the next chapter, is Mary his mother.
She is the one who saw it all. From Annunciation and Nativity, childhood and precocious youth, to his ministry wanderings and his fateful journey to Jerusalem, Mary was present. She was there at his crucifixion, and we learn (from Acts 1:14) that she was with the disciples as they wait for the Spirit to descend.
A mother’s witness. A mother’s martyrdom. From early days, she heard and saw all these things, and cherished them in her heart.
What sorrow it must be to know your son will die.
As so many mothers know.
So today, Mother’s Day, we remember not only the witness of the martyr Stephen, but the gift of mothers: a gift of life, a gift of love, of love as strong as death.
O God who so loved humankind that through your holy Spirit you conceived in Mary your only Son, our Lord, so grant us the obedience, and the fortitude, to follow the pattern of her witness, and the example of your saints, as we proclaim the death of Jesus, his resurrection and ascension, even as we await his coming in glory. Through that selfsame son, Jesus, Amen.
Said the angel to the women, "Why seek the living among the dead? He is risen; he is not here, alleluia, alleluia!"
"Be not afraid: go tell my friends to set out for Galilee, there they will see me, alleluia!"
-- Eastertide antiphons at New Camaldoli