The very day after the birth of the Savior of the whole world, we observe and venerate the memory of a young apostle who was the first Christian to be killed for his offensive faith in Christ Jesus. Members of the Sanhedrin, not much caring for his long admonishment to them (“…you who have received the Law ordained by angels, yet have not kept it”), gnashed their teeth against him. Yet Stephen seemed oblivious to the danger before him.
Hegazed intently into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God; and he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened up and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” But they cried out with a loud voice, and covered their ears and rushed at him with one impulse. When they had driven him out of the city, they began stoning him; and the witnesses laid aside their robes at the feet of a young man named Saul. They went on stoning Stephen as he called on the Lord and said, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” Then falling on his knees, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” Having said this, he fell asleep. (Acts 7:56-60)
In 2,000 years, the world has found myriad ways to put Christians to death since this first martyrdom, and in 2016 it is staggering to consider the number of new martyrs we know about, particularly when –as John Allen makes clear in his must-read book, The Global War on Christians, the Christian martyrs known to us barely scrape the surface of the real numbers, worldwide. Christians are being killed in Vietnam and other parts of the Far East. They are being slain in the Near East; in South America; in Europe. Proving the wisdom of Tertullian, their blood threatens to saturate parts of Africa, where the church is blossoming and growing.
Where Christianity is despised, the slaughter is indiscriminate. Just days before this writing, we observed a peculiar martyrdom of Coptic Christian women — a strike at the very womb and future of the church in which they were at prayer, while killed.
Perhaps the most noted martyrdom of 2016 was the killing of Father Jacques Hamel, who was slain as he knelt by the altar at which he had been saying Mass, when two masked men broke in. The eyewitness account of his death (interestingly enough, in a place named for St. Stephen, and famous for the death of another martyr, St. Joan of Arc) is a chilling, yet inspiring read:
“…asked about reports that before his death Fr. Hamel called out twice, “Be gone Satan!” and whether the trio saw evil in action. “No doubt,” said Sr. Danielle, “This does not mean that [the assailant] Adel Kermiche was possessed, but that Satan was at work in a powerful way. Father Jacques wanted to exorcise this evil. Those were his last words. Satan does not like the Eucharist …”
2016 was a bloody year, and for more than just Christians, of course. There is a rough beast at large in the world, and the prayers of the martyrs may help in the battle against it. Having died by violence born of hatred and misunderstanding and political concerns, their prayers of intercession may be particularly powerful:
Saint Stephen, pray for us;
martyred apostles, pray for us;
new martyrs, pray for us.
2016 also saw the recognition of the first US-born martyr, Father Stanley Rother, whose prayers we might also seek out in this new year.