December 26, 2019: ST. STEPHEN, ARCHDEACON AND PROTOMARTYR
December 26, 2019: ST. STEPHEN, ARCHDEACON AND PROTOMARTYR
Rank: Double of the II Class.
I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing at the right hand of God.”
(Acts, vii. 55)
“Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.”
(Acts, vii. 59)
Grant, O Lord, we beseech thee, that we may imitate him, whose memory we celebrate; so as to learn to love our enemies, because we now solemnize his martyrdom, who knew how to pray, even for his persecutors, to our Lord Jesus Christ, Thy Son. Who liveth and reigneth, world without end. Amen.
St. Peter Damian thus begins his Sermon for this Feast:
“We are holding in our arms the Son of the Virgin, and are honouring, 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, xliv. 3), and the Blessed among women to Him that is Blessed above all. She tell 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, vi. 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 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 to-day'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: to-day, 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: to-day, 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 battle-field of this world: Stephen, laying aside the perishable garment of the body, ascended to the palace of heaven, there to reign for ever. 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; to-day, they joyously received Stephen into their company. * * Yesterday, was Jesus wrapped, for our sakes, in swaddling-clothes: to-day, was Stephen clothed with the robe of immortal glory. Yesterday, a narrow crib contained the Infant Jesus: to-day, 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 Stephen be the only one admitted to share the honours of this glorious Octave. After him, we shall have John, the Beloved Disciple; the Innocents of Bethlehem; Thomas, the Martyr of the Liberties of the Church; and Sylvester, the Pontiff of Peace. But, the place of honour amidst all who stand round the Crib of the new-born King, belongs to Stephen, the Proto-Martyr, who, as the Church sings of him, was “the first to pay back to the Saviour, the Death suffered by the Saviour.” It was just, that this honour should be shown to Martyrdom; for, Martyrdom is the Creature's testimony, and return to his Creator for all the favours bestowed on him: it is Man’s 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 its being 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 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 (St. Luke, x. 3). The world shall be strong, and they shall be weak and defenceless: so much the grander will be the victory of the Martyrs, and the greater the glory of God who gives them to conquer. The Apostle tells us, that Christ crucified is the power and the wisdom of God (I Cor, i. 24);—the Martyrs, immolated, and yet conquerors of the world, will prove, and 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 like him 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. 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 Stephen, and, rushing upon him, they stone him to death. Amidst the pelting of the blood-drawing missives, 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 our 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 the Martyrs of Christ shall be filled up. Stephen sleeps in the Lord, and is buried in peace—in pace—until his sacred Tomb shall be discovered, and his glory be celebrated a second time in the whole Church, by that anticipated Resurrection of the miraculous Invention of his Relics.
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 learnt from that Mystery, that he needed 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 and their crimes, nor forgot to pardon them and pray for them. What a faithful imitator of the Babe of Bethlehem! Our Jesus did 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 lordling. But, it is under such apparent weakness as this, that he will show his Divinity to men, and He the Infant-God 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, under his borrowed majesty, this prince-tributary of Rome; nay, than Cӕsar-Augustus himself, whose world-wide 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.
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 High-priest, 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.”
Martyrdom of St. Stephen.
That St. Stephen was a Jew is unquestionable, himself owning that relation in his apology to the people. But whether he was of Hebrew extraction, and descended of the stock of Abraham, or whether he was of foreign parents incorporated and brought into that nation by the gate of proselytism, is uncertain. The name Stephen, which signifies a crown, is evidently Greek; but the priest Lucian, in the history of the discovery of his relics, and Basil of Seleucia, inform us, that the name Cheliel, which in modern Hebrew signifies a crown, was engraved on his tomb at Caphragamula. It is generally allowed that he was one of the seventy-two disciples of our Lord; for immediately after the descent of the Holy Ghost, we find him perfectly instructed in the law of the gospel, endowed with extraordinary measures, both of the interior and exterior gifts of that divine Spirit which was but lately shed upon the church, and incomparably furnished with miraculous powers. The church of Christ then increased daily, and was illustrious for the spirit and practice of all virtues, but especially for charity. The faithful lived and loved one another as brethren, and were of one heart and one soul. Love and charity were the common soul that animated the whole body of believers.
