Reflection on the Feast of St. Stephen
December 26, 2014
Ps 28, 30; 2 Chronicles 24:17-22; Acts 6:1-7
I have a special fondness for St. Stephen. He is remembered as the first deacon, though he was actually one of the “seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom” who were chosen to “stand before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them” (Acts 6:3-6). In the next chapters, Stephen makes a full-throated defense of the Gospel, and for his troubles is rejected by the people. When they “became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen,” he gazed into heaven and said, “Look, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” And then they dragged him out of the city and stoned him.
My personal connection to St. Stephen does not come directly from the passage in Acts. It comes from a hymn, one that I sang over and over and over growing up in my church (surely this does not surprise some of you!). The hymn is called “I See Jesus” and was written by a man from Lookout Mountain named Charles Wycuff. The hymn has a strong narrative line retelling the account of Stephen given in Acts, and the chorus is as catchy as any pop song I know:
“I see Jesus, standing at the Father’s right hand / I see Jesus, yonder in the promised land;
Work is over, Now I’m coming to thee, / I see Jesus, standing waiting for me.”
The funny thing is that although I sang that hymn at least monthly for the first 15 years of my life, and could still get the chorus pretty much any moment of my life, if you had asked me to tell you something about St. Stephen, I would have drawn a complete blank. Until I was ordained a deacon eight years ago.
Eight years ago, as I was preparing to be ordained a deacon, I had a lot of unresolved energy about what it all meant. Part of the energy was some remaining uncertainty about my relationship with the small Southern Baptist church where I grew up. Eight years ago, I saw the differences between Christian denominations more starkly than I do today. But as I was preparing to be ordained a deacon in the Episcopal Church, I started thinking about the fact that my father, and his father before him, were ordained deacons in our church at home. And I noticed that my ordination was taking place just a few days before the feast of St. Stephen, the first deacon. I remembered that this hymn I had been singing for so long in my old church was about the same person my new church would be celebrating in a few days. Somehow, Stephen became for me a symbol that this new step on my Christian journey was actually in solidarity with the journey of my Dad and my Papa Tallant.
Saints are funny things. They have their own personal story and witness. They have their own failings, too. But we come to the saints with our stories, and sometimes they help us reconnect with our own Christian journey in ways they never could have imagined.
Here’s a link to a nice, simple version of the hymn: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lIaLl738xbg