We might be tempted to laugh at the naive optimism of Don Quixote, who, though considered ridiculous, saw himself as a champion of the vulnerable. But is he really so far removed from us? As children, we may have envisioned ourselves as an astronaut hero, Miss America or the batter who wins the World Series in the bottom of the ninth. As we entered adulthood, we might have settled for the distinction of being the Betty Crocker recipe-winner or father of the year. Are such dreams really implausible? Someone will eventually win these honors. Why should we feel that we must always settle for less?
Our religious tradition invites us to cling to convictions that might appear even more implausible. During this Easter season, we stand in awe of the mystery of the Resurrection. Jesus, put to death as a common criminal, is raised to life and remains among us to this day. On the feast of the Ascension, we considered one aspect of this mystery, namely, his exaltation with God and our share in his glory. The splendor of this feast overflows into today’s readings. Here we behold again the crucified Lord raised to glory. The image is indeed extraordinary.
Whatever Stephen saw in his vision strengthened both his faith in the crucified, now risen Jesus, as well as his resolve to cling to that faith even in the face of death. What Stephen offers us as merely a glimpse is more fully described in the vision reported in Revelation. This crucified and now glorious Jesus is the beginning and end of all things. Because he has conquered death, he can unreservedly promise us life. “The one who wants it [will] receive the gift of life-giving waters.” Those joined to him will be energized by the very power that flows from him. Is this an impossible dream?
According to John, the night before he died, Jesus prayed that all of us might share in his future glory. It is precisely through our union with Jesus that this will happen. But this is a matter of faith. We are called to believe that Jesus was not merely put to death, but that his death and resurrection overcame the stranglehold that death can have over us, and to believe that we can share in his glory. This calls for faith, because it may not appear that his death and resurrection have changed anything in the world. The world still harbors selfishness and arrogance, deceit and abuse, hatred and revenge. Is this vision of triumph and glory implausible?
Our faith tells us that this vision describes what really took place. Can we discover any concrete evidence that confirms its trustworthiness? Yes, we can! But the evidence is not in some vision of heaven. It can be found in the very struggles of human life. Even religious skeptics are often amazed by the faith that believers demonstrate. This faith has fortified public martyrs and unsung women and men down through the ages. It has been the support of missionaries in far-flung countries, of public protesters who insist that evil can be overturned by the efforts of people of integrity, of grieving parents who continue to believe even as they bury their children.
We often see such faith in the dignity and unselfishness of people who are forced to endure degradation or poverty; we see it in the generosity of those who work in shelters and soup kitchens; we see it in the commitment of those who teach and proclaim truth, even when it is not popular. The glory of Jesus shines through the marks of his ignominy. Our share in his glory shines through our commitment to others in situations of comparable ignominy.
Stephen’s faith in the glorious Jesus and in his own future share in that glory was witnessed by Saul, who at this time clearly supported the persecution of Christians. But who knows what seeds of faith were being planted in Saul’s mind and heart? When Jesus prayed for those who would believe on the word of others, he was praying for us. Our faith came to us and has been strengthened through the words and example of others—our families and teachers, our friends and acquaintances, even people we do not know but who have somehow inspired us. We may not always reflect on this, but this is the way God seems to act.
Another aspect of the mystery of the Resurrection must not be ignored. It is the fact that through us the glory of the risen Jesus is revealed to others. This is not naive, quixotic optimism; it is not an impossible dream. It is an aspect of our faith that is both reassuring and challenging, an aspect that is much more significant than any childhood dream or purely human ambition. The character of our lives gives testimony to the glory of Jesus.