Professing the Christian Faith Demands the Heroism of the Martyrs
The Church was still in her infancy when Stephen, renowned for his virtues, received from the Apostles the mission to organise the meals where the poor were fed in common. He worked such “great wonders and signs among the people ” (Epistle) that the Jews from five different synagogues became alarmed and summoned him before the Sanhedrin (Introit).
Jesus had upbraided the Jews “for having killed and stoned the Prophets” (Gospel); Stephen in his turn, addressing his judges declared that in crucifying Christ they had shown themselves worthy of their fathers who put to death the messengers of God. The holy deacon then lifting his eyes to heaven said that he saw the Son of Man standing on the right hand of God” (Gospel). What a splendid testimony to the Divinity of this Child whom we venerate in the crib.
On hearing these words, the Jews fulfilling once more the words of the Master (Gospel), “with one accord ran violently upon Stephen and stoned him,” who, falling on his knees, commended his soul to Jesus (Epistle) and asked pardon for his executioners (Collect).
Stephen is the first of the witnesses of Christ, it is therefore only right that he should appear first in the glorious procession of saints who surround the cradle of the Saviour. It is a tendency noticeable in a Greek martyrology of the fourth century to connect the greatest of the New Testament saints with the feast of the Nativity. His name is inscribed in the Canon of the Mass (second list).
Following after the example of Stephen, may we “love by charity even those who wrong us” (Collect), and be ever ready to surrender our life for Christ.
Sederunt principes, et adversum me loquebantur: et iniqui persecuti sunt me: adjuva me, Domine Deus meus, quia servus tuus exercebatur in tuis justificationibus. * Beati immaculati in via, qui ambulant in lege Domini.
Princes sat, and spoke against me: and the wicked persecuted me: help me, O Lord my God, for Thy servant was employed in Thy justifications.* Blessed are the undefiled in the way, who walk in the law of the Lord. (Psalm 118:23,86, 23, 1 from the Introit of Mass)
Da nobis, quaesumus, Domine, imitari quod colimus: ut discamus et inimicos diligere; quia ejus natalitia celebramus, qui novit etiam pro persecutoribus exorare Dominum nostrum Jesum Christum Filium tuum.
Grant us, we beseech Thee, O Lord, to imitate what we revere, that we may learn to love even our enemies : for we celebrate the day of his birth to immortality, who could even plead on behalf of his persecutors with Thy Son our Lord Jesus Christ.
Concede, quaesumus, omnipotens Deus: ut nos Unigeniti tui nova per carnem nativitas liberet, quos sub peccati jugo vetusta servitus tenet.
Grant, we beseech thee, O Almighty God, that we who groan under the old captivity of sin, may be freed therefrom by the new Birth of thine Only Begotten Son.
(Commemoration of Christmas Day)
Lesson from the Acts of the Apostles.
In those days, Stephen, full of grace and fortitude, did great wonders and signs among the people. Now there arose some of that which is called the Synagogue of the Libertines, and of the Cyrenians, and of the Alexandrians, and of them that were of Cilicia and Asia, disputing with Stephen; and they were not able to resist the wisdom and the spirit that spoke. Now hearing these things, they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed with their teeth at him. But Stephen being full of the Holy Ghost, looking up steadfastly to heaven, saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God. And he said: Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God. And they crying out with a loud voice, stopped their ears, and with one accord ran violently upon him. And casting him forth without the city, they stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man, whose name was Saul. And they stoned Stephen, invoking and saying: Lord Jesus! receive my spirit. And falling on his knees, he cried with a loud voice, saying: Lord! lay not this sin to their charge. And when he had said this, he fell asleep in the Lord.
(Acts vi. 8-10, vii. 54-59; Epistle)
(From The Saint Andrew Daily Missal)
Saint Stephen was one of the first ordained deacons of the Church. He was also the first Christian martyr. The Greek word from which we derive the English word martyr literally means witness. In that sense, every Christian is called to bear witness to Jesus Christ, in both their words and their actions. Not all are asked to shed their blood.
Those who do shed their blood for the faith are the greatest of witnesses. They have been especially honoured since the very beginning of Christianity. Stephen was so conformed to Jesus in his holy life that his martyrdom was both a natural and supernatural sign of his love for the Lord. It also inspired the early believers as they faced the first round of brutal persecution.
His behaviour, even forgiving those who were taking his life while he was being stoned to death, was a beautiful reflection of how conformed he truly was to the Lord Jesus Christ. It is recorded in Chapter 7 of the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 7:54-60).
The 6th chapter of the Acts of the Apostles contains an account of the choice of the first seven deacons of the Church. As the Apostles worked to continue the ministry of Jesus Christ as his elders, some of the Greek-speaking widows were being neglected in their practical needs. The Twelve decided to ordain seven deacons to oversee their care. In doing so, the deacons extended the pastoral care of the Apostles, the first Bishops of the early Church, enabling them to attend more to teaching.
Of the seven ordained, Stephen was the oldest and given the title of “archdeacon,” the chief among them. Little is known about him before this account. Like most of the early Christian leaders, he was Jewish, but may have come came from among the Greek speaking or Hellenistic believers, the ones feeling slighted in the distribution of alms.
Great preaching and miracles were attributed to Stephen. The Bible records that Stephen “full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people.” Stephen s popularity created enemies among some Jews, members of the Synagogue of Roman Freedmen. They debated with him, to generate evidence against him in furtherance of their persecution of the early Church.
They accused him of blasphemy, of speaking against God and Moses. The charges inflamed the local populace which demanded he be tried and punished. When Stephen was put on trial, several false witnesses were brought forward by the Sanhedrin to testify that he was guilty of blasphemy. He was charged with predicting that Jesus would destroy the Temple and for preaching against Mosaic law.
Stephen was filled with wisdom from heaven. He responded by detailing the history of Israel and outlining the blessings God had bestowed upon his chosen people. He also explained how disobedient Israel had become, despite the goodness and mercy of the Lord. Stephen explained that Jesus had come to fulfil the law of Moses, not destroy it. He quoted extensively from the Hebrew scriptures to prove his case.
Finally, he admonished the Sanhedrin, saying, “You stubborn people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears. You are always resisting the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. Can you name a single prophet your ancestors never persecuted? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Upright One, and now you have become his betrayers, his murderers. In spite of being given the Law through angels, you have not kept it.” (Acts 7:51-53)
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.” That vision was taken as the final proof of blasphemy to the Jews who did not believe Jesus was the Messiah or Son of God. For them, Jesus could not possibly be beside the Father in Heaven. The crowd rushed upon Stephen and carried him outside of the city to stone him to death.
As Stephen was being brutally stoned, he spoke his last words, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” Words which echoed the very words of Jesus on the Cross. Following those words, Stephen died, in the Lord.
Watching the trial and execution was a Rabbi named Saul of Tarsus, a virulent persecutor of the early Church. Shortly thereafter, that Rabbi would himself encounter the Lord Jesus on the road to Damascus and be dramatically converted. His encounter is recorded in the 9th chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. He took the name Paul as a sign of his new life in Jesus Christ and went on to become the great apostle to the Gentiles.
Stephen was buried by Christians, but the location of his tomb is not specified in the New Testament and may have been forgotten for a time. In 415 a Christian priest claimed he had a vision of the tomb and located Stephen’s remains. A name inside the tomb confirmed the find.
St. Stephen is often depicted with stones, a Gospel Book, a miniature church and a martyr’s palm frond. He is the patron saint of Altar Servers, bricklayers, casket makers and deacons and his feast day is celebrated on December 26.