August 3, 2020: INVENTION OF ST. STEPHEN
August 3, 2020: INVENTION OF ST. STEPHEN, PROTOMARTYR
“And Stephen, full
of grace and fortitude, wrought great wonders and miracles among the people.”
(Acts, vi. 8)
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 festival, who knew how to pray, even for his persecutors, to our Lord Jesus Christ, Thy Son; who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, God, world without end. Amen.
Urged by the approach of Laurence's triumph, Stephen rises to assist at his combat; it is a meeting full of beauty and strength, revealing the work of Eternal Wisdom in the arrangement of the sacred cycle. But the present feast has other teachings also to offer us.
The first resurrection, of which we spoke above, continues for the Saints. After Nazarius and Celsus, and all the martyrs whom the victory of Christ has shown to be partakers of his glory according to the divine promise, the standard-bearer of the white-robed army himself rises glorious from his tomb to lead the way for new triumphs. The fierce auxiliaries of God's anger against idolatrous Rome, after reducing the false gods to powder, must in their turn be subjugated; and this second victory will be the work of the martyrs aiding the Church by their miracles, as the first was that of their faith despising death and tortures. The received method of writing history in our days ignores such considerations; that is no reason why we should follow the fashion: the exactitude of its data, on which the science of this age plumes itself, is but one more proof that falsehood is as easily nurtured by omissions as by positive misstatements. Now the more profound the present silence on the question, the more certain it is that the very years which beheld the barbarians invading and overturning the empire, were signalized by an effusion of virtue from on high, comparable in more than one respect to that which marked the times of the Apostolic preaching. Nothing less was required to reassure the faithful on the one hand, and on the other to inspire with respect for the Church these brutal invaders, who knew do right but might, and felt nothing but disdain for the race they had conquered.
The divine intention in surrounding the fall of Rome in 410 with discoveries of Saints' bodies, was clearly manifested in the most important of these inventions, the one we celebrate to-day. The year 415 had opened. Italy, Gaul, and Spain were being invaded, Africa was about to share their fate. Amidst the universal ruin, the Christians, in whom alone resided the hope of the world, put up their petitions at every sanctuary to obtain at least, according to the expression of the Spanish priest, Avitus, “that the Lord would inspire with gentleness those whom he suffered to prevail.” It was then that took place that marvellous revelation which the severe critic Tillemont, convinced by the testimony of all the chronicles, histories, letters, and discourses of the time, allows to be “one of the most celebrated events of the fifth century.” Through the intermediary of the priest Lucian, John, Bishop of Jerusalem, received from St. Stephen the first Martyr and his companions in the tomb, a message couched in these terms: “Make haste to open our sepulchre, that by our means God may open to the world the door of his clemency, and may take pity on his people in the universal tribulation.” The discovery, accomplished in the midst of prodigies, was published to the whole world as the sign of salvation. St. Stephen's relics, scattered everywhere in token of security and peace, wrought astonishing conversions; innumerable miracles, “like those of ancient times,” bore witness to the same faith of Christ which the martyr had confessed by his death four centuries earlier.
Such was the extraordinary character of this manifestation, so astonishing was the number of resurrections of the dead, that St. Augustine, addressing his people, deemed it prudent to lift their thoughts from Stephen the servant to Christ his Master. “Though dead,” said he, “he raises the dead to life, because in reality he is not dead. But as heretofore in his mortal life, so now, too, he acts solely in the name of Christ; all that ye see now done by the memory of Stephen, is done in that name alone, that Christ may be exalted, Christ may be adored, Christ may be expected as Judge of the living and the dead.”
Let us conclude with this praise addressed to St. Stephen a few years later by Basil of Seleucia, which gives so well in a few words the reason of the feast: “There is no place, no territory, no nation, no far-off land, that has not obtained the help of thy benefits. There is no one, stranger or citizen, barbarian or Scythian, that does not experience, through thy intercession, the greatness of heavenly realities.”
The following Legend epitomizes and completes the history given by the priest Lucian:
During the reign of the Emperor Honorius, the bodies of St. Stephen the Protomartyr, Gamaliel, Nicodemus, and Abibas were found near Jerusalem. They had long lain buried, unknown and neglected, when they were revealed by God to a priest named Lucian. While he was asleep, Gamaliel appeared to him as a venerable and majestic old man, and showed him the spot where the bodies lay, commanding him to go to Bishop John of Jerusalem, and persuade him to give these bodies more honourable burial.
