Today is the feast of St Stephen. He’s the protomartyr, the first of many to give their lives for Christ. He’s a protodeacon, one of the first seven appointed by the apostles. He’s also the heavenly patron of the Guild of St Stephen for altar servers. This was founded in London in 1904 by Fr Hamilton McDonald. The Guild’s first aim is this: “To encourage, positively and practically, the highest standards of serving at the Church’s liturgy and so contribute to the whole community’s participation in a more fruitful worship of God.” And so this morning our sanctuary is full of altar servers!
This is a day for reflecting on martyrdom, on the giving witness to Christ.
It’s a day for deacons. Let me thank Deacon Tony and the other deacons of diocese for their ministry, and ask prayers for our two candidates for the permanent diaconate, one in Inverness, one with us here in the congregation today.
It’s a day for the young men and young women, and the older men too, who serve at our altars. Let me thank our diocesan Master of Ceremonies, George Brand, his ‘vicar-general’, Simon Winstanley, and their whole flock, especially those of you here this morning. I’m proud of you, and grateful. It will be good to enroll some new members too in a moment. Do not worry if you are laughed at school for being Catholic and doing what you do. Be proud of yourselves for doing it!
In her Christmas message, Her Majesty the Queen spoke of inspiration. She mentioned athletes, health workers, charities, Mother Teresa. Then she spoke of Our Lord, of how he has inspired millions. ‘I am one of them’, she said. What a simple, beautiful witness to her faith! St Stephen, too, was ‘one of them’, inspired by Christ. This was in Jerusalem, in around 40 AD, not long after Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Stephen was a Jew who came to believe. He believed Jesus was the promised Messiah, sent by God. He would have been baptized. He would have received the Holy Spirit through the laying on of hands by the apostles (the origin of our Sacrament of Confirmation). He was recognized as a man full of grace and the Holy Spirit. When the apostles instituted deacons, he was named as one of them. So he received what we call the Sacrament of Ordination. Now, Deacons have a three-fold ministry, of charity, word and altar. We see the first and second in Stephen. He served the poor at table. He preached to considerable effect, defending the faith against its attackers. But where was the third aspect? Where was his ministry at the altar, at the Eucharist? It was at the altar of himself, of his life. It was his martyrdom. This was his Eucharist. It was full of prayer. He saw Jesus at the right hand of the Father, the heavenly liturgy. He offered himself: ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ He prayed for others: ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ We have all this at Mass.
Martyrdom and liturgy go together. They’re the same thing in the end. In today’s Gospel, Jesus says, when you are brought before your persecutors, don’t worry what to say. The Holy Spirit will give you words. This is what happens in the liturgy. We don’t invent it. It’s given. We receive our rituals and prayers from tradition, from the Holy Spirit working in the Church. We pray with the saints of all the ages. And so we give our witness to our faith. This, dear Altar Servers, is what you are doing at the Mass.
St Thomas Aquinas, a great teacher in the Church, said this: through our baptism and confirmation, we’re missioned and tasked to worship. We are qualified and equipped to be part of the praying Church, with our brothers and sisters in faith. We can come into God’s presence and minister to him, like St Stephen offering ourselves in union with the offering of Christ, and praying for others. We are missioned to take part in the Mass. Our baptism and confirmation are fulfilled at the altar. And this is our witness, our martyrdom. This is what is asked of us here and now in Scotland. In some parts of the world, people are at risk of death for being Christian. We may just be laughed at, criticized, thought strange – that’s all. So, how do we give our witness? By going regularly, Sunday after Sunday, feast after feast, to church, to Mass. It means we have to get up rather than staying in bed, we have to get to church, we lose that time for other things. We just need this little bit of courage. But this is how we say we’re inspired by Jesus. This is how we live out our mission and express our faith. This is how we say, like the Queen, ‘I am one of them’. We’re doing it for the very people who look down on us. And it’s how we will inspire others. Stephen’s diaconate, Stephen’s prayer and martyrdom helped turn Saul into Paul, the great apostle and evangelist.
So, dear Altar Servers, young and old, thank you! Today I will be giving a medal in recognition of one man’s more than 60 years of service, our much-loved Frank Treasurer. For more than 60 years, he has been saying, ‘I am one of them’. Let us say it too!
(St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen 26 December 2016)