There’s a curious detail about Stephen’s vision of Heaven in our first reading today:
“Stephen, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked up intently to heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and Stephen said, ‘Behold, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.’”
Stephen looks up to Heaven and sees Jesus standing at the Father’s right hand, but both the Apostles’ Creed and Nicene Creed (which we say each Sunday) describe Jesus as “seated at the right hand of the Father.” What are we to make of this?
In the ancient world, to be seated at someone’s right hand gave you the place of higher honor. At a meal, this favored seat granted a special closeness to the host. In a kingdom, the one seated at the right hand of the throne would share in the king’s authority and rule. Of course, describing Jesus as “seated at the right hand of the Father” is only an image (God the Father is unlimited, pure spirit and doesn’t have a right hand.) But this phrase from our creeds does describe a reality: that Jesus is now in the intimate presence of God the Father, sharing supremely in His glory and rule. In his vision, Stephen beholds Jesus in the place of honor, at the Father’s “right hand,” but Stephen sees Jesus standing. So why is Jesus standing?
Did you know that whenever the President of the United States enters a room, everybody stands up? It doesn’t matter if it is a room full of Democrats or Republicans, members of the press, or ordinary citizens, everyone stands up for the President. The same goes for a judge in his courtroom: “All rise, the Honorable Judge So-and-so presiding.” And a gentleman knows that he ought to stand up whenever he greets a lady. Why do they stand? Because it is a sign of respect. If you think about it, whenever we’re offering prayers in the Mass, provided we’re not kneeling, we’re standing up to pray. We stand to pray as a sign of respect to God.
Sometimes, people stand as a sign of respect not so much for the individual but for the greatness of the office they possess. Even a U.S. President’s most hostile critics in Congress, politicians opponents who couldn’t say one good thing about him, will stand up when he arrives to give his State of the Union address, out of respect for the office he holds. It wasn’t for this reason that Jesus stood. No one on earth could have demanded Jesus’ respect by holding an office higher than his.
Jesus stood up because he wanted to show Stephen a sign of His respect. Jesus stood up because he was proud of Stephen. I think that we forget that Jesus is a real human being, with human feelings and emotions about the human events he sees. At the same time, He is also God; and therefore, He sees us all.
When you’re alone, and overcome temptation to do what you know is good, Jesus sees you and He’s proud of you. When you give an anonymous contribution or do a secret kindness, Jesus sees it and He’s proud of you. When you are opposed like Stephen, by people who hate you, or that just don’t understand you, when all the while you’re trying act with love, you do not stand alone. Remember that when you do what’s hard for Jesus, He sees it, and He sees you and He’s proud of you for it.