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Saint Stephen the Martyr

The collect for today, the Feast of St. Stephen, Deacon and Martyr, from The Book of Common Prayer [1] (Canadian, 1962):

GRANT, O Lord, that in all our sufferings here upon earth, for the testimony of thy truth, we may stedfastly look up to heaven, and by faith behold the glory that shall be revealed; and, being filled with the Holy Spirit, may learn to love and bless our persecutors, by the example of thy first Martyr Saint Stephen, who prayed for his murderers to thee, O blessed Jesus, who standest at the right hand of God to succour all those that suffer for thee, our only Mediator and Advocate. Amen.

The Lesson: Acts 7:55-60 [2]
The Gospel: St. Matthew 23:34-39 [3]

All that is known of St. Stephen’s life is found in the Acts of the Apostles, chapters 6 and 7. He is reckoned as the first Christian martyr–the proto-martyr. Although his name is Greek for “crown”, he was a Jew by birth; he would have been born outside Palestine and raised as a Greek-speaking Jew. The New Testament does not record the circumstances of his conversion to Christianity.

Stephen first appears as one of the seven deacons chosen in response to protests by Hellenist (Greek-speaking) Christians that their widows were being neglected in the distribution of alms. The apostles were too busy preaching the word of God to deal with this problem, so they commissioned seven men [4] from among the Hellenists “of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom”, then prayed and laid hands on them. Stephen, the first among the seven, is described [5] as “full of faith and of the Holy Spirit”. A few verses later, Stephen is said to be [6] “full of grace and power [and] doing great wonders and signs among the people”.

Clearly, St Stephen was a man of exceptionally fine character with miracle-working power and abilities of teaching and preaching. Although just a deacon, he had received divine gifts apparently equal to those of the apostles. Some Jews from Greek-speaking synagogues debated with Stephen about the gospel of Christ and were not able to overcome his wisdom. In their anger, they had Stephen arrested and dragged before the Jewish council on unjust charges of blasphemy against the Law of Moses and against God.

Speaking in his own defence, Stephen showed his profound knowledge of the Scriptures and the history of Judaism. He recounts the Old Testament stories as a litany of God’s forbearance in the face of Israel’s persistent disloyalty to the Abrahamic covenant and ungratefulness for God’s mercy. Then, after saying [7] “the Most High does not dwell in houses made by hand”, Stephen denounced his audience for always resisting the Holy Spirit and for murdering the promised Messiah.

With that, his accusers were overcome with rage, took him out of the city, and stoned him to death. While they were taking him away, Stephen had a vision of heaven opened and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. As he was dying, Stephen said [8], “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” and “Lord, do not hold this sin against them”. A man named Saul (later St Paul) watched the whole thing with approval [9].

There was no official tomb of St Stephen until AD 415, when a priest named Lucian claimed to have discovered it by revelation at Kafr Gamala, north of Jerusalem. His relics were translated first to Constantinople and then to Rome, where they are believed to lie in the Church of St Lawrence.

From very early on, St Stephen was the patron saint of deacons. He is also the patron saint of bricklayers and stone masons.

His feast day is celebrated on 26 December in the Western churches and on 27 December in the East. Some theologians think it possible that, except for Easter and Holy Week, the Feast of Stephen is the oldest feast day [10] in the Christian calendar.

Fra Angelico, St. Stephen fresco 1 [11]Artwork: Fra Angelico, The Ordination of St. Stephen by St. Peter and The Distributing of Alms, 1447-49. Fresco, Capella Niccolina, Vatican, Rome.
Fra Angelico, St. Stephen fresco 2 [12]Artwork: Fra Angelico, St. Stephen Preaching and St. Stephen Addressing the Council, 1447-49. Fresco, Capella Niccolina, Vatican, Rome.
Fra Angelico, St. Stephen fresco 3 [13]Artwork: Fra Angelico, The Expulsion of St. Stephen and The Stoning of St. Stephen, 1447-49. Fresco, Capella Niccolina, Vatican, Rome.