Celibacy and Martyrdom
February 26, 2019
“And Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people….Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him.” (Acts 6:8 and 8:58)
“The charisms of celibacy and of martyrdom are related: both involve making a sacrifice of one’s body for the sake of the Gospel.” So spoke Fr. Lupton, our retreat director, to my classmates and me a few weeks ago during our retreat in preparation for ordination to the diaconate. “Woah, what an interesting connection!” I thought to myself at the time; “I wonder, though, what that would look like…”. Despite how much this connection between celibacy and martyrdom provoked my heart, among our many visits to various different holy sites, I quickly forgot about my curiosity.
That is, until a few days ago, when, while seven of us were walking around the Old City of Jerusalem, one of my classmates suggested, “Hey, would anyone be interested in going to see St. Stephen’s Church? It’s just a little east of here.” Knowing that St. Stephen was one of the original seven deacons in the Early Church and that each of us would soon be ordained as deacons, we excitedly agreed to go. After a short walk downhill, we soon found ourselves surrounded by icons of Jesus, Mary, and St. Stephen inside St. Stephen’s, which was a Greek Orthodox church. After a few minutes of marveling at the bright imagery and excellent artistry of the icons, an Orthodox priest approached us and began to explain some of the history of St. Stephen and of that church. In the midst of his explanations, he mentioned, rather casually, “we also have here the site where we believe St. Stephen was stoned to death…”. “Wait, what!” I thought to myself; “That’s incredible!” Once he finished his sentence, someone of our group excitedly asked, “So, can we go see the spot?” “Yes, of course!” answered the priest, somewhat nonchalantly; “it’s just down this set of stairs.”
Eagerly we descended the steps and passed through a set of heavy iron doors. Inside, it was cool, dimly lit, and quiet. As we walked from the tiled floor onto the exposed bedrock inside this cave-like structure, awe washed over us: here, indeed, seemed to be the very place of St. Stephen’s martyrdom. A number of us knelt down and kissed the place of his death, marked by a cross in the rock. Looking around us on all sides, we saw, painted on the walls, icons depicting St. Stephen’s stoning and also Christ’s passion and death. Most fascinating to us all, however, was an icon showing Saints Peter, James, and John ordaining the first seven deacons of the Church. As we marveled at this icon, someone said, “Guys, have you noticed how many of us are here right now?” After a quick count, I saw that we were seven who had come to the church.
Suddenly, my eye caught two icons I had not noticed before: the first, of St. Stephen; the second, of Christ, robed for his passion with the crown of thorns on his head; the two images were painted side-by-side. Next to St. Stephen’s icon was written, in Greek, the word ‘proto-martyr’; that is, ‘first martyr’. And then I remembered Fr. Lupton’s words, “celibacy and martyrdom are closely related”, and I understood exactly what it looks like. St. Stephen, one of the first deacons of the Church, was also the Church’s very first martyr; his death was an imitation—a re-living, even—of Christ’s own death. I saw, then, that St. Stephen had been able to offer his life for Jesus Christ as the first martyr because he had earlier offered his life to Christ as one of the first celibate deacons. Fr. Lupton’s words had become clear and real.
Returning to the icon of the ordination of the first seven deacons, I imagined myself as one of those seven deacons, ordained by the apostles Peter, James, and John; and in that moment, I became aware of the incredible history behind the gift I am preparing to receive: namely, that I will be receiving ordination from my bishop, who can trace his ordination through the centuries back to St. Peter himself, such that, in a way, I really am like those seven first deacons who were ordained by St. Peter! Upon my ordination, I will be in direct continuation with them—including St. Stephen—and that I, too, will experience in my own life of celibacy that charism of offering my whole life—body, soul, and mind—to Jesus Christ.
Slowly, we were able to tear ourselves away from this peaceful site to continue on our way. What had begun as a quick and unexpected visit during our walk around the Old City became for each of us the highlight of the day. What a beautiful and unexpected gift from God!
St. Stephen, deacon and martyr, pray for us!
Diocese of Lafayette