Arms of St. Stephen
[Crown and Stones]
Badge of St. Stephen
[Palm of martyrs and Stones]

[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.