ALL ABOUT SAINT STEPHEN, THE FIRST CHRISTIAN MARTYR
ALL ABOUT SAINT STEPHEN: THE FIRST CHRISTIAN MARTYR
[An Editorial from the Harrisonburg Daily News-Record; 26 December 2013]
Today, millions of Americans will be doing one of two things, or perhaps both: Returning unwanted or damaged Christmas gifts, or thanks to more sales, buying even more of them. Most of them, sadly, won’t give a thought to, or more likely won’t know, what Dec. 26 really is: the Feast of St. Stephen the Protomartyr. Proto means first, and if Christians do know St. Stephen, it only may be unwittingly through “Good King Wenceslas,” the Christmas carol. It tells the story of the venerable martyr and patron saint of Bohemia, who gave alms to a poor man “on the feast of Stephen.” Wenceslas was emulating Stephen in giving, but Stephen did much more than that. St. Luke, author of the third synoptic Gospel, tells the martyr’s story in Chapters 6 and 7 of Acts Of The Apostles.
Hearing that widows “were neglected in the daily ministration,” or giving of alms, the apostles appointed seven deacons to oversee this charity. One of them was Stephen , “a man full of faith, and of the Holy Ghost.” A Hellenist Jewish convert to Christ, Stephen was “full of grace and fortitude, did great wonders and signs among the people,” Acts says, and although some of his listeners tried to dispute Stephen’s teaching, “they were not able to resist the wisdom and the spirit that spoke.” And so those opposed to the new faith “suborned men to say, they had heard him speak words of blasphemy against Moses and against God. And they stirred up the people” and “took him, and brought him to the council.”
There, before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish high court, Stephen offered a long history of the Chosen Race beginning with Abraham, then shockingly remonstrated with those who judged him: “You stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do you also. Which of the prophets have not your fathers persecuted? And they have slain them who foretold of the coming of the Just One; of whom you have been now the betrayers and murderers.”
Stephen then looked up to Heaven to experience his theophany: “Behold,” Stephen said, “I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God.” From there, a mob “ran violently upon him” and took him out of the city, where they stoned him. Then they “laid down their garments at the feet of a young man, whose name was Saul.” The account of Stephen’s martyrdom in Acts closes with his emulating his Redeemer on the Cross. “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit,” Stephen said as the mob rained stones upon him, “[a]nd falling on his knees, he cried with a loud voice, saying: ‘Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.’ And when he had said this, he fell asleep in the Lord.
And Saul was consenting to his death.” Knocked off his horse and blinded on the road to Damascus, Saul, of course, became St. Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, who was martyred by beheading during Nero’s flagitious persecution of Christians. A day after celebrating the arrival of an infant Savior, Dec. 26 is a fitting feast day to honor the first man to achieve the “crown of martyrdom,” as Christians came to call it, for their infant Church. The Aramaic word for Stephen, 'Kelil', does indeed mean 'crown'.