The rich sold their estates to relieve the necessities of the poor, and deposited the money in one common treasury, the care whereof was committed to the apostles, to see the distribution made as everybody's necessity required. Heaven alone is free from all occasions of offence, and the number of converts being very great, the Greeks (that is, the Christians of foreign countries, who were born and brought up in countries which spoke chiefly Greek, or at least were Gentiles by descent, though proselytes to the Jewish religion before they came over to the faith of Christ) murmured against the Hebrews, complaining that their widows were neglected in the daily ministration. The apostles, to provide a speedy remedy, assembled the faithful, and observed to them that they could not relinquish the duties of preaching and other spiritual functions of the ministry, to attend to the care of tables; and recommended to them the choice of seven men of an unblemished character, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, who might superintend that affair, that so themselves might be freed from distractions and incumbrances, the more freely to devote themselves without interruption to prayer and preaching the gospel. This proposal was perfectly agreeable to the whole assembly, who immediately pitched on Stephen, “a man full of faith and the Holy Ghost,” and Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicholas, a proselyte of Antioch. All these names are Greek; whence some think they were chosen among the Greeks, in order to appease the murmurs that had been raised. But it frequently happened that Hebrews changed their names into Greek words of a like import when they conversed with Greeks and Romans, to whom several names in the oriental languages sounded harsh, and were difficult to pronounce. Stephen is named first of the deacons, as Peter is of the apostles, says St. Austin. Hence he is styled by Lucian, archdeacon.
St. Stephen had the primacy and precedence among the deacons newly elected by the apostles, as St. Chrysostom observes, and being filled with the Holy Ghost, preached and pleaded the cause of Christianity with undaunted courage, confirming his doctrine by many public and unquestionable miracles. The number of believers were multiplied in Jerusalem, and a great multitude, even of the priests, obeyed the faith. The distinguished zeal and success of our holy deacon stirred up the malice and envy of the enemies of the gospel, who bent their whole force, and all their malice against him. The conspiracy was formed by the Libertines (or such as had been carried captives to Rome by Pompey, and had since obtained their freedom), those of Cyrene in Lybia, of Alexandria, Cilicia, and Lesser Asia, who had each a distinct synagogue at Jerusalem. At first they undertook to dispute with St. Stephen; but finding themselves unequal to the task, and unable to resist the wisdom and spirit with which he spoke, they suborned false witnesses to charge him with blasphemy against Moses and against God. The indictment was laid against him in the Sanhedrim, and the saint was hauled thither. After the charge was read, Caiphas, the high priest, ordered him to make his defence. The main point urged against him was that he affirmed that the temple would be destroyed, that the Mosaic sacrifices were but shadows and types, and were no longer acceptable to God, Jesus of Nazareth having put an end to them. It pleased God to diffuse a heavenly beauty and a shining brightness on the saint's face, whilst he stood before the council, so that to all that were present it seemed as if it had been the countenance of an angel. According to the license given him by the high priest to speak for himself, he made his apology, but in such a manner as boldly to preach Jesus Christ in the Sanhedrim itself. He showed that Abraham, the father and founder of their nation, was justified, and received the greatest favours of God without the temple; that Moses was commanded to erect a tabernacle, but foretold a new law and the Messiah; that Solomon built the temple, but it was not to be imagined that God was confined in houses made by hands, and that the temple and the Mosaic law were temporary ministrations, and were to give place when God introduced more excellent institutions. The martyr added, that this he had done by sending the Messiah himself; but that they were, like their ancestors, a stiff-necked generation, circumcised in body but not in heart, and always resisting the Holy Ghost; and that as their fathers had persecuted and slain many of the prophets who foretold the Christ, so they had betrayed and murdered Him in person, and though they had received the law by the ministry of angels, they had not observed it.
