Monday, December 26, 2016

Take Away My Heart of Stone

"The Stoning of St.Stephen" by Jose Clemente Orozco
 As they stoned him, Stephen called out, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!" He fell on his knees and cried aloud, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them" and with that he died.  Saul was among those who approved of his execution.                                                              Acts of the Apostles 7:59-8:1

On this feast of St. Stephen, deacon and proto-martyr, I've been pondering this striking interpretation of his death by the Mexican muralist Jose Clemente Orozco.  The artist juxaposes the figure of St.Stephen being stoned to death outside of the walls of Jerusalem, with the figure of Saul observing his death. Stephen and his attackers are unclothed.  His assailants have stripped down so that they can strike him uncumbered by their clothing.  The victim has been stripped of his clothing in order to make him even more defenseless and vunerable.

But the warm skin tones of victim and the angry mob are a sign of their shared humanity, even in a terrible and evil moment.  But what is truly terrifying is the figure of Saul himself, observing the scene unfolding before him.  Orozco has rendered Saul's garments in cold whites and blues; even his skin color is cold and pale.   Unlike the others, he is as motionless as a stone column.  This man, heartlessly looking on with approval is as hard and dangerous as the stones being thrown at Stephen, which is why I think that Orozco has painted Saul's garments the same color as the rocks the mob are wielding.

The Church Father, Fulgentius of Ruspe, in the second reading of the Office of Readings for this feast day, speaks of Stephen as a 'brave soldier who died in the service of his king' but points out that he serves the King of Love, whose only weapons are mercy and forgiveness.  The witness of Stephen, even to the shedding of his own blood, was to that divine love which prays for and forgives even enemies.

Thus, Fulgentius urges us to rejoice that St. Stephen and St. Paul (whose stony heart was shattered and made anew on the road to Damascus), are now friends and brothers in God's heavenly kingdom.

May our celebration of the birth of Jesus, through the prayers of St. Stephen warm our hearts and banish from them forever our icy judgment and condemnation of each other.


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