We have the continuation of two different readings today, again on their own cycle––the culmination of Stephen’s martyrdom in the Acts of the Apostles and then a continuation of the Bread of Life discourse in the 6th Chapter of the Gospel of John. They are not picked for their similarity with each other except for the fact that deep into the Easter season they are both somehow still unfolding the mystery of Easter. But there is actually one other element that they have in common that we might not get at first glance, and that is the Eucharist. You see, we make a mistake if we only focus on the sacred species, the transubstantiated bread and wine, and think that that sums up the Eucharist. There is something going into Eucharist and something coming out of it that are equally important. Going in is thanks, thanksgiving, gratitude, even awe and wonder at the mirabili Dei–the wonder of God. That’s what makes us lay not the bread and wine but our very lives on the altar and ask that they be lifted up and accepted. And of course they are. But it doesn’t end there, and that’s the lesson of Holy Thursday we’re supposed remember still today on Tuesday of the 3rd Week of Easter. What goes in is thanksgiving; but what comes out is love; what comes out is action. We become Eucharist, like bread and wine, broken and passed out, poured out. Remember what we learned Holy Thursday: washing the feet is equivalent to Eucharist; gifts to the poor are equivalent to Eucharist; it was not just Jesus’ body, but his body as he said at the meal “my body given up for you”; not just Jesus’ blood but as he said at the meal, “my blood poured out for you.” So giving our selves over, pouring out our lives is equivalent to celebrating Eucharist, or how we become Eucharist. When Pope Saint Leo the Great prays, “Change us into what we receive” he doesn’t mean change us into transubstantiated bread and wine; he means change us into true servants. And this is Stephen, because this is the root of martyrdom, or at least martyrdom is this total self-donation writ large, a total handing of oneself over as sacrifice. Luke is at pains to make him another Christ: see hi forgiving his enemies; see him having Psalm 31 on his lips just as Jesus did on the cross: You’re your hands I commend my spirit. So, like Jesus, Stephen too becomes Eucharist here, commending himself to God and forgiving his persecutors, fulfilling both commandments––to love God and neighbor––on the way, like Jesus, a martyr of unconditional love as much as anything.
When our foundational texts write about the Third Good of our charism it is with this kind of language, that this is the ultimate goal for the monk, beyond community, beyond solitude and silence, beyond any kind of asceticism––absolute availability. Or maybe that is our asceticism: absolute availability.
Fr. Stephen reminded us in class the other day about the intimate connection between the early martyrs and the early monks. This is from the Greek Life of Pachomius:
Because they saw the struggles and patience of the martyrs the Elders say the Greeks became monks, that they might begin to renew their lives.
And, from our own Camaldolese tradition, this is Innocenzo Gargan writing about Don Benedetto Calati’s thought:
Even the hermitage is considered, in its turn, an intermediate step toward the final objective, the remains for everyone the announcing of the Gospel and indeed a missionary vocation, common to all the Church: cupientibus dissolvi et esse cum Christo [“eager to dissolve and be with Christ,” the Pauline phrase that is always associated with the third good]… Martyrdom, the great objective sought by Christian monks of the first generations, winds up being the means also of the monks and hermits of the Camaldolese tradition.
As Emanuele wrote, martyrdom even to the point of the actual shedding of blood, or at least the martyrdom of unconditional love. And so we pray, “Lord, change us into what we receive,” the total self-donation of Christ.