Martyrdom and the Holy Eucharist

Homily for Tuesday of the Third Week of Easter.

In the just over eleven months that I’ve been a priest, one of the most helpful resources I’ve found for preparing homilies is the Fathers of the Church. These are the deacons, priests, and bishops who lived in the early centuries of the Church, whose insights into Sacred Scripture and the Church’s Tradition are often quite poignant and profound. I’d like to draw upon two of these Fathers of the Church to help us understand the first reading, and then the connection between the first reading and the gospel.

The first Father of the Church is St. Ambrose. St. Ambrose was the archbishop of Milan in modern day Italy. He died in 397 A.D. St. Ambrose is helpful for understanding an interesting detail from our first reading. In our first reading, which describes the stoning of St. Stephen, the first martyr of the Church, it says that when St. Stephen looked up to heaven, he saw “Jesus standing at the right hand of God [the Father].” This is an interesting detail, because we profess in the Creed that, after His death and resurrection, Jesus “ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father” (Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed). Seatednot standing—at the right hand of the Father. So why, then, is Jesus standing at the right hand of the Father in our first reading?

St. Ambrose says this: “Jesus stood as a helpmate; he stood as if anxious to help Stephen, his athlete, in the struggle” (Letter 59.63). The idea St. Ambrose is getting at is this: It’s like being at a baseball game when a pitcher intentionally hits a batter. Let’s say a Cubs pitcher intentionally hits a Brewers batter. If that happened, the coach and every teammate of that Brewers’ batter would stand up in the dugout. They would stand up to come to the help, the aid, the defense, of their player and teammate. That’s what’s going on in our first reading. It’s as if St. Stephen is on the same team as Jesus—he’s on team Jesus. And Jesus, previously seated, stands up in heaven to come to the help, the aid, the defense, of his player, his athlete, St. Stephen. And we can imagine this happening every time a member of Jesus’ team, a member of the Church, is persecuted here on earth. Every time that happens, Jesus stands up in heaven to come to the help, the aid, the defense, of the person being persecuted.

The second Father of the Church is St. Ignatius of Antioch. St. Ignatius was the bishop of Antioch in modern day Turkey. He died in 108 A.D. He was friends with St. Polycarp who was a disciple of St. John the Evangelist: So, he was a friend, of a disciple, of an Apostle—So, we’re talking very early Church. And St. Ignatius is helpful for understanding an important connection between our first reading and our gospel. St. Ignatius was also a martyr like St. Stephen. He was fed to the lions in the Colosseum in Rome. And as he was being taken to his martyrdom, as he was being transported from Antioch to Rome, he wrote several letters, many of which we still have today. In his letter to the Romans, St. Ignatius makes a beautiful connection between martyrdom and the Bread of Life, the Holy Eucharist, which Jesus identifies Himself as in our gospel. St. Ignatius tells the Romans not to rescue him, not to prevent his martyrdom. He says in one place, “I am the wheat of God, and let me be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ” (Chapter 4). And he says in another place—and this is one of my favorite quotes as a priest—“Pray, then, do not seek to confer any greater favor upon me than that I be sacrificed to God while the altar is still prepared” (Chapter 2).

The Fathers of the Church, exemplified by St. Ignatius of Antioch, saw a close connection between giving one’s body and blood in martyrdom and Jesus giving His Body and Blood in the Holy Eucharist. The Fathers would probably say that St. Stephen celebrates a kind of Eucharist in the first reading. Even as wheat is ground into the bread which becomes the Bread of Life, the Holy Eucharist, so also was St. Stephen ground by the stones which killed him and St. Ignatius of Antioch by the teeth of the lions who killed him. The ground outside Jerusalem and the ground of the Colosseum became the altars of their sacrifices.

As we celebrate the Holy Eucharist at this Mass, let us offer ourselves, along with the bread and wine, on this altar. If we do so, we will be transformed into the very reality which we offer. We will become the pure bread of Christ; we will become Christians in the truest sense.