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«The blood of the martyrs is
the seed of Christians»
(Tertullian, Apologeticum, 50, 13)
As we start our journey following the last stages of Paul’s life and testimony in Rome, through memories and through the spirit, let us pause to look back at his first steps in Jerusalem and in particular let us look at the episode which sees him as an eye witness to the deacon (protomartyr of the Church) Stephen’s testimony to Jesus.
This episode, narrated by Luke in the seventh chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, entwines the martyrdom of Stephen by stoning at the hands of the Jews in Jerusalem, to that of Paul in Rome by beheading at the hands of the Romans. In the scene in Jerusalem, which initiates a vast persecution of Christians, we find united the persecutor and the persecuted, as well as the martyrdom which took place in Jerusalem and that which took place in Rome.
«Saul – says Luke – approved of the killing» (Acts 8, 1).
Later, Saul himself, speaking about his zeal in persecuting Christians, in the speech he gave in the Temple of Jerusalem, as if speaking before the Lord, said: «I used to have imprisoned and flogged in the synagogue those who believed in You; when the blood of Stephen, Your witness, was shed, I, too, was standing by, in full agreement with his murderers and in charge of their clothes» (Acts 22, 19-20). Saul is not the material executor of the stoning of Stephen, but he approved1 and voted in favour of the condemning to death of the witnesses of Christ (Acts 26, 10) and, as he himself said, he was «so extreme» (Acts 26, 11). His “youthful” role of inexperience in that summary execution, stemming from a spirit of adversity to the signs that Stephen carried out and to the glorious splendour of his testimony which convinced many, too many according to the leaders of the people, was to preserve the cloaks of the «false witnesses» who, by law, had to cast the first stones of the stoning.
The stoning of Stephen not only failed to make Saul see reason and mend his ways, but also provoked an even greater fury (Acts 8, 3). Nonetheless, it is still true to say that «the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Christians» and also in this case, the first, was exactly like that. If, initially, it seemed as though Saul had won the day over Stephen, subsequently it was Stephen, whose name means “crown” who was victorious over Saul and Saul will follow Stephen, so far as to resemble him in attaining the crown of martyrs.
A profound yet perceptible mystery links these two martyrs of Christ, in the apostolic age and in the first hours of the Church.
Fulgenzio di Ruspe has given us a meditation on this link between the two: «Strengthened by the power of his love, he [Stephen] overcame the raging cruelty of Saul, and won over his persecutor on earth as his companion in heaven. In his holy and tireless love, he longed to gain by prayer those whom he could not convert by admonition.
Now at last, Paul rejoices with Stephen, with Stephen he delights in the glory of Christ, with Stephen he exalts, with Stephen he reigns. Stephen went first, slain by the stones thrown by Paul, but Paul followed later, helped by the prayer of Stephen.
This, surely, is the true life, my brothers, a life in which Paul feels no shame because of Stephen’s death, and Stephen delights in Paul’s companionship, for love fills them both with joy. It was Stephen’s love that prevailed over the cruelty of the mob, and it was Paul’s love that covered the multitude of his sins; it was love that won for both of them the kingdom of heaven».2
Martyrdom, therefore, both as a testimony to Christ, and as a shedding of blood, is not only at the end of Paul’s story, but also at the beginning. The very calling and mission of Paul both fall under the shadow of martyrdom. Here too the writings in the book of Sirach also ring true: «In a person’s last hour his deeds will stand revealed. Call no one fortunate before his death; it is by his end that someone will be known» (11, 27b-28).
A forewarning of the martyrdom of Paul can be found early on in the words spoken by the Lord when he speaks to Ananias in Damascus in order to send him to free Paul from his blindness and introduce him to the Christian community through baptism: «I myself will show him how much he must suffer in my Name» (Acts9, 16). The citation can also be translated as follows: «I will show him what he must suffer in my Name». The «sanctification of the Name» has its fulfilment in general through the offering of one’s life and in particular, through martyrdom.
Suffering and death «in the name of» are therefore an integral part of the beginning of Paul’s vocation.
This reminds us that martyrdom should be seen as the key to the whole story of the Apostle of the People and not only as the conclusion of his life.
The profile of Paul’s mission is outlined precisely in the revelation which the Lord Jesus makes to Ananias at Damascus when he affirms: «…this man is my chosen instrument to bring my name before gentiles [pagans], and kings and before the people of Israel» (Acts