Saint Stephen, Protomartyr

December 26

Today is the feast day of Saint Stephen.  Ora pro nobis.

“And they, crying out with a loud voice, stopped their ears, and with one accord rushed violently upon him. And casting him out of the city, they stoned him and the witness 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 out 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 6:8-10; 7:54-59). (10)

Adapted from The Liturgical Year by Dom Prosper Guéranger OSB.

St. Peter Damian thus begins his Sermon for this Feast:

We are holding in our arms the Son of the Virgin, and are honoring with our caresses this our Infant God. The holy Virgin has led us to the dear Crib. The most beautiful of the Daughters of men has brought us to the most beautiful among the Sons of men (Ps. 44: 3), and the Blessed among women has brought us to Him Who is Blessed above all. She tells us… that now the veils of prophecy are drawn aside, and the counsel of God is accomplished… Is there anything capable of distracting us from this sweet Birth? On what else shall we fix our eyes? …Lo! whilst Jesus is permitting us thus to caress Him; whilst He is overwhelming us with the greatness of these mysteries, and our hearts are riveted in admiration; there comes before us Stephen, full of grace and fortitude, doing great wonders and signs among the people (Acts 6: 8). Is it right that we turn from our King to look on Stephen, His soldier? No; unless the King Himself bid us do so. This our King, Who is the Son of the King, rises… to assist at the glorious combat of His servant… Let us go with Him, and contemplate this standard-bearer of the Martyrs.

The Church gives us, in today’s Office, this opening of a Sermon of St. Fulgentius for the Feast of St. Stephen:

Yesterday we celebrated the temporal Birth of our eternal King: today we celebrate the triumphant passion of His Soldier. Yesterday our King, having put on the garb of our flesh, came from the sanctuary of His Mother’s virginal womb, and mercifully visited the earth: today His Soldier, quitting his earthly tabernacle, entered triumphantly into Heaven. Jesus, whilst still continuing to be the eternal God, assumed to Himself the lowly raiment of flesh, and entered the battlefield of this world: Stephen, laying aside the perishable garment of the body, ascended to the palace of Heaven, there to reign forever. Jesus descended veiled in our flesh: Stephen ascended wreathed with a martyr’s laurels. Stephen ascended to Heaven amidst the shower of stones, because Jesus had descended on earth midst the singing of Angels. Yesterday the holy Angels exultingly sang, Glory be to God in the highest; today they joyously received Stephen into their company… Yesterday Jesus was wrapped, for our sakes, in swaddling-clothes: today Stephen was clothed with the robe of immortal glory. Yesterday a narrow crib contained the Infant Jesus: today the immensity of the heavenly court received the triumphant Stephen.

Thus does the Sacred Liturgy blend the joy of our Lord’s Nativity with the gladness She feels at the triumph of the first of Her Martyrs. Nor will St. Stephen be the only one admitted to share the honors of this glorious Octave. After him we shall have St. John, the Beloved Disciple; the Holy Innocents of Bethlehem; St. Thomas, the Martyr for the Liberties of the Church; and St. Sylvester, the Pontiff of Peace. But the place of honor amidst all who stand around the Crib of the newborn King belongs to St. Stephen, the Protomartyr, who, as the Church sings of him, was “the first to pay back to the Savior the death suffered by the Savior.” It was just that this honor should be shown to Martyrdom; for Martyrdom is the creature’s testimony and return to his Creator for all the favors bestowed on him: it is Man testifying, even by shedding his blood, to the truths which God has revealed to the world.

In order to understand this, let us consider what is the plan of God in the salvation He has given to man. The Son of God is sent to instruct mankind; He sows the seed of His divine word; and His works give testimony to His divinity. But after His sacrifice on the Cross, He again ascends to the right hand of His Father; so that His own testimony of Himself has need of a second testimony, in order to be received by them that have neither seen nor heard Jesus Himself. Now it is the Martyrs who are to provide this second testimony; and this they will do, not only by confessing Jesus with their lips, but by shedding their blood for Him. The Church then is to be founded by the Word and the Blood of Jesus, the Son of God; but She will be upheld, She will continue throughout all ages, She will triumph over all obstacles by the blood of Her Martyrs, the members of Christ: this their blood will mingle with that of their Divine Head, and their sacrifice will be united to His.

