Saint Stephen, Protomartyr – 26 December

All that we know of the life of Stephen is contained in two chapters (6 and 7) of the Acts of the Apostles. His date and place of birth are not known. He was a Hellenistic Jew and his name is Greek (coming from the word stephanos, meaning a ‘crown’) and he probably was born or even lived outside the borders of Palestine. Nor do we know when or where or how he was converted to Christianity.

The first Christians held what they owned in common, so that the needs of each person were taken care of. However, the Acts tells us that the Hellenists, the Greek-speaking members of the community, were complaining that some of them, especially the widows, were not being taken looked after properly. The Apostles, busy with their work of evangelising, felt they did not have time to take care of this problem. So seven good and prudent men, who were also Hellenists, were chosen to take care of the situation. The seven were prayed over and ordained by the imposition of hands. The names of the seven are given. Stephen, who heads the list is called “a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit”, then Philip, known as “the Evangelist”, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicholas – all Greek names. (Nicholas, we are told, was a convert to Judaism.) They were appointed by the Apostles to look after the distribution of alms and would be called ‘deacons’. The word ‘deacon’ [diaconus] means ‘one who serves’. They also helped in the ministry of preaching.

Stephen himself early on showed himself a formidable debater with some of the Jews. We are told that the ‘Synagogue of Roman Freedmen’ (Jews from Cyrene, Alexandria, Cilicia and Asia Minor) “would undertake to engage Stephen in debate, but they proved no match for the wisdom and spirit with which he spoke”. These people, touched to the quick, got charges made against Stephen that he had spoken blasphemies against Moses and against God.
Stephen was then arrested and brought before the Sanhedrin, the same court that Jesus had to face during his Passion. False witnesses attested that Stephen never stopped speaking against the holy place (the Temple) and the Law (of Moses). They claimed they heard him say that “Jesus the Nazorean” would destroy the Temple and change the customs which Moses had handed down. These, of course, were distortions of what Jesus actually said. He did say that if the Temple was brought down he would raise it in three days (referring, of course, to the temple that was his own Body). And he explicitly said that no one should change one jot of the Mosaic Law but he also said that one had to go further than the letter of the Law in interpreting its meaning (cf. Matt 5:17-48).
The Acts say that during all these accusations “Stephen’s face seemed like that of an angel”.
Stephen, in response to the high priest’s request, then made his defence in a long speech. It took the form of a quite detailed summary of the history of the Jewish people and their stormy relationship with God which often involved the rejection of the leaders that God had appointed to lead them. Even allowing for some editing by the author of Acts, Stephen was clearly well versed in the Scriptures and in the history of the Jewish people, as well as being an eloquent and powerful speaker.

His defence of his beliefs was that God does not depend on the Temple which, like the Law of Moses, was temporary in nature and waiting to be replaced and fulfilled by the Christ, the Messiah and Prophet foretold by Moses and for whom the Jewish people had been waiting so long. “The Most High does not dwell in buildings made by human hands, for as the prophet says: ‘The heavens are my throne, the earth is my footstool; what kind of house can you build me? What is my resting place to be like?’ (Isaiah 66).”
Stephen concluded by calling his hearers “stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears” who had over the centuries refused to listen to God and the leaders he appointed. “Was there ever any prophet whom your fathers did not persecute?” They put to death those who foretold the coming of the Just One; now they had killed the Just One himself.

