LIFE OF ST. STEPHEN
St. Stephen was martyred in Jerusalem about the year 35. He is consider both the first Christian martyr (the protomartyr) and one of the first deacons of the Christian Church.
All that we know of the life, trial, and death of St. Stephen, is found in the Book of Acts, Chapters 6 and 7. In the long chronicle of Christian martyrs, the story of Stephen stands out as one of the most moving and memorable.
Although his name is Greek (from Stephanos, meaning crown), Stephen was a Jew, probably among those who had been born or who had lived beyond the borders of Palestine, and therefore had come under the influence of the prevailing Hellenistic culture. The New Testament does not give us the circumstances of his conversion. It would seem, however, that soon after the death of the Messiah he rose to a position of prominence among the Christians of Jerusalem and used his talents especially to win over the Greek-speaking residents of the city.
The earliest mention of Stephen is when he is listed among the seven men chosen to supervise the public tables. We recall that these first Christians held their property in common, the well-to-do sharing what they possessed with the poor; and at this time, as always in the wake of war, there were many "displaced persons" in need of charity. We read in Acts that the Hellenists, as the Greek-speaking Christians were called, thought that they, particularly the widows among them, were being discriminated against at the public tables. The Apostles were informed of these complaints, but they were too busy to deal with the problem. Therefore seven good and prudent men were selected to administer and supervise the tables. The seven, on being presented to the Apostles, were prayed over and ordained by the imposition of hands. Associated in these charitable tasks with Stephen, whose name heads the list as "a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit," were Philip, known as "the Evangelist," Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicholas-all Greek names. The title of deacon, which came to be linked with their function, derives from the Greek verb meaning "to minister." These men served the Christian community in temporal and charitable affairs; later on they were to assume minor religious offices.
Stephen, already a leader, now began to speak in public with more vigor and, "full of grace and power, was working great wonders and signs among the people." By this time a number of Jewish priests had been converted to the new faith, but they still held to the old traditions and rules as laid down in Mosaic law. Stephen was prepared to engage in controversy with them, eager to point out that, according to the Master, the old law had been superseded. He was continually quoting Jesus and the prophets to the effect that external usages and all the ancient holy rites were of less importance than the spirit; that even the Temple might be destroyed, as it had been in the past, without damage to the true and eternal religion. It was talk of this sort, carried by hearsay and rumor about the city, and often misquoted, intentionally or not, that was to draw down upon Stephen the wrath of the Jewish priestly class.
It was in a certain synagogue of Jews "called that of the Freedmen, and of the Cyrenians and of the Alexandrians and of those from Cilicia and the province of Asia" that Stephen chiefly disputed. Perhaps they did not understand him; at all events, they could not make effective answer, and so fell to abusing him. They bribed men to say that Stephen was speaking blasphemous words against Moses and against God. The elders and the scribes were stirred up and brought him before the Sanhedrin, the supreme Jewish tribunal, which had authority in both civil and religious matters. False witnesses made their accusations; Stephen defended himself ably, reviewing the long spiritual history of his people; finally his defense turned into a bitter accusation. He concluded thus:
"Yet not in houses made by hands does the Most High dwell, even as the prophet says.... Stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ear, you always oppose the Holy Spirit; as your father did, so do you also. Which of the prophets have not your fathers persecuted? And they killed those who foretold the coming of the Just One, of whom you have now been the betrayers and murderers, you who received the Law as an ordinance of angels and did not keep it."
Thus castigated, the account is that the crowd could contain their anger no longer. They rushed upon Stephen, drove him outside the city to the place appointed, and stoned him. At this time Jewish law permitted the death penalty by stoning for blasphemy. Stephen, full of "grace and fortitude" to the very end, met the great test without flinching, praying the Lord to receive his spirit and not to lay this sin against the people. So perished the first martyr, his dying breath spent in prayer for those who killed him. Among those present at the scene and approving of the penalty meted out to Stephen was a young Jew named Saul, the future Paul, Apostle to the Gentiles: his own conversion to Christianity was to take place within a few short months.
The celebration of the Feast Day of St. Stephen is December 26, the day after Christmas.
[Taken from "Lives of Saints", Published by John J. Crawley & Co., Inc.]
Webmaster's Notes on St. Stephen: In the one of the earliest documented uses of irony in Western Europe, St. Stephen was designated by the Medieval Church as the patron saint of stonemasons and, for a period of time, also as the patron saint of headaches.
The Feast of St. Stephen, being the day after Christmas, is celebrated in the traditional English Christmas carol, "Good King Wenceslaus" (circa 1850):
"Good King Wenceslaus went out
On the Feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about
Deep and crisp and even."
Note that the music for this carol is much older than the words, and with its original verse was first sung on the feast days for St. Stephen and other martyred saints. Try this original verse instead using the same "Good King Wenceslaus" tune:
"Christian friends, your voices raise.
Wake the day with gladness.
God Himself to joy and praise
turns our human sadness:
Joy that martyrs won their crown,
opened heaven's bright portal,
when they laid the mortal down
for the life immortal."
[Words: Saint Joseph the Hymnographer, 9th Century, translated from the Greek.
Music: "Tempus Adest Floridum" ("Spring has unwrapped her flowers"), a 13th Century spring carol; first published in the Swedish Piae Cantiones, 1582.]
Back to Wenceslaus, who ruled the region of Bohemia (now part of the Czech Republic) for a time in the early 10th Century as its duke. The carol refers to his supposed caring works for the poor. St. Wenceslaus became the patron saint of Bohemia and the crown of Wenceslaus is regarded as a symbol of Czech nationalism. His religious feast day is September 28. Wenceslaus Square is in the center of Prague, and in 1989 became the site of mass demonstrations that helped end the Communist dictatorship.
The feast of St. Stephen on December 26 is celebrated as "Boxing Day" in the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and in other commonwealth countries and is a national holiday there. The name refers to the practice, as legend has it, of nobles and other wealthy Britons "boxing up" and distributing food and other gifts to their servants and to the poor on the day after Christmas. Boxing Day was traditionally when the alms box at every English church was opened and the contents distributed to the poor. Servants by custom were also given the day off to celebrate Christmas with their families.
St. Stephen the Protomartyr (or "first" martyr) should be distinguished from St. Stephen of Hungary (or King St. Stephen), a Magyar who founded the free nation of Hungary in about 1000 AD as its first Christian king. That St. Stephen was canonized by Pope Gregory VII in 1083 as the patron saint of Hungary, and continues to be venerated by the Hungarian people as a powerful symbol of national freedom. His religious Feast Day is on September 2, but a national festival for King St. Stephen is traditionally celebrated in Hungary each year on August 20, analogous to that held in Ireland on St. Patrick's Day.
[Pieter Paul Rubens. The Martyrdom of St. Stephen. Musée des Beaux-Arts, Valenciennes.]