The Martyrs shall bear the closest resemblance to their Lord and King. They shall be, as He said, like lambs among wolves (Luke 10: 3). The world shall be strong, and they shall be weak and defenseless: so much the grander will be the victory of the Martyrs, and the greater the glory of God Who gives them strength to conquer. The Apostle tells us that Christ crucified is the power and the wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1: 24); the Martyrs, immolated and yet conquerors of the world, will prove, with a testimony which even the world itself will understand, that the Christ Whom they confessed, and Who gave them constancy and victory, is in very deed the power and the wisdom of God. We repeat then: it is just that the Martyrs should share in all the triumphs of the Man-God, and that the Liturgical Cycle should glorify them as does the Church Herself, who puts their sacred relics in Her altar-stones: for thus the Sacrifice of their glorified Lord and Head is never celebrated without they themselves being offered together with Him in the unity of His Mystical Body.

Now the glorious Martyr-band of Christ is headed by St. Stephen. His name signifies the Crowned; a conqueror such as he could not be better named. He marshals, in the name of Christ, the white-robed army, as the Church calls the Martyrs; for he was the first, even before the Apostles themselves, to receive the summons, and right nobly did he answer it. St. Stephen courageously bore witness, in the presence of the Jewish Synagogue, to the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth; by thus proclaiming the Truth, he offended the ears of the unbelievers; the enemies of God became the enemies of St. Stephen, and rushing upon him, they stoned him to death. Amidst the pelting of the blood-drawing missiles, he, like a true soldier, flinches not, but stands (as St. Gregory of Nyssa so beautifully describes it) as though snowflakes were falling on him, or roses were covering him with the shower of their kisses. Through the cloud of stones he sees the glory of God: Jesus, for Whom he was laying down his life, showed Himself to His Martyr, and the Martyr again rendered testimony to the divinity of the Emmanuel, but with all the energy of a last act of love. Then, to make his sacrifice complete, he imitates his Divine Master, and prays for his executioners: falling on his knees, he begs that this sin be not laid to their charge. Thus, all is consummated: the glorious type of Martyrdom is created and shown to the world, that it may be imitated by every generation to the end of time, until the number of Martyrs of Christ shall be filled up. St. Stephen sleeps in the Lord, and is buried in peace—in pace—until his sacred Tomb is discovered, and his glory is celebrated a second time in the whole Church, by that anticipated resurrection of the miraculous Finding of his Relics (Feast—August 3; c.f. Issue No. 169).

St. Stephen, then, deserves to stand near the Crib of his King as leader of those brave champions, the Martyrs, who died for the divinity of that Babe Whom we adore. Let us join the Church in praying to our Saint, that he help us to come to our Sovereign Lord, now lying on his humble throne in Bethlehem. Let us ask him to initiate us into the mystery of that divine Infancy, which we are all bound to know and imitate. It was from the simplicity he had learned from that Mystery that he heeded not the number of the enemies he had to fight against, nor trembled at their angry passion, nor winced under their blows, nor hid from them the truth of their crimes, nor forgot to pardon them and pray for them. What a faithful imitator of the Babe of Bethlehem! Our Jesus does not send His Angels to chastise those unhappy Bethlehemites who refused a shelter to the Virgin-Mother, who in a few hours was to give birth to Him, the Son of David. He stays not the fury of Herod, who plots His death; but meekly flees into Egypt, like some helpless bondsman, escaping the threats of a tyrant lord. But it is under such seeming weakness as this that He will show His Divinity to men, and He the Infant-God will prove Himself the Strong God. Herod will pass away; so will his tyranny; Jesus will live, greater in His Crib, where He makes a king tremble, than is this prince-tributary of Rome under his borrowed majesty; nay, even than Caesar Augustus himself, whose worldwide empire has no other destiny than this—to serve as handmaid to the Church, which is to be founded by this Babe, Whose Name stands humbly written in the official registry of Bethlehem.