Not surprisingly, this speech did not go down very well. “They were stung to the heart; they ground their teeth in anger at him.”
Then Stephen, echoing the words of his beloved Master and filled with the Spirit of God, cried out: “Look! I see an opening in the sky, and the Son of Man standing at God’s right hand.” His hearers, shocked by what they regarded as absolute blasphemy (as in the case of Jesus), rushed forward, dragged Stephen out of the city and began to stone him to death.
As the men stripped to do the stoning, they piled their clothes at the foot of a young man who looked on approvingly – he was the zealous Pharisee, Saul. And as Stephen lay dying beneath the barrage of stones he was heard to cry – again in imitation of his Master on the cross – “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And then he died. It was probably around the year 35 AD (assuming that Jesus died about the year 33).
At least since the 4th century (or earlier) Stephen’s feast has been observed in both the Eastern and Western Churches. His cult received a boost when what was believed to be his grave was found by a priest, Lucian, at Kafr Gamala in 415. Later, his relics were moved to Constantinople and then to Rome together with some stones believed to have been used in his martyrdom.
From early times he was the patron of deacons.
He has been named patron of many churches, including a number of French cathedrals such as Bourges, Sens and Toulouse. Many churches in England were dedicated to him, especially after the Norman Conquest.
In art he is often shown holding a book of the Gospels with a stone and sometimes a palm of martyrdom. There is a fine cycle of pictures by Fra Angelico now kept at the Vatican.

Some people might find it strange that this feast of a martyr should follow immediately after the joyful celebration of the Birth of Jesus we call Christmas. Yet, it is really altogether appropriate. The Christmas story itself is full of challenge as Mary and
Joseph are forced to leave their home in Nazareth just when she is going to have her baby. And, that after the long journey to Bethlehem, there is no decent lodging and they have to take shelter in a stable where animals were kept. Is this how the Son of God, our King and Lord, is to appear in our world? Jesus’ mission of self-giving begins right here and is the first step in the saga that will eventually bring him to the high point of his mission – his suffering, death and resurrection. What could be more fitting than, on the day after his appearance among us, we recall the first disciple of his Way to follow in his footsteps – and to do so all the way.

The Gospel reading, taken from Matthew’s gospel, could almost have had Stephen in mind. It is taken from the discourse given by Jesus in chapter 10 where he sends out his disciples on their mission to do the same work he is doing. He also warns them of the kind of reception that they can expect to meet.

In the verse before today’s passage Jesus tells them that he is sending them out “like sheep among wolves” and that they “must be clever as snakes and innocent as doves”. As our passage today begins, Jesus spells out just what that means.

They are to be on their guard because “they will hale you into court, they will flog you in their synagogues”. Some of their fellow Jews will be doing this to them. But they will also “be brought to trial before rulers and kings, … and before the Gentiles on my account”. People of other religions and none will also act against them.

At the same time, when they are handed over, they are not to be anxious about what they should say in their defence or how to say it. “When the hour comes, you will given what you are to say.” The reason is that it will not be they who speak but the Spirit of the Father and Jesus speaking through them.

We can see much of this taking place in the martyrdom of Stephen. He was both clever, highly intelligent but also totally innocent of any of the charges laid against him. He was hauled before a court. He knew exactly what to say and the only reply his accusers could make was to stone him to death in anger. But he was at peace and, in his dying moments, forgave his killers.

The First Reading from the Acts of the Apostles recounts the story of Stephen beginning with his encounter with the ‘Synagogue of Roman Freedmen’, who were not able to best Stephen in argument about the truth of Christ.

It then skips the address that Stephen made to Sanhedrin and goes straight to his last moments. First, filled with the Holy Spirit (as Jesus had promised) he told the assembly about the vision he had of Jesus sitting at the Father’s right hand. The crowd stopped their ears to prevent them listening to such blasphemies. The Scriptures had long ago said that no one could look on the face of God and live. Stephen had made it worse; he had put the man Jesus side by side with Yahweh.

He was rushed out of the city for immediate execution and stoned to death. And, as we saw, there was a young man named Saul at whose feet the executioners left their clothes. He looked on with total approval. This act would see the beginning of a great persecution against the church community in Jerusalem, led by Saul.

Yet, as Jesus had said of himself, “unless the grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies…” Out of this tragic death would come the conversion of Saul to become Paul, the great Apostle of the Gentiles. How much did the death of Stephen really influence Paul? Was it those words of forgiveness that he uttered as the stones rained down on him? As the Church would say later on: the blood of martyrs is the seed of faith.

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