Saint Stephen


LIFE OF ST. STEPHEN
St. Stephen was martyred in Jerusalem about the year 35. He is consider both the first Christian martyr (the protomartyr) and one of the first deacons of the Christian Church.
All that we know of the life, trial, and death of St. Stephen, is found in the Book of Acts, Chapters 6 and 7.  In the long chronicle of Christian martyrs, the story of Stephen stands out as one of the most moving and memorable.
Although his name is Greek (from Stephanos, meaning crown), Stephen was a Jew, probably among those who had been born or who had lived beyond the borders of Palestine, and therefore had come under the influence of the prevailing Hellenistic culture. The New Testament does not give us the circumstances of his conversion. It would seem, however, that soon after the death of the Messiah he rose to a position of prominence among the Christians of Jerusalem and used his talents especially to win over the Greek-speaking residents of the city.
The earliest mention of Stephen is when he is listed among the seven men chosen to supervise the public tables. We recall that these first Christians held their property in common, the well-to-do sharing what they possessed with the poor; and at this time, as always in the wake of war, there were many "displaced persons" in need of charity. We read in Acts that the Hellenists, as the Greek-speaking Christians were called, thought that they, particularly the widows among them, were being discriminated against at the public tables. The Apostles were informed of these complaints, but they were too busy to deal with the problem. Therefore seven good and prudent men were selected to administer and supervise the tables. The seven, on being presented to the Apostles, were prayed over and ordained by the imposition of hands. Associated in these charitable tasks with Stephen, whose name heads the list as "a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit," were Philip, known as "the Evangelist," Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicholas-all Greek names. The title of deacon, which came to be linked with their function, derives from the Greek verb meaning "to minister." These men served the Christian community in temporal and charitable affairs; later on they were to assume minor religious offices.
Stephen, already a leader, now began to speak in public with more vigor and, "full of grace and power, was working great wonders and signs among the people." By this time a number of Jewish priests had been converted to the new faith, but they still held to the old traditions and rules as laid down in Mosaic law. Stephen was prepared to engage in controversy with them, eager to point out that, according to the Master, the old law had been superseded. He was continually quoting Jesus and the prophets to the effect that external usages and all the ancient holy rites were of less importance than the spirit; that even the Temple might be destroyed, as it had been in the past, without damage to the true and eternal religion. It was talk of this sort, carried by hearsay and rumor about the city, and often misquoted, intentionally or not, that was to draw down upon Stephen the wrath of the Jewish priestly class.
It was in a certain synagogue of Jews "called that of the Freedmen, and of the Cyrenians and of the Alexandrians and of those from Cilicia and the province of Asia" that Stephen chiefly disputed. Perhaps they did not understand him; at all events, they could not make effective answer, and so fell to abusing him. They bribed men to say that Stephen was speaking blasphemous words against Moses and against God. The elders and the scribes were stirred up and brought him before the Sanhedrin, the supreme Jewish tribunal, which had authority in both civil and religious matters. False witnesses made their accusations; Stephen defended himself ably, reviewing the long spiritual history of his people; finally his defense turned into a bitter accusation. He concluded thus:
"Yet not in houses made by hands does the Most High dwell, even as the prophet says.... Stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ear, you always oppose the Holy Spirit; as your father did, so do you also. Which of the prophets have not your fathers persecuted? And they killed those who foretold the coming of the Just One, of whom you have now been the betrayers and murderers, you who received the Law as an ordinance of angels and did not keep it."
Thus castigated, the account is that the crowd could contain their anger no longer. They rushed upon Stephen, drove him outside the city to the place appointed, and stoned him. At this time Jewish law permitted the death penalty by stoning for blasphemy. Stephen, full of "grace and fortitude" to the very end, met the great test without flinching, praying the Lord to receive his spirit and not to lay this sin against the people. So perished the first martyr, his dying breath spent in prayer for those who killed him. Among those present at the scene and approving of the penalty meted out to Stephen was a young Jew named Saul, the future Paul, Apostle to the Gentiles: his own conversion to Christianity was to take place within a few short months.

The celebration of the Feast Day of St. Stephen is December 26, the day after Christmas.

