December 29, 2023

Homily on the Protomartyr Stephen and the Slaughter of the Infants (Metr. Nikodemos of Patras)

By Metropolitan Nikodemos (Vallindras) of Patras

An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, "Arise, take the young Child and His mother, flee to Egypt." (Matt. 2:13)

For a second time, an angel of the Lord warns Joseph to take the necessary measures. The previous time, the angel warned him in his sleep not to worry about the pregnancy of the All Holy Virgin, because it was a conception by the Holy Spirit. Now, after the Birth of Christ the Savior, Joseph is again informed by an angel that Herod is moving to destroy the newborn Divine Infant, and he receives an order to depart, together with the Child and His All Holy Mother, to Egypt for safety. In both the first and second cases we see the protective intervention of God for the sake of the innocent. The innocence of the All Holy Virgin, which was in danger of being exposed due to evil suspicion, when she conceived the Son of God from the Holy Spirit, was protected by God by sending the angel to Joseph. And the Divine Infant, who was needlessly endangered by Herod's sword, is again protected by God's angel sent to Joseph. Admittedly, this issue of God's protection of the innocent deserves a lot of attention, so a few thoughts on this topic would be useful, and none unrelated to the today's celebrated Protomartyr Stephen.

1. It is not rare to be innocent, and yet to be in danger. Having a conscience, they testified that he is innocent, and to be in danger of suffering unpleasant tortures. In these circumstances it is comforting for the Christian to reflect that God intervenes protectively for the sake of the innocent and needlessly vulnerable man. In the Old Testament, certain cases are classic, in which God intervenes protectively, to save innocent human beings. Remember Joseph in Egypt, that sober young man, who was imprisoned, following the slanders of Potiphar's wife, that he allegedly presented himself with immoral purposes. You know how God intervened and gave him that wisdom, through which he appeared useful to Pharaoh, and he came out of prison, and was raised to the throne of regent. In the book of Daniel, there is a case of a chaste, modest woman (Susanna was her name), who was heavily slandered regarding the issue of honor. Things reached the point of her getting a death sentence, and she was led to execution. But God's protection was manifested through her innocent existence. The prophet Daniel intervened, who put the slanderers in a difficult position and they fell into contradictions. The innocence of the accused woman was thus proven, and she escaped the death sentence at the last moment. But did not the Magi, who worshiped the Divine Infant, inadvertently risk becoming instruments of Herod's murderous plan against the newborn Redeemer? With the simplicity of their hearts, they prepare to return to inform Herod that Christ was born. And God intervenes again - because he wants to protect these innocent beings from such an unheard of complicity and responsibility - and having been saved in order not to return to Herod, by another way they departed to their country, with a quiet heart, with a calm conscience, that they did not cooperate in Herod's murderous plan. In general, beloved brethren, we have most of the testimony of the Old and New Testaments, but also from history and experience, that God protected many innocent beings in an amazing way. David was so sure of this matter, that when on one occasion he was innocent and without guilt, and from the depths of his soul he felt his innocence, he said to God, "Judge me, O Lord, according to my righteousness, and according to my integrity within me" (Ps. 7:8). That is, You, Lord, who know that in this case I have what is right on my side, You should give the solution and the happy outcome. Into Your hands I place myself and ask to be judged by You the just judge, so I am sure that I will be protected by You. Moreover, the psalmist assures the faithful and innocent man that "God will make your righteousness shine as light and your judgment as the noonday" (Ps. 36:6). That is, the protection of God in the case of your innocence will be seen, and the truth will shine as the sun shines at full noon. So it is enough to be innocent. It is enough, when an unfavorable circumstance befalls us, to have our conscience at ease. And then we "surrender ourselves and each other and all our lives to Christ God." And what may seem humanly difficult and impossible, God's intervention makes it happen. In most of the cases, innocence shone through and the innocent was vindicated in a literally miraculous way.

2. Yes, but the babies of Bethlehem? Were not its innocent infants slaughtered by the sword of Herod? And the Protomartyr Stephen, who was stoned to death, what was he guilty of? How was God's protective intervention not manifested in their favor? Oh my beloveds! Those babies of Bethlehem, numbered a few dozen for sure, (not thousands, as the rumor states, because Bethlehem was a village and it is probable that there were only a few infants in it and in its neighboring villages), were the first martyrs of Christ. These first shed their blood on behalf of the newborn Savior. As well as the Protomartyr celebrated today. Both he and they are the first citizens of the kingdom of heaven. If God gave them this grace, that they would be the first to sacrifice themselves on behalf of Christ, you should envy these children. Who among us would not want to be in their position and sacrifice ourselves for the sake of Christ? For these babies sacrificed a temporary life, and won heaven. They were indeed chosen beings for Christ, just as all the holy martyrs were chosen, who, led by the Protomartyr Stephen, suffered everything for the glory of His name. Yes, the wickedness of the people was unjustified, when they led these innocent creatures to slaughter. But the Lord, who made them worthy of the title of martyr, rewarded them with the highest reward for their sacrifice. He granted them the heavenly kingdom. This is what the Apostle Paul understood when he said: "For to you it has been granted on behalf of Christ, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake" (Philip. 1:29). That is, it is a privilege not only to believe in Christ, but also to be found worthy to suffer for His sake. It is an honor on God's part and a privileged position of man, who undergoes a sacrifice for the sake of the Lord, regardless of whether the wickedness of people intervenes. But even when the innocent suffers and is martyred, it does not mean that he is deprived of God's protection. It is simply that divine protection manifests itself as God's plan and will. Because God may allow us to be tested. This does not mean that God does not hear us and that he is unaware of what is happening to us. When God seems not to intervene on our behalf, He has His plan. And we should not doubt that "the Lord protects all those who love him" (Ps. 146:20), but - adds the Apostle Paul - "all things work together for good to those who love God" (Rom. 8:28). When we love God, and if something painful happens to us, it will be for our good. Because God does not see things as we see them, but with His own eternal perspective.

3. But let us not lose sight of the continuity of Joseph's visions. In time, he is notified again by an angel that the danger has passed, and he can return to Judea. Being informed that "Archelaus was reigning over Judea instead of his father Herod" (Matt. 2:22), Joseph feels the need to take some protective measures himself and not expect everything from God, in a fatalistic way. In other words, he himself exhausted the limits of human precaution. And God, it should be noted, judges that Joseph judges correctly, and that he acts wisely, maintaining his reservations. For this reason, for a fourth time, He informs him, through an angel again, that he must settle in Nazareth, "that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, 'He shall be called a Nazarene'” (Matt. 2:23). Let us learn from this last event that man must also take all safety measures for himself, so that he is not exposed and is not in danger from his own improvidence, and furthermore to leave himself to the protection of God.

May these thoughts help us all acquire, by divine grace, a pure heart, and to be irresponsible and innocent of sins, so that God loves us and protects us as His beloved children.

Source: From the book Εόρτια Μηνύματα – Κηρύγματα επι ταις εορταίς, Archimandrite Nikodemos (Vallindras), Athens 1964. Translation by John Sanidopoulos.

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