This stinging reproach touched them to the quick, and kindled them into a rage, gnashing with their teeth at the holy martyr, and expressing all the symptoms of unbridled passion. The saint, not heeding what was done below, had his eyes and heart fixed on higher objects, and being full of the Holy Ghost, and looking up steadfastly to the heavens, saw them opened, and beheld his divine Saviour standing at the right hand of his Father, appearing by that posture ready to protect, receive, and crown his servant. With this vision the saint was inexpressibly ravished, his soul was inspired with new courage, and a longing to arrive at that bliss a glimpse of which was shown him. His heart overflowed with joy, and in an ecstasy, not being able to forbear expressing his happiness in the very midst of his enemies, he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing at the right hand of God.” (Acts, vii. 55) The Jews became more hardened and enraged by hearing the saint's declaration of this vision; and calling him a blasphemer, resolved upon his death without any further process. In the fury of their blind zeal they stayed not for a judicial sentence, nor for the warrant of the Roman governor, without which no one could at that time be legally put to death amongst them. But stopping their ears against his supposed blasphemies, they with great clamour rushed upon him, furiously hauled him out of the city, and with a tempest of stones satiated their rage against him. The witnesses who, according to the Levitical law, were to begin the execution in all capital cases (Deut, xvii. 7), threw their clothes at the feet of Saul, who thus partook of their crime (Acts, xxii. 20; vii. 57). In the meantime the holy martyr prayed, saying, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” (Acts, vii. 58) And falling on his knees, he cried with a loud voice and the greatest earnestness, “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.” (Acts, vii. 59) When he said this he had fell asleep in the Lord. This word is used by the Holy Ghost elegantly to express the sweetness of the death of the just, which is to them a rest after the toils of this painful life—a secure harbour after the dangers of this mortal pilgrimage, and the gate to eternal life. The edification and manifold advantages which the church received from the martyrdom of this great and holy man compensated the loss which it sustained in him. Certain devout men took order to inter him in a decent manner, and made great mourning over him, though such a death was his own most glorious triumph, and unparalleled gain. The priest Lucien, who recounts the manner of the miraculous discovery of his relics in the fifth century, informs us that they were deposited about twenty miles from Jerusalem, by the direction of Gamaliel, and at his expense. St. Stephen seems to have suffered towards the end of the same year in which Christ was crucified.
In the whole life of our divine Redeemer we have the most perfect pattern of meekness. During his ministry he meekly bore with the weakness, ignorance, and prejudices of some; with the perverseness, envy, and malice of others; with the ingratitude of friends, and the pride and insolence of enemies. How affecting is the most patient silence which he held in the courts of unjust judges, and through the whole course of his passion! How did he confirm this example which he had given us by spending his last breath in fervent prayer for his murderers! With what ardour and assiduity did he press upon us the practice of this virtue of meekness, and inculcate its indispensable obligation and unspeakable advantage! St. Stephen inherited more perfectly this spirit in proportion as he was more abundantly replenished with the Holy Ghost. No one who is passionate, unforgiving, and revengeful, can be a follower of the meek and humble Jesus. In vain do such assume to themselves the honour of bearing his name. In charity, meekness, and humility, consists the very spirit of Christianity; and scarce anything dishonours religion more than the prevalence of the opposite spirit in those who make a profession of piety.
Taken from: The Liturgical Year – Christmas, Vol. I, Edition 1868;
The Lives of the Saints, Rev. F.X. Weninger D.D., S.J. Vol. II, Permissu Superiorum, 1876;
The Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Other Principal Saints, Vol. II; and
The Divine Office for the use of the Laity, Volume I, 1806.
St. Stephen, pray for us.