Because the gospels offer a contemporary portrayal of Christ’s life, they make a necessary but surprising omission: accounts of prayer to Jesus.
That wouldn’t make sense, of course, while He was still on earth. So we are left with the rest of the New Testament to fill in the gap for us. Except that most of the other books are not historical accounts but letters from St. Paul, among others. There’s also the Book of Revelation, but that is in a category all by itself.
That leaves the Book of Acts as the only biblical history of the early Church. And it is there we find the first official story of a prayer to Christ. (See this source for more information on that.) The episode occurs at the end of Acts 7:
When they heard this, they were infuriated, and they ground their teeth at him. But he [St. 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 he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” But they cried out in a loud voice, covered their ears, and rushed upon him together. They threw him out of the city, and began to stone him. The witnesses laid down their cloaks at the feet of a young man named Saul. As they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he fell to his knees and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them”; and when he said this, he fell asleep (vv. 54-60).
The circumstances of this prayer are certainly extraordinary — St. Stephen is martyred, and his killing is, moreover, overseen by a future saint and author of most of the New Testament, St. Paul! Nonetheless this account contains lessons that are applicable to our own present-day circumstances. If we are to take St. Stephen’s prayer as model for our own, here are elements we should seek in our own devotional lives.
Be filled with the Holy Spirit
Notice how the Holy Spirit is at the beginning of St. Stephen’s exchange with Christ. In the Bible, the Holy Spirit is always the one who makes the Word of God known to us. The Church teaches that it was He who spoke through all the prophets and writers of Scripture. And, in the New Testament, Christ was conceived in Mary through the Spirit. Today, it is the Spirit who makes Christ present in the Eucharist. So it is fitting that it is through the Spirit that our words—our prayer—is brought to God. Just as He brings God to us, so also the Spirit carries us to God.
Direct your gaze to heaven
The above story contains a simple yet profound detail: before Stephen saw Christ enthroned in heaven he was looking for Him. As the author of Acts puts it, he ‘looked up intently to heaven.’ A more literal translation would be that he was looking into heaven. Seek and you will find, Christ said. But you can’t find what you aren’t seeking. Stephen knew where to look, so to speak: he was properly disposed for the vision that he received.
We can read this allegorically in two ways. First, when we pray, we should recognize the primacy of the eternal and heavenly over the temporal and earthly. Our Father, who art in heaven. Second, we should also make our prayer an act of looking for Christ.
We can also infer two practical lessons from this. First, it is good to visualize Christ when praying. Icons are a helpful aid for this. Second, even if we are bowed downwards in prayer, it might help to mentally visualize ourselves—our minds, hearts, and whole being—as stretching upwards towards Christ in heaven (although heaven is not physically above us, it is helpful to think of it in this way). In fact, the literal meaning of the root word for the verb translated as looked up intently means to stretch. (In the verse, the verb is atenizō and its root word is teino.)
Delight in your vision of Christ
As soon as St. Stephen sees Christ enthroned, he joyfully proclaims it, sharing it with those around him. Prayer draws us up to God but it also should push us outward to our fellow man. Prayer stretches us and expands the circle of our love beyond the self to others around us. Love of neighbor and love of God come hand in hand.
Prayer is Trinitarian
Notice how the vision makes this a Trinitarian event. Stephen is filled with the Holy Spirit and then sees Christ at the right hand of God the Father. Prayer is a form of participation in the Trinity’s own internal dialogue. The Word Incarnate has given us the words that form the template for all prayer—the Our Father—to which we address to God the Father, directing our words and hearts to Him through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Stephen is facing physical harm and death, but his attention is all directed towards heaven. He is living out the gospel story of Peter walking on the storm-tossed seas. Unlike Peter, he does not look down, but keeps his gaze fixed on Christ. Prayer should always be an act of trust: even if we don’t live up to the high standard Stephen sets for us, we should at least aim for it.
An act of martyrdom
Stephen’s prayer coincides with his martyrdom. How can we make our own prayers self-sacrifices to God? At a minimum, we should be making small sacrifices with our time to pray to God. Beyond that, we should be sacrificing our own self-interest and our own plans for our lives and subordinating them to God’s plan for us. Thy will be done. One way to make prayer time more sacrificial is to make a point of ‘offering up’ whatever suffering we are experiencing. Or we could even offer up our work. One prayer that can show us how to do this is the Morning Offering to the Sacred Heart.
A prayer for mercy
Just like Jesus, Stephen prays for God to have mercy on those taking his life (as this scholar points out). His profound encounter with God has led Him to an incredible act of mercy: praying that those committing murder—against his person—be forgiven. At no point during his prayer is Stephen concerned with the one person most people in his situation would be: himself. Instead, he is focused on God and his neighbors—who in that moment are also his murderers. Forgive us our trespasses.