‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’
So says Stephen, as he is being stoned to death outside the city. He follows it up with a second prayer, his final words being, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ Stephen doesn’t interact with his accusers and executioners any longer, but with the Lord. To the extent that he relates to the people stoning him, he does so through Jesus. His attention is riveted on the scene opening up before him, as he gazes into heaven and sees the Lord.
There is something in that–Stephen no longer responds to those who are attacking him. Instead, he casts himself onto the Lord. Perhaps in so doing, he finds the freedom to pray for his attackers. Perhaps. But I think there is something more here, or, rather, that this passage points to a feature of Christian life more generally. That is, as we cast ourselves onto the Lord, we are in him, and relate to those around us through him. Indeed, we relate to the whole human race and to God the Father through Jesus.
This is a no-brainer, right? It’s a basic Christian truth, the idea of being in Christ, and it’s not my idea but St Paul’s. Of course. Yet I think the implications of this are bigger than I had imagined. Last week someone (in one of those coffee-time-at-a-conference conversations) suggested to me that people with severe cognitive impairments cannot be self-giving agents. By this, he meant that the Christian way of life, of a life given entirely to others, is not in fact open to people whose sense of ‘self’ is limited or non-existent. But this misses the point of self-giving, I think (if I may be so bold as to say so). If we take Stephen as our model, what we find is that our given-ness is first to Christ. Our primary self-giving is a being given to Christ; it is then the Lord who gives us to those who need us. We are like the Eucharist, offered up to God and then (having been blessed and transformed) given into the world as Christ’s body.
Whether or not someone who lacks a real sense of ‘self’ can be ‘given’ to Christ in the same way is not open to view. But there is in people whose needs are so very great a fine example of given-ness. We tend to think of self-giving as something we do for others. We don’t see how being given, being broken, is itself a gift. Jean Vanier understands this, and this realization has borne fruit in his amazing life. He writes: