Saints for Our Times: St. Stephen: First deacon, first martyr
By Mary Lou Gibson
St. Stephen is usually identified as a “protomartyr” because he was the first Christian to die for the faith (not including the Holy Innocents and John the Baptist). He was a bold preacher who Malcolm Day describes as having a modern, radical outlook in “A Treasury of Saints.” These were early times for Christians, 34 A.D., and Stephen’s preaching about Jesus as the Savior that God had sent made him many enemies among the Jews.
Stephen was a leader of the Hellenists, those Jews who lived outside Palestine and spoke Greek. As a group, they urged expansion of the church’s mission to the Gentiles. Stephen was one of the seven deacons appointed by the apostles to look after the distribution of alms to the faithful and to help in the ministry of preaching. All that we know of his life is in the Acts of the Apostles (6-8).
According to Day, it was Stephen who suffered most when the Jewish authorities unleashed the first wave of persecution against the church. He was accused of preaching blasphemy against Moses and against God and was arrested. When he was brought before the Sanhedrin, editor John Shea writes in “Lives of the Saints” that he boldly upbraided the chief priests of their hard-hearted resistance to the Holy Ghost and with the murder of the “Just One.”
David Farmer describes the gist of Stephen’s defense in the “Oxford Dictionary of Saints.” He wrote that Stephen told his accusers that God does not depend on the Temple, in so far as like the Mosaic law, it was a temporary institution and destined to be fulfilled and superseded by Christ. Stephen said that Christ was the prophet designated by Moses and the Messiah the Jewish race had waited for so long.
Then Stephen further attacked his accusers for resisting the Spirit and killing Christ. Paul Burns writes in “Butler’s Lives of the Saints” that the priests were enraged by Stephen’s defense and his condemnation of their whole approach to religion.
They condemned him to be stoned under the Mosaic law and dragged him outside the walls of Jerusalem. Editor Michael Walsh describes the scene in “Butler’s Lives of the Saints.”
“When Stephen was led outside, he looked up to the heavens and said: ‘Behold I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing on the right hand of God.’”
Stephen then cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”
They stoned him then for blasphemy. Farmer writes that the witnesses placed their clothes at the feet of Saul (later Paul) who consented to his death. He was buried in a tomb and mostly forgotten until the fourth century when St. Gregory of Nyssa composed two homilies to him. Rosemary Guiley writes in the “Encyclopedia of Saints” that St. Gregory saw Stephen as a key figure in the struggle against demonic forms. Further, St. Gregory preached that Stephen imitated Christ by being compliant and bearing no hatred toward his murderers.
Guiley notes that Stephen’s supposed tomb was discovered by Lucian in 415. From the fourth century, his feast was kept in the East and West. A church containing his relics was built outside the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem in 439. The ruins of this church were discovered by the Dominicans in 1882 and a new church was erected on the site.
St. Stephen is the patron of bricklayers, builders, horses and masons. Why horses? Gerry Bowler explains in “The World Encyclopedia of Christmas” that his Dec. 26 feast day fell during a time of horse sacrifice in pagan Northern Europe. It was also a time of rest from agricultural work for both man and beast. Sean Kelly and Rosemary Rogers describe a Polish custom in “Saints Preserve Us!” when parishioners shower the priest with oats after Mass for the sake of their horses.
In England and Ireland, children remember the saint by hurling rocks at wrens. Then he is also remembered in a 19th century Christmas carol by J. M. Neale that begins “Good King Wenceslas looked out on the feast of Stephen when the snow lay round about deep and crisp and even…”
This carol is often sung on St. Stephen’s feast day which is Boxing Day in England, a time for seasonal charity.