On hearing this, the Bishop of Jerusalem assembled the neighbouring Bishops and clergy, and went to the spot indicated. The tombs were found, and from them exhaled a most sweet odour. At the rumour at what had occurred, a great crowd came together, and many of them who were sick and weak from various ailments went away perfectly cured. The sacred body of St. Stephen was then carried with great honour to the holy church of Sion. Under Theodosius the younger it was carried to Constantinople, and from thence it was translated to Rome under Pope Pelagius I. and placed in the tomb of St. Laurence the Martyr, in Agro Verano.
Another account of Invention of St. Stephen, Protomartyr.
This second festival, in honour of the holy protomartyr St. Stephen, was instituted by the church on the occasion of the discovery of his precious remains. His body lay long concealed, whilst the glory of his sanctity shone both in heaven and on earth. The very remembrance of the place of his burial had been blotted out of the minds of men, and his relics lay covered under the ruins of an old tomb, in a place twenty miles from Jerusalem, called Caphargamala, that is, borough of Gamaliel, where stood a church which was served by a venerable priest named Lucian. In the year 415, in the tenth consulship of Honorius, and the sixth of Theodosius the Younger, on Friday, the 3rd of December, about nine o'clock at night, Lucian was sleeping in his bed, in the baptistery, where he commonly lay, in order to guard the sacred vessels of the church. Being half awake, he saw a tall comely old man of a venerable aspect, with a long white beard, clothed in a white garment, edged with small plates of gold, marked with crosses, and holding a golden wand in his hand. This person approached Lucian, and calling him thrice by his name, bid him go to Jerusalem, and tell Bishop John to come and open the tombs in which his remains, and those of certain other servants of Christ lay, that through their means God might open to many the gates of his clemency. Lucian asked his name. “I am,” said he, “Gamaliel, who instructed Paul the apostle in the law; and on the east side of the monument lieth Stephen, who was stoned by the Jews, without the north gate. His body was left there exposed one day and one night, but was not touched by birds or beasts. I exhorted the faithful to carry it off in the night time, which, when they had done, I caused it to be carried secretly to my house in the country, where I celebrated his funeral rites forty days, and then caused his body to be laid in my own tomb to the eastward. Nicodemus, who came to Jesus by night, lieth there in another coffin. He was excommunicated by the Jews for following Christ, and banished out of Jerusalem. Whereupon I received him into my house in the country, and there maintained him to the end of his life; after his death I buried him honourably, near Stephen. I likewise buried there my son, Abibas, who died before me, at the age of twenty years. His body is in the third coffin, which stands higher up, where I myself was also interred after my death. My wife, Ethna, and my eldest son, Serrielius, who were not willing to embrace the faith of Christ, were buried in another ground, called Capharsemulia.”
Lucian, fearing to pass for an impostor if he was too credulous, prayed that if the vision was from God he might be favoured with it a second and a third time; and he continued to fast on bread and water. On the Friday following Gamaliel appeared again to him, in the same form as before, and commanded him to obey. As emblems of the relics he brought and showed Lucian four baskets, three of gold and one of silver. The golden baskets were full of roses, two of white and one of red roses; the silver basket was full of saffron of a most delicious smell. Lucian asked what these were. Gamaliel said, “They are our relics. The red roses represent Stephen, who lieth at the entrance of the sepulchre: the second basket Nicodemus, who is near the door; the silver basket represents my son, Abibas, who departed this life without stain; his basket is contiguous to mine.” Having said this, he disappeared. Lucian then awaked, gave thanks to God, and continued his fasts. In the third week, on the same day, and at the same hour, Gamaliel appeared again to him, and with threats upbraided him with his neglect, adding, that the drought which then afflicted the world, would be removed only by his obedience, and the discovery of their relics. Lucian being now terrified, promised he would no longer delay it.
