Grant us, O Lord, to learn to love our enemies, by the example of thy martyr Stephen, who prayed to thee for his persecutors; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, now and ever. Amen.
This prayer is one of the shortest collects in the 1549 BCP, with only 38 words. The brevity enables us to focus on the pithiest of Christian petitions: that God grant us “to learn to love our enemies.” Later versions expand the collect, and in so doing dilute the profundity of the entreaty. In the 1666 and 1928 Books, the prayer of 90 words introduces looking up to heaven to behold “the glory that shall be revealed” as we endure suffering for “thy truth.” The 1979 American book shortens the prayer to 54 words and shifts Cranmer’s emphasis from learning to love our enemies to giving thanks for the example of Saint Stephen “who looked up to heaven and prayed for his persecutors.”
This Collect and the witness of St. Stephen offer much to edify us. In the Orthodox Church, St. Stephen is referred to as “Protomartyr” and “Archdeacon.” According to tradition, he was the oldest of the seven appointed by the Apostles to serve as deacons in the Church. As a leader among those who were visibly doing good works, Stephen became a target for the Sanhedrin. In Scripture we read how he stood before the religious leaders and boldly declared that they were stiff-necked like their forefathers and murderers of the “Just One” to whom all of their history and prophets pointed. Were this not enough to rouse their fury, Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, told them that he beheld the Son of Man standing in glory at the Father’s right hand (Acts 7:55).
We find here an instance of the Trinity. This alone deserves contemplation. Holy Stephen was about to be baptized by blood and at his baptism into the Blessed Trinity he became another son of God, walking the painful path trod by his Lord Jesus. Millions of martyrs follow him!
As Asterias noted, holy Stephen was “the starting point of the martyrs, the instructor of suffering for Christ, the foundation of righteous confession, since Stephen was the first to shed his blood for the Gospel.” (In the Orthodox calendar, the very next day, December 28, commemorates the 20,000 martyrs who were burned in Nicomedia at the beginning of the fourth century by order of Emperor Maximian).
There is also the matter of the parallels between Stephen’s comportment at his stoning and Jesus’ on the cross: both committing their spirits to God and praying God’s mercy upon their persecutors. This also deserves contemplation.
Thomas Cranmer could have enlarged his collect, as did later generations to encompass these elements, but he did well to emphasize one thing: learning to love our enemies. Not all who follow Jesus as Lord are required to shed their blood. Not all glimpse the Son in glory, but all are commanded to love their enemies. Loving our enemies is possible only by God’s abundant grace. It is a sign that we are God’s children. No wonder Cranmer chose to place the emphasis here!
St. Stephen is commemorated very soon after the Feast of the Nativity. We do well to meditate on this collect as an antidote to the widespread sentimentalism of Christmas. The precious Babe who was born in a manger came not to bring peace on the world’s terms, but on his own terms.