Holy Martyr Stephen, help us by thy prayers to enter into the spirit of the Mystery of the Word made Flesh, now that we are celebrating the Birth of our Savior. Thou art the faithful guardsman of His Crib: who could better lead us to the Divine Babe that lies there? Thou didst bear testimony to His Divinity and Humanity; thou didst preach this Man-God before the blaspheming Synagogue. In vain did they stop their ears; they could not stifle thy voice, which charged them with deicide, in that they had put to death Him who is at once the Son of Mary and the Son of God. Show this Redeemer to us also—not, indeed, standing in glory at the right hand of His Father, but the sweet and humble Babe, as He now manifests Himself to the world into which He has just been born, wrapped in swaddling clothes, and laid in a manger. We too wish to bear witness to Him, and to tell how His Birth is one of love and mercy; we wish to show by our lives that He has been born in our hearts. Obtain for us that devotedness to the Divine Infant which gave thee such courage on the day of trial: we shall have such devotedness if, like thee, we are simple-hearted and fearless in our love of Jesus; for love is stronger that death. May we never forget that every Christian ought to be ready for martyrdom simply because he is a Christian. May the life of Christ, which has again begun within us, so grow by our fidelity and our conduct, that we may come, as the Apostle expresses it, to the fullness of Christ (Eph. 4: 13).

We must not end this second day of the Christmas Octave without visiting the Stable of Bethlehem, and adoring the Divine Son of Mary. Two days have scarce elapsed since His Blessed Mother placed Him in his humble crib; but these two days are of more value for the salvation of the world than the four thousand years which preceded the Birth of this Babe. The work of our Redemption has made a great step; the cries and tears of the New-Born Child have begun the atonement of our sins. On this Feast of the First Martyr, let us consider how the cheeks of the Infant Jesus are moistened with tears, and how these tears are the first expression of His sufferings. “Jesus weeps,” says St. Bernard, “but not like other children… They weep from passion; He from compassion. They weep because they are galled by the yoke that sits heavy on all the children of Adam; Jesus weeps because He sees the sins of the children of Adam” (Third Sermon for the Nativity). Oh, how dear to us ought to be these tears of a God Who has made Himself our Brother! Had we not sinned, God would not have wept. Ought not we also to weep over sin, which thus saddens, by the sufferings it causes to our sweet Infant Jesus, the heavenly joy of His Birth among us?

Mary also sees these tears, and Her maternal Heart is pained. She feels that Her Child is to be the Man of Sorrows; and, before many days are over, the same awful truth will be told Her in prophecy. With the consolation She offers to Her Babe let us unite ours, by giving Him our love. It is the one thing He seeks by all the humiliations He has taken upon Himself. It is to gain our love that He has come down from Heaven, and been born among us in the midst of the Mysteries we are now celebrating. Let us love Him, therefore, with all our love, and ask Our Lady to present Him our humble offering. The Psalmist has said: The Lord is great, and exceedingly to be praised (Ps. 47: 2); let us add, with St. Bernard: The Lord is little, and exceedingly to be loved. (1)

by Father Francis Xavier Weninger, 1876

St. Stephen, whom Holy Writ 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. Where he was born and who his parents were, is not known; but it is certain that he came from Judea, and had been a disciple of the celebrated Gamaliel, and that, soon after the descent of the Holy Ghost, he had become famous for his zeal in professing the faith, and for his eminent piety; and that he had always enjoyed, among the Jews, the reputation of great wisdom in the divine laws, as well as of an irreproachable character. After having been ordained deacon, he had not only to distribute the alms among the poor, but also to aid the Apostles in their sacred functions, both of which he did most perfectly. There were no longer complaints about the distribution of alms, as it was done with love and faithfulness. He preached with the Apostles the gospel of Christ fearlessly, all through Jerusalem, and was greatly aided by the Almighty, who bestowed upon him the power of working many and great miracles, as is testified in Holy Writ in these words: “Stephen, full of grace and fortitude, did great wonders and signs among the people.”

