Often at ordinations I hear bishops preach how ordinations are quite like weddings. Marriage and Ordination are both Holy Sacraments; both, more specifically, fall into the sub-category of Sacraments of Vocation. Married life and ordained ministry are states of life to which some are called and some are not. The most striking way in which marriage and ordained ministry are similar is that, when standing before that altar, you only think you know what you are getting into!
Those who are married understand that, once you have said those “I do’s,” you learn an entirely new world existed. You probably didn’t know how frustrating having a spouse who refuses to the cap on the toothpaste tube can really be or that some people really do leave the seat up after they use the bathroom. Maybe it is that you did not realize what it would be like to raise a child, or to suddenly find yourself as a parent to twins or triplets, or to have to deal with the struggles of not being able to have children. In any case, you thought you knew what to expect in marriage, you had a picture in your mind of what it would be like, and you were wrong. To say the least, your picture was incomplete.
Those who have been ordained know that, once you have said those “I will’s,” you learn an entirely new world existed. Maybe you found yourself celebrating the funeral of a child far too young to die. Maybe you lost dear friends because they would not accept your ministry. Maybe, for the first time in years, you were actually shocked by what you heard in confession. Maybe you found yourself desperately trying to save someone’s marriage. Maybe you found out just how devastating a church split can be. In any case, you thought you knew what to expect in your ministry, you had a picture in your mind of what it would be like, and you were wrong. To say the least, your picture was incomplete.
Yet, just because it was not the picture you had in your mind when made your wedding vows or the bishop did not mention it when you knelt before him does not mean that you are not living out your call. I have also heard it said that, “If I knew where God was going to take me when I started this, I never would have gone!” God shows us what he wants to; He gives us what we need. We almost never see “the big picture.” Just because it was not in our plan does not mean it was not in His.
Saint Stephen is a brilliant example of this. St. Stephen, along with six of his companions, were called to be the very first deacons. They were ordained to this position through the laying on of hands for the expressed purpose of tending to the distribution of alms for the Hellenist widows in the apostolic Christian community of Jerusalem. We are not told that their responsibilities upon ordination included any Eucharistic responsibilities or counseling or building fund management or any of the multitude of issues our deacons deal with today. They were called to administer the alms for the widows. The apostles did not say, “Stephen, Philip, the rest of you, are you willing to preach the Gospel and die for what you believe?” That was not part of the picture they had in their minds.
Nevertheless, shortly after St. Stephen’s ordination, “Stephen, full of faith and power, did great wonders and signs among the people.” (Acts 6:8) The fact that he performed great signs and wonders signifies two things. It means that he was doing what God (though perhaps not the elders of Jerusalem) had called him to do for how could he work signs and wonders if he were going against the Lord. It also means that he was on a collision course with the leading Jew of the city because the same issues they had with Jesus, they now are going to have with Stephen.
When St. Stephen was finally accused of blasphemy and brought before the Sanhedrin, the trial seemed like a complete repeat of what had happened to Jesus a scant few months earlier. There were false witnesses, conflicting stories, and a complete lack of condemning evidence. Then Stephen stood up—the deacon whom, you will remember, was called to make sure the widows received their alms—and gave one of the longest speeches in the Acts of the Apostles. The speech itself is fifty-two verses or almost all of the seventh chapter! The speech concludes with St. Stephen crying out:
You stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears! You always resist the Holy Spirit; as your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who foretold the coming of the Just One, of whom you now have become the betrayers and murderers, who have received the law by the direction of angels and have not kept it.” (Acts 7: 51-53)
Maybe that was the point where he stepped out of God’s chosen path for his life, and, because of his pride, that is why he died. Oh, no, wait one minute! There is no evidence that St. Stephen displeased the Lord by his speech. In fact, Holy Scripture tells us that, as they drew up the stones to execute him, St. Stephen, still “being full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and said, ‘Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!’” (vv. 55-56) Furthermore, Acts of the Apostles goes on to inform us that “they stoned Stephen as he was calling on God and saying, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he knelt down and cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not charge them with this sin.’” (vv. 59-60)
St. Stephen becomes a mirror reflection of Jesus, crying out to Heaven and beseeching “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.” (St. Luke 23:34) Just as Our Lord called out to God saying “’Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit’” (St. Luke 23:46) before dying, St. Stephen says “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” before going to meet his Maker face to face. These are not the actions of someone who has stepped outside of the will of God (if such a thing really even be possible). Stephen was walking in the path which the Lord had prepared for him. Though the elders of Jerusalem had called him to administer the daily distribution to the Hellenist widows, God had something else prepared for St. Stephen. That young man, whose name means “crown,” became the first Christian to wear the glorious crown of martyrdom. As such, St. Stephen is often referred to as “the Proto-Martyr.” What the Apostles could not have imagined when they ordained this young man, God had planned since the dawn of time. Just because it was not in St. Stephen’s mind when he knelt before Saints Peter, John, and James, does not mean that it was not in the mind of God when He hovered over the formless void that would become Creation. And just because it was not in your mind when you stood before altar of God at your wedding or ordination does not mean it has not been in the mind of God since long before you were born.
May God grant us the grace to walk in the vocations to which He calls us, whether we expect them or not.
We give you thanks, O Lord of glory, for the example of the first martyr Stephen, who looked up to heaven and prayed for his persecutors to your Son Jesus Christ, who stands at your right hand: where he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.