[Taken from "Lives of Saints", Published by John J. Crawley & Co., Inc.]
Webmaster's Notes on St. Stephen:   In the one of the earliest documented uses of irony in Western Europe, St. Stephen was designated by the Medieval Church as the patron saint of stonemasons and, for a period of time, also as the patron saint of headaches.
The Feast of St. Stephen, being the day after Christmas, is celebrated in the traditional English Christmas carol, "Good King Wenceslaus" (circa 1850):
"Good King Wenceslaus went out
On the Feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about
Deep and crisp and even."
Note that the music for this carol is much older than the words, and with its original verse was first sung on the feast days for St. Stephen and other martyred saints.  Try this original verse instead using the same "Good King Wenceslaus" tune:
"Christian friends, your voices raise.
Wake the day with gladness.
God Himself to joy and praise
turns our human sadness:
Joy that martyrs won their crown,
opened heaven's bright portal,
when they laid the mortal down
for the life immortal."
[Words: Saint Joseph the Hymnographer, 9th Century, translated from the Greek.

Music: "Tempus Adest Floridum" ("Spring has unwrapped her flowers"), a 13th Century spring carol; first published in the Swedish Piae Cantiones, 1582.]
 
Back to Wenceslaus, who ruled the region of Bohemia (now part of the Czech Republic) for a time in the early 10th Century as its duke.  The carol refers to his supposed caring works for the poor.   St. Wenceslaus became the patron saint of Bohemia and the crown of Wenceslaus is regarded as a symbol of Czech nationalism.  His religious feast day is September 28.   Wenceslaus Square is in the center of Prague, and in 1989 became the site of mass demonstrations that helped end the Communist dictatorship.
The feast of St. Stephen on December 26 is celebrated as "Boxing Day" in the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and in other commonwealth countries and is a national holiday there.   The name refers to the practice, as legend has it, of nobles and other wealthy Britons "boxing up" and distributing food and other gifts to their servants and to the poor on the day after Christmas.   Boxing Day was traditionally when the alms box at every English church was opened and the contents distributed to the poor.   Servants by custom were also given the day off to celebrate Christmas with their families.
St. Stephen the Protomartyr (or "first" martyr) should be distinguished from St. Stephen of Hungary (or King St. Stephen), a Magyar who founded the free nation of Hungary in about 1000 AD as its first Christian king.  That St. Stephen was canonized by Pope Gregory VII in 1083 as the patron saint of Hungary, and continues to be venerated by the Hungarian people as a powerful symbol of national freedom.  His religious Feast Day is on September 2, but a national festival for King St. Stephen is traditionally celebrated in Hungary each year on August 20, analogous to that held in Ireland on St. Patrick's Day.

The Book of Acts 6 - 7

Acts 6:  The Choosing of the Seven


1  In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Grecian Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food.  2  So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, "It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables.  3  Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them 4 and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word."


5  This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism.  6  They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.


7  So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.


Stephen Seized


8  Now Stephen, a man full of God's grace and power, did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people. 9 Opposition arose, however, from members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called)--Jews of Cyrene and Alexandria as well as the provinces of Cilicia and Asia.  These men began to argue with Stephen, 10but they could not stand up against his wisdom or the Spirit by whom he spoke.


11  Then they secretly persuaded some men to say, "We have heard Stephen speak words of blasphemy against Moses and against God."


12  So they stirred up the people and the elders and the teachers of the law. They seized Stephen and brought him before the Sanhedrin.  13  They produced false witnesses, who testified, "This fellow never stops speaking against this holy place and against the law.  14  For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us."


15  All who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel.


Acts 7: Stephen's Speech to the Sanhedrin


1   Then the high priest asked him, "Are these charges true?"


2   To this he replied: "Brothers and fathers, listen to me! The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham while he was still in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran.  3 'Leave your country and your people,' God said, 'and go to the land I will show you.'


4   "So he left the land of the Chaldeans and settled in Haran.   After the death of his father, God sent him to this land where you are now living. 5  He gave him no inheritance here, not even a foot of ground.   But God promised him that he and his descendants after him would possess the land, even though at that time Abraham had no child. 6  God spoke to him in this way: 'Your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated four hundred years. 7  But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves,' God said, 'and afterward they will come out of that country and worship me in this place.' 8  Then he gave Abraham the covenant of circumcision. And Abraham became the father of Isaac and circumcised him eight days after his birth. Later Isaac became the father of Jacob, and Jacob became the father of the twelve patriarchs.


9  "Because the patriarchs were jealous of Joseph, they sold him as a slave into Egypt. But God was with him 10 and rescued him from all his troubles.  He gave Joseph wisdom and enabled him to gain the goodwill of Pharaoh king of Egypt; so he made him ruler over Egypt and all his palace.