After this last vision, he repaired to Jerusalem, and laid the whole affair before Bishop John, who wept for joy, and bid him go and search for the relics, which the bishop concluded would be found under a heap of small stones, which lay in a field near his church. Lucian said he imagined the same thing, and, returning to his borough, summoned the inhabitants to meet the next day in the morning, in order to search under the heap of stones. As Lucian was going the morning following to see the place dug up, he was met by Migetius, a monk of a pure and holy life, who told him, that Gamaliel had appeared to him, and bade him inform Lucian that they laboured in vain in that place. “We were laid there,” said he, “at the time of our funeral obsequies, according to the ancient custom; and that heap of stones was a mark of the mourning of our friends. Search elsewhere, in a place called Dobatalia. In effect,” said Migetius, continuing the relation of his vision, “I found myself of a sudden in the same field, where I saw a neglected ruinous tomb, and in it three beds adorned with gold; in one of them, more elevated than the others, lay two men, an old man and a young one, and one in each of the other beds.” Lucian having heard Migetius's report, praised God for having another witness of his revelation, and having removed, to no purpose, the heap of stones, went to the other place. In digging up the earth here three coffins or chests were found, as above-mentioned, whereon were engraved these words in very large characters: “Cheliel, Nasuam, Gamaliel, Abibas.” The two first are the Syriac names of Stephen, or “crowned,” and Nicodemus, or “victory of the people.” Lucian sent immediately to acquaint Bishop John with this. He was then at the council of Dioepolis, and taking along with him Eutonius, Bishop of Sebaste, and Eleutherius, Bishop of Jericho, came to the place. Upon the opening of St. Stephen's coffin the earth shook, and there came out of the coffin such an agreeable odour, that no one remembered to have ever smelt anything like it. There was a vast multitude of people assembled in that place, among whom were many persons afflicted with divers distempers; of whom seventy-three recovered their health upon the spot. Some were freed from evil spirits, others cured of scrophulous tumours of various kinds; others of fevers, fistulas, the bloody flux, the falling-sickness, head-aches, and pains in the bowels. They kissed the holy relics, and then shut them up. The bishop claimed those of St. Stephen for the church of Jerusalem, of which he had been deacon; the rest were left at Caphargamala. The protomartyr's body was reduced to dust, excepting the bones, which were whole, and in their natural situation. The bishop consented to leave a small portion of them at Caphargamala; the rest were carried in the coffin, with singing of psalms and hymns, to the church of Sion, at Jerusalem. At the time of this translation there fell a great deal of rain, which refreshed the country after a long drought. The translation was performed on the 26th of December, on which day the church hath ever since honoured the memory of St. Stephen, commemorating the discovery of his relics on the 3rd of August, probably on account of the dedication of some church in honour of St. Stephen, perhaps that of Ancona. The history of this miraculous discovery and translation, written by Lucian himself, and translated into Latin by Avitus, a Spanish priest (native of Bragn, then living at Jerusalem, an intimate friend of St. Jerom), is published by the Benedictin monks in the appendix to the seventh tome of the works of St. Austin. This account is also attested by Chrysippus, an eminent and holy priest of the church of Jerusalem (whose virtue is highly commended by the judicious author of the life of St. Euthymius); by Idatius and Marcellinus, in their chronicles; by Basil, Bishop of Seleuciu, St. Austin,' Bede, &c. It is mentioned by most of the historians, and in the sermons of the principal fathers of that age. St. Stephen's body remained in the church of Sion till the Empress Eudocia, wife of Theodosius the younger, going a second time to Jerusalem, in 444, built a stately church to God in his honour, about a furlong from the city, near the spot where he was stoned to death, into which she procured his body to be translated, and in which she was buried herself after her death, in 461. St Austin, speaking of the miracles of St. Stephen, addresses himself to his flock as follows:— “Let us so desire to obtain temporal blessings by his intercession, that we may merit in imitating him, those which are eternal.”
Our corporal necessities were not the motive which drew our omnipotent Physician down from heaven, but the spiritual miseries of our souls. In his mortal life he restored many sick to their health, and delivered demoniacs, to give men a sensible proof of his divine power, and for an emblem that he came to relieve the spiritual miseries of our souls, and to put an end to the empire of the devil over them. In like manner, when through his servants he has bestowed corporal blessings on men, he excites our confidence in his mercy to ask through their intercession his invisible graces. We ought to pray for our daily bread, or all necessary supplies of our bodily necessities; but should make these petitions subordinate to the great end of our sanctification, and his divine honour, offering them under this condition, as we know not in temporal blessings what is most expedient for us. God offers us His grace, his love, himself; him we must make the great and ultimate end of all our requests to him. If some rich prince should engage himself to grant us whatever we should ask, it would be putting an affront upon him if we confined our petition to pins, or such trifles, as St. Teresa remarks.
Taken from: The Liturgical Year - Time after Pentecost, Vol. IV, Dublin, Edition 1901;
The Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Other Principal Saints, Vol. II; and
The Divine Office for the use of the Laity, Volume II, 1806.
St. Stephen, pray for us.