Feast of Saint Stephen
The first Christian Martyr
(Celebrated 26 December)

stephen.jpg (199807 bytes)
 The Martyrdom of Saint Stephen - by DADDI, Bernardo - from Santa Croce, Florence

 

Reading  Acts 6, 8-10;7,54-59

Stephen was a man filled with grace and power, who worked great wonders and signs among the people. Certain members of the so-called "Synagogue of Roman Freedmen" (that is, the Jews from Cyrene, Alexandria, Cilicia and Asia) would undertake to engage Stephen in debate, but they proved no match for the wisdom and spirit with which he spoke.

Those who listened to his words were stung to the heart; they ground their teeth in anger at him. Stephen meanwhile, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked to the sky above and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at God's right hand. "Look!" he exclaimed, "I see an opening in the sky, and the Son of Man standing at God's right hand." The onlookers were shouting aloud, holding their hands over their ears as they did so. Then they rushed at him as one man, dragged him out of the city, and began to stone him. The witnesses meanwhile were piling their cloaks at the feet of a young man named Saul. As Stephen was being stoned he could be heard praying, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit."

 

The Feast of Saint Stephen

stephen2.jpg (55991 bytes)The first deacon of the Church, Saint Stephen was hand-picked by the Apostles to help the original twelve to minister to the poor. He was of Jewish descent who spoke Greek fluently from his education in Alexandria. Returning to Jerusalem he was converted to Christianity, many feel by Jesus Christ Himself during Our Lord's public ministry.

After the descent of the Holy Spirit the Apostles ordained the seven deacons by laying their hands upon them while they prayed with Stephen being the first ordained. The deacons main ministry was to the Hellenic Jewish Christians in Jerusalem and Stephen, with his expertise in Greek and oratory, led the deacons in converting numerous Jews which caused great consternation among the Sanhedrin who accused Stephen of blasphemy because their best could not debate the brilliant Stephen who was inspired by the Holy Spirit.

Chapter 6 and 7 of the Acts of the Apostle relate the events that took place leading up to Stephen's martyrdom. When brought before the Sanhedrin as a prisoner, the assembled body thought that if they threatened punishment, he would recant and cease his activities. Were they in for a surprise when Stephen defended Christ and His teachings.

When the Sanhedrin denounced the Holy Spirit as a lot of hogwash and ordered him to stop preaching, Stephen smiled and described the instantaneous beautiful vision he had of Jesus standing at the right hand of God the Father, continuing about Jesus that He did not die but rose from the dead and ascended bodily into Heaven.

In short, he not only refused to abandon his Savior, but also pinged the consciences of thestephen.jpg (41149 bytes) Sanhedrin by reminding them of what God had intended with His chosen race of Israel, but which they had abandoned. This infuriated the pompous rulers; so much so that they seized him in a fit of anger and dragged him outside the city where they stoned him to death, as Stephen prayed, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit...Lord, do not lay this sin against them" (Acts 7:59-60).

As Scripture accounts, there was a young soldier standing by who approved of the zealots violence. His name was Saul who would go on to become the great Paul, but for now he was still mired in the darkness as the lifeless Stephen laid in his own spilled blood, crushed to death.

It was the first martyrdom of the Church after Christ's death on the Cross and it set a precedent and pattern that would be the seeds of Christianity for all time. His relics were discovered near the north gate of Jerusalem and the bishop of Jerusalem transferred them to Saint Sion.

In 439 a new basilica was built in his honor, but was destroyed in 614 by the Persians. However the relics were preserved and the ruins became an oratory only to be destroyed again in 1187. His relics were preserved and separated, some going to northern Africa, others to Prague, some to Constantinople and the rest to Rome where they were preserved in the church of Saint Stephen in Rome. It wasn't until 1882 that the original church in Jerusalem was rebuilt near the Dominican Biblical School, where it was consecrated at the turn of the century. His feast has been celebrated in the universal Church since the 5th Century.