Saint Stephen’s Great Speech

The Book of Acts of the Apostles contains many great speeches or sermons, numbering from seventeen to thirty-something, depending on your chosen method of reckoning. The Epistle for today’s Mass is taken, in part, from Saint Stephen’s speech to the Sanhedrin (Acts 7:2-53). As with all of the speeches of Acts, which the skeptics use against the inerrancy of the book, Saint Stephen’s speech is the subject of lively debate.

That debate doesn’t interest me. What does is the actual content of the speech, which I am naive enough to believe is faithful to what Saint Stephen actually said on that occasion. I believe that Saint Stephen’s speech has to be read with the accusations against him in mind. And what were those? “This man ceaseth not to speak words against the holy place and the law. For we have heard him say, that this Jesus of Nazareth shall destroy this place, and shall change the traditions which Moses delivered unto us” (Acts 6: 13-14). These accusations were much like those brought against Jesus: “We heard him say, I will destroy this temple made with hands, and within three days I will build another not made with hands” (Mark 14:58). Our Lord was also constantly accused of violating the law of Moses (e.g., for curing on the Sabbath).

Saint Stephen’s speech summarizes the history of Abraham, of the patriarchs, of Joseph’s journey into Egypt, and then of Israel’s bondage in that land. Quite a few verses are spent on Moses (vs. 20-44), of his life of three forty-year spans, and his deliverance of Israel from Egypt. The infidelity of the Israelites to the leadership of Moses and their idolatry in the desert received heavy emphasis, as did the tabernacle for God’s worship that traveled with them, the plans of which were given by God to Moses.

From there, while speaking of an edifice for divine worship, a transition is made to King David, who wanted to build a temple for the worship of God, but whose son, Solomon, finally accomplished the task. Though, as Saint Stephen adds, God does not need a house to dwell in as we do. (Rather, the Temple’s purpose is for the benefit of man, that he might resort there to render God those homages which are His due, and receive blessings from Him.) Solomon, the “Son of David” and “Prince of Peace” was a type of Christ, as Jesus Himself made clear (Luke 11:31). “Solomon built [God] a house” (v. 47), as Jesus would later do in erecting the Church.

Saint Stephen, having concluded his historical narrative with the building of Solomon’s Temple, then goes on the offensive: “You stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do you also” (v. 51). Then he accuses them of persecuting the prophets, murdering the Just One (Jesus), and failing to keep the law of Moses.

All the time spent on Moses, I believe, was Saint Stephen’s effort to show his coreligionists that they had missed the point of Moses’ life. It was to give a Law that would perfect the people in the worship of the one true God — something they frequently lapsed from — and to prepare them for the coming of the Messias (v. 37). The prophets, who were constantly calling the people to return to the Law, were punished for their efforts, often by horrible deaths. The Law of Moses and the holy Temple itself became little more than emblems of national pride, drained of their actual meaning. All this infidelity culminated in the Sanhedrin’s persecution of Christ and of the infant Church. These two great realities, which are really one — Christ and His Church — were foreshadowed in the Temple. Christ compared Himself to the Temple (John 2:19), while the Church is His Mystical Body, a divinely built edifice surpassing those of the Old Law.

Jesus gave us the New Temple of His Body, and the New Law of Love: The Catholic Church and the two-fold precept of Charity. Saint Stephen showed himself a worthy saint of that Church when, bleeding and dying, he put this eloquent coda on his sermon: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. … Lord, lay not this sin to their charge” (58-59).

Through the intercession of Saint Stephen, may we be made fearless in the profession of the true Faith, and ever loving of our most bitter enemies.