St. Stephen, the First Martyr

The Martyrdom of St. Stephen

The Martyrdom of St. Stephen

By Fr. Francis Xavier Weninger

St. Stephen, whom Holy Scripture calls a man full of faith and of the Holy Ghost, full of grace and strength, was the first who had the happiness to give his blood and life for the Gospel of Christ; hence he is called “Proto-martyr.” He is also called Archdeacon, because he was the first of those seven men, who were chosen by the Christian community and ordained deacons by the Apostles.

All present at his martyrdom looked fixedly into the face of the accused to notice any change which fear or apprehension might work in it; but, contrary to their expectation, the countenance of the holy Archdeacon was so illuminated by God, as a sign of his innocence, that they deemed it the face of an Angel. And in truth, he might have been called an Angel, not only on account of his angelic purity, but also on account of his fearless zeal in defending the honour of God. Is it therefore, to be wondered at, that an angelic brightness shone in his countenance?” Because he was pure and chaste,” writes St. Augustine, “therefore was his face that of an Angel.”

St. Stephen, during his martyrdom, fixes his eyes on the heavens, and sees them open, and Christ standing at the right hand of His heavenly Father; soon after, he kneels down, in the midst of the hail of stones thrown at him, and prays for his executioners: “Lord, lay not this to their charge.”

First, learn from this, where you should turn your eyes in suffering, that is, upon the Crucifix, towards Heaven which is open to you, if you suffer patiently. Jesus is ready to strengthen you, and to reward you eternally, after you have ended your struggle, in submission to His will. Gazing upward will lighten your burden, however heavy it may be. The contemplation of Christ, always ready to strengthen you, will not permit you to become faint-hearted and despondent.

Secondly, consider St. Stephen’s prayer. St. Maximus writes: “At a moment when another would have forgotten his best friends, the holy Levite thinks of his enemies and persecutors, and prays for them.” He had doubtless heard that Christ Our Lord had prayed for His enemies, saying: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” This beautiful example of His divine Master, St. Stephen, as a faithful disciple, followed. What are you doing if you entertain in your heart malice against any one who has wronged you. Cleanse your heart from it, and pray yet today for all those who have ever offended you. The example of Jesus Christ, your Saviour, demands it of you, who have not suffered as much as He.

“If you say to me,” writes St. Augustine, “Christ could do it, because He was God and Man; I cannot, because I am only human; look at St. Stephen, your fellow servant. Was he a man, or was he God? Surely he was only human. He was what you are. Well then, if you cannot follow the Lord, follow your fellow-servant; follow St. Stephen; follow all the holy Martyrs.”

St. Stephen beholds the heavens open, and enters into it by his heroic martyrdom. Heaven is also open to you; it is open to all men. You, as well as all men, may be saved. There is none who can truthfully say that he cannot gain salvation. Oh, how great a consolation, especially for those who are oppressed here on Earth, and have many trials! How great a consolation for sinners! To all men Heaven is open; all may enter it; all may gain salvation; because all, with the grace of God, can do what God required of them.

But do not forget, that Heaven is open to you only whilst you live; that is, as long as you are in this life, you can do all that is necessary to gain salvation; but after your death, this will no longer be possible. Hence, if you have neglected to work out your salvation, death closes for you the gates of Heaven for all eternity. As you do not know how long you will live, or when your last hour will come, you do not know how long, how many weeks, years, months, or days, Heaven will remain open to you. There is no day, no hour, in which it may not be for evermore closed.

If then it is your earnest desire to gain Heaven, postpone not for a day that upon which you know your salvation depends.

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12 Responses to St. Stephen, the First Martyr

  1. GC says:

    kathleen, it’s a pleasure to read what our Orthodox brothers have to say about our common feasts, such as in their prayers for the day, which are nearly always theologically instructive, not just prayers.. (Their St Stephen’s Day is actually 27 December. On 26 December they commemorate the Blessed Virgin.)

    Troparion of St. Stephen.

    Thou art crowned with a royal diadem for contests endured in Christ’s name. O First and holy Martyr; thou didst put to shame thy persecutors and see thy Saviour at the right hand of the Father. Ever pray to Him for our souls.

    Kontakion of St. Stephen.

    Yesterday the Master came to us in the flesh, today His servant departs in the flesh; yesterday the King was born in the flesh; today His servant is stoned to death for His sake. Hence the divine and first Martyr Stephen is made perfect.

    From http://www.antiochian.org/node/27270

    Also here, from Orthodoxwiki: http://orthodoxwiki.org/Apostle_Stephen_the_Protomartyr

    The Catholic Encyclopaedia entry on St Stephen is quite impressive also. It notes:

    Little did all the people present, casting stones upon him, realize that the blood they shed was the first seed of a harvest that was to cover the world.

    Well worth reading the Encyclopaedia’s entry.

  2. cc70458 says:

    Reblogged this on The Catholic Husband and commented:
    On the feast of St. Stephen (On of my favorites) The First Deacon and Martyr of the Church, a short review of history and faith is always a good thing. I think Fr. Francis hit the nail so squarely on the head it went right on through the board. I hope this sings to your soul too 🙂

    – Colin

  3. Stephen’s life and martyrdom are a good reminder to us to move the stones from our hearts. (not a bad resolution to make for the new year or anytime!)

  4. johnhenrycn says:

    Cannot a persuavive case be made that St John Baptist was the first martyr? After all, he was a Christian who as killed for preaching the Word.

  5. GC says:

    JH, I would have thought that prophethood had some clear occupational hazards, like “copping it”, for instance. Didn’t many prophets meet with sticky ends?

    Who was it wrote this? :

    Habakkuk (was) of the tribe of Simeon, and from the land of Sûâr (Zoar). This (prophet) prophesied concerning the Messiah, that He should come, and abrogate the laws of the Jews. He brought food to Daniel at Babylon by the divine (or, angelic) agency. The Jews stoned him in Jerusalem. (serious question!)

  6. johnhenrycn says:

    Now, of course, I might meet with success by doing a Google search, but that would be slightly dishonest. No, I do not know the author of that quotation. A wild guess: St Augustine?

  7. GC says:

    Nope, Mâr Solomon, Metropolitan of Perath-Maishân (Basra, Iraq) c.1222, The Book of the Bee, CHAPTER XXXII, OF THE DEATH OF THE PROPHETS; HOW THEY DlED, AND (WHERE) EACH ONE OF THEM WAS BURIED.

  8. Brother Burrito says:

    St John the Baptist could not witness to the Risen Christ, I suppose.

  9. kathleen says:

    That’s right Burrito. That is why he is considered a prophet and not a Christian martyr.

    Thank you for those fascinating links GC. I wonder what sources the Orthodox Church has for that added information about St. Stephen. I had never realised before that he was a “kinsman” of Saul (later St. Paul).

  10. Nazar says:

    As Stephen concluded his defense, he looked up and saw a vision of Jesus standing at the right hand of GOD. He said, “Look, I can see heaven thrown open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of GOD.

  11. Pingback: Stephen, why be a martyr? – Jayse Pruitt

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