11  "Then a famine struck all Egypt and Canaan, bringing great suffering, and our fathers could not find food.  12  When Jacob heard that there was grain in Egypt, he sent our fathers on their first visit. 13  On their second visit, Joseph told his brothers who he was, and Pharaoh learned about Joseph's family. 14  After this, Joseph sent for his father Jacob and his whole family, seventy-five in all. 15  Then Jacob went down to Egypt, where he and our fathers died. 16Their bodies were brought back to Shechem and placed in the tomb that Abraham had bought from the sons of Hamor at Shechem for a certain sum of money.


17  "As the time drew near for God to fulfill his promise to Abraham, the number of our people in Egypt greatly increased.  18  Then another king, who knew nothing about Joseph, became ruler of Egypt. 19  He dealt treacherously with our people and oppressed our forefathers by forcing them to throw out their newborn babies so that they would die.


20  "At that time Moses was born, and he was no ordinary child. For three months he was cared for in his father's house. 21  When he was placed outside, Pharaoh's daughter took him and brought him up as her own son. 22  Moses was educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and was powerful in speech and action.


23  "When Moses was forty years old, he decided to visit his fellow Israelites.  24  He saw one of them being mistreated by an Egyptian, so he went to his defense and avenged him by killing the Egyptian. 25  Moses thought that his own people would realize that God was using him to rescue them, but they did not.  26  The next day Moses came upon two Israelites who were fighting. He tried to reconcile them by saying, 'Men, you are brothers; why do you want to hurt each other?'


27  "But the man who was mistreating the other pushed Moses aside and said, 'Who made you ruler and judge over us? 28  Do you want to kill me as you killed the Egyptian yesterday?'  29  When Moses heard this, he fled to Midian, where he settled as a foreigner and had two sons.  30  "After forty years had passed, an angel appeared to Moses in the flames of a burning bush in the desert near Mount Sinai. 31 When he saw this, he was amazed at the sight. As he went over to look more closely, he heard the Lord's voice: 32 'I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.' Moses trembled with fear and did not dare to look.


33  "Then the Lord said to him, 'Take off your sandals; the place where you are standing is holy ground. 34 I have indeed seen the oppression of my people in Egypt. I have heard their groaning and have come down to set them free. Now come, I will send you back to Egypt.'


35  "This is the same Moses whom they had rejected with the words, 'Who made you ruler and judge?' He was sent to be their ruler and deliverer by God himself, through the angel who appeared to him in the bush. 36  He led them out of Egypt and did wonders and miraculous signs in Egypt, at the Red Sea and for forty years in the desert.


37  "This is that Moses who told the Israelites, 'God will send you a prophet like me from your own people.' 38  He was in the assembly in the desert, with the angel who spoke to him on Mount Sinai, and with our fathers; and he received living words to pass on to us.


39  "But our fathers refused to obey him. Instead, they rejected him and in their hearts turned back to Egypt.  40  They told Aaron, 'Make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who led us out of Egypt--we don't know what has happened to him!'  41 That was the time they made an idol in the form of a calf. They brought sacrifices to it and held a celebration in honor of what their hands had made. 42  But God turned away and gave them over to the worship of the heavenly bodies. This agrees with what is written in the book of the prophets:


   " 'Did you bring me sacrifices and offerings
      forty years in the desert, O house of Israel?
      43  You have lifted up the shrine of Molech
      and the star of your god Rephan,
      the idols you made to worship.
     Therefore I will send you into exile' beyond Babylon.


44  "Our forefathers had the tabernacle of the Testimony with them in the desert. It had been made as God directed Moses, according to the pattern he had seen. 45  Having received the tabernacle, our fathers under Joshua brought it with them when they took the land from the nations God drove out before them. It remained in the land until the time of David, 46 who enjoyed God's favor and asked that he might provide a dwelling place for the God of Jacob.  47 But it was Solomon who built the house for him.


48  "However, the Most High does not live in houses made by men. As the prophet says:


        49" 'Heaven is my throne,
       and the earth is my footstool.
       What kind of house will you build for me? says the Lord.
       Or where will my resting place be?
       50  Has not my hand made all these things?'


51  "You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit!  52  Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him-- 53  you who have received the law that was put into effect through angels but have not obeyed it."


The Stoning of Stephen


54  When they heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. 55  But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56  "Look," he said, "I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God."


57  At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him,  58  dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul.    [Webmasters Note: Saul of Tarsus, who was a witness to the stoning of St. Stephen, and later was converted on the Road to Damascus and reborn as St. Paul the Apostle.  See Acts 9:3]


59  While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." 60  Then he fell on his knees and cried out, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." When he had said this, he fell asleep.



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