The Jews knew that Stephen was exceedingly well-informed in the laws of Moses; but as he preached, with great freedom, the Gospel of Christ, they ventured to dispute with him, to convict him of error by their subtle questions and assertions. At that period, there existed Various schools at Jerusalem, in which the Jews were instructed in the laws. Several disciples from each of these schools came to dispute with him; but, notwithstanding their cunning and malice, they were unable to contend with the wisdom with which he spoke. Seeing that he daily converted many to Christ, they became more and more embittered against him, and endeavored to do away with him. They suborned some wicked men to disseminate among the people that Stephen had blasphemed against Moses and God, and that they themselves had heard it. This stirred up not only the people, but also the Elders and Scribes. Full of rage, they laid hands on him and brought him to the Council, which had assembled on his account, and when the Highpriest, Caiphas, and other priests and Pharisees were present, the accusers brought forward their charges, and the suborned witnesses testified to them.

“This man,” said they, “ceases not to speak words against the holy place and the law. For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth shall destroy this place, and shall change the traditions which Moses delivered to us.” All present 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 Arch-deacon was so illuminated by God, as a sign of his innocence, that they deemed it the face of an Angel, as is said in Holy Writ. 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 honor 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.” But notwithstanding this, the assembled judges desisted not from their wicked design. The High-priest asked, whether what his accusers had said and the witnesses testified, was true? The Saint answered in a long speech, full of learning and wisdom, which is to be found in the 7th chapter of the Acts. In it he said much in praise of Moses, and cited his prophecy in regard to the coming of Christ. In conclusion, he reproached them with their obstinacy, and the murder they had committed on the true Messiah. “You stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Ghost; as your fathers did, so also do you. Which of the prophets have your fathers not persecuted? And they have slain them who foretold of the coming of the Just One, of whom you are now the betrayers and murderers.”

This reproach the assembled people could not bear. The wildest rage took possession of them, their hearts were torn with fury against St. Stephen. He failed not to perceive it, and knew well that they would sacrifice him to their rage. Hence, he turned his eyes to heaven, to receive thence strength for the approaching struggle. At that moment, he saw Jesus Christ, the Son of God, standing at the right hand of His heavenly Father, as if to assure His faithful servant that He would aid him in his fight. Stephen cried aloud: “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing on the right hand of God.” This caused a terrible outcry in the assembly, and they stopped their ears so as not to hear such blasphemy, and violently assailing him, they cast him from the Council and dragged him out of the city to stone him to death. The false witnesses who, according to the law, were to cast the first stones upon the accused, took off their garments, that they might be more free in the exercise of their cruelty, and gave them in charge of a youth, named Saul, who afterwards became the celebrated St. Paul. Hardly was St. Stephen out of the city, when they began to cast stones upon him. Every one was eager to take part in his death. The Christian hero stood looking unmoved to heaven, invoking Jesus, for whose honor he suffered martyrdom, and said: “Lord Jesus, receive my soul!” After this, kneeling down, to resemble his Saviour, who prayed for His murderers on the Cross, he said: “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.” Having said this, he fell asleep in the Lord, amid a hail of stones.

Some devout men took care to inter the body of the holy Proto-martyr, as Holy Writ tells us. It is believed that the celebrated Scribe, Gamaliel, was the principal among these, and that St. Stephen was buried at a country-seat belonging to Gamaliel, seven miles from Jerusalem, as we related on the third day of August. The Holy Fathers, in their encomiums of St. Stephen, praise his blameless life, his angelic purity, his fearless zeal in proclaiming the Gospel of the Lord, and his strength of mind and constancy; but above all, his heroic love for his persecutors and enemies, for whom he humbly prayed to the Almighty in his last moments. Without doubt, many of those, in consequence of this prayer, received grace from God and were converted. St. Augustine hesitates not to say this of Saul, when he writes: “If St. Stephen had not prayed, the Church would not possess Paul. Paul was raised up, because the prayer of St. Stephen, who was cast down, was accepted by the Almighty. Let us, therefore,” continues this Father, “commend ourselves to his intercession; for, Christ will surely grant his prayers now more readily, when he intercedes for those who invoke him.” (4)

Image: Stoning of St Stephen, artist: Paolo Uccello, (12)

Research by REGINA Staff


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