Some books are famous for their first lines. George Eliot’s Middlemarch is famous for its last. She is talking about her heroine, Dorothea, who possessed such idealistic high hopes and aspirations to be of benefit to mankind; and in the end lived a modest, though not unfruitful, life. George Eliot gives her this immortal testimony:
But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.
Today is St Stephen’s Day, though for most of us it goes unnoticed, being cast firmly into the background by Christmas. It is even known by another name, Boxing Day.
Stephen is regarded as the first Christian martyr, and we read his story in Acts. In his life and in his death, he served those other than himself. He was chosen to be an administrator so that the apostles could get on with the spiritual work. But in the power of the Spirit he preached and performed miracles so powerfully that the nearby synagogue set out to stop him. They hired witnesses to lie about him before the Sanhedrin. At the end of a very pointed sermon, Stephen claimed to see heaven open and the Son of Man standing by the throne of God. His words were met with outrage, and he was dragged away and stoned to death.
Somewhere in that mix was a young man called Saul (later known by his Greek name, Paul). Perhaps he attended the synagogue, or was part of the plot, or he was one of the Sanhedrin. We are given one hint he was implicated in the death of Stephen: when Stephen was stoned, Luke tells us the false witnesses placed their cloaks at his feet. If that makes us uncomfortable, here is Paul’s own confession:
On the authority of the chief priests I put many of the saints in prison, and when they were put to death, I cast my vote against them. Many a time I went from one synagogue to another to have them punished, and I tried to force them to blaspheme. Acts 26.10,11
Certainly, if he wasn’t involved in the death of Stephen, he made up for it with the persecution that followed. Paul was a key player in the terror squad.
Stephen’s death is usually mentioned by way of an introduction to the life of Paul. It is Paul we focus on, standing there giving approval to Stephen’s death. It’s common enough that we are drawn to focus on the significant people and overlook the hidden ones. But Jesus gave Stephen and all the unnamed martyrs of that persecution the highest significance possible. On the road to Damascus, he says to Paul, ‘Why do you persecute me?’ Jesus identifies with the hidden people.
Stephen’s last sermon, his vision and his death must have had a lifelong impact on Paul. And so did his last prayer, asking God’s forgiveness on his murderers. It is often the hidden lives that inspire great ones. And hidden acts of kindness, mercy and forgiveness bear precious fruit in God’s kingdom.
So, St Stephen’s Day reminds us of the hidden saints, the hidden martyrs, the hidden people whose lives bring us all blessing and grace. St Stephen’s Day itself is hidden, and yet because of it we see heaven open, filled with the glory of God.
I wonder if you can think of any hidden saints who have enriched your life. I’d like to name the writer Elizabeth Goudge, fading from memory but, despite hardship and struggles with depression, always herself and always full of faith.