December 25, 2017

Saint Stephen, Archdeacon and Protomartyr

Saint Stephen the first Christian martyr

Feast Day - December 26th 

It is an interesting point about human nature that we desire to know the truth — as long as it confirms what we, ourselves, already believe and do. That is why it is often dangerous to be a prophet, a speaker of the real truth as God sees it. The words of such a person are not always greeted with joy, but often with anger, suspicion, indignity and sometimes, even violence. Such was the case of Saint Stephen, whose story is told in the Acts of the Apostles, chapters six and seven.

We know very little of Stephen’s life prior to this mention in the Scriptures, but much can be inferred about him from what is written there. At this time, in the very early history of the Church, there were practical issues that had arisen that needed to be addressed. One of these concerned charitable efforts, namely, the distribution of alms to the Hellenist, or Greek-speaking Christian widows; it was alleged that they were being neglected in favor of those who spoke Hebrew.

Realizing that they required help in the day-to-day work of the nascent Church, the Apostles directed the community to select "seven reputable men, filled with the Spirit and wisdom" to do this part of the Church’s ministry. Of these deacons, the person appointed to lead them, Stephen, is the only one mentioned by name.

Stephen proved to be adept at serving the everyday needs of the people, as well as a powerful preacher of Christ. Scripture goes so far as to say that he "worked great wonders" among them, which suggests he may also have been a healer and miracle worker. So effective and convincing was he that he soon aroused the ire of members of the Roman Synagogue, who engaged him in debate about the new faith. His interlocutors presumed that they would cast doubt on his teaching. To their dismay, Stephen handily won the debate, converting numerous others to such a degree that, like Jesus before him, plans were made to have him killed.

Because they could not prevail in their argumentation, Jewish leaders, Scripture tells us, persuaded others to testify falsely that they had heard Stephen commit blasphemy against God. Arrested and brought before the Sanhedrin, Stephen spoke eloquently in his own defense, recounting the history of Israel and her repeated acts of idolatry and disobedience against God. His words, especially when he pointed out that his accusers, "always oppose the holy Spirit; you are just like your ancestors," aroused the crowd to anger. They bound Stephen and dragged him outside the walls of the city to punish him for the sin of blasphemy as the law prescribed — which meant stoning him to death.

As he died, Stephen, told the onlooking crowd that he could see Jesus on high, "standing at the right hand of God." Before receiving the crown of martyrdom, Stephen uttered the words that the Savior Himself had said from the cross. "Lord Jesus," he cried out, "receive my spirit. Lord, do not hold this sin against them."

Interestingly, another man, who would soon become an Apostle and martyr for Christ, was standing as an approving witness to the actions of the crowd. That man was Saul, who would eventually have his own profound experience of Jesus and become known as Saint Paul. Stephen is called the "protomartyr," or first martyr of the Church. He is the patron of bricklayers, deacons, and Hungary. Grant, Lord, we pray, that we may imitate what we worship, and so learn to love our enemies, for we celebrate the heavenly birthday of a man who knew how to pray even for his persecutors. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son. Amen.

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