Who cares about Boxing Day? Today, 26 December, is Saint Stephen’s Day – although it is popularly known to many as the “feast of Stephen” because of the popular Christmas carol, Good King Wenceslas.
Today is a public holiday here in Ireland and in many other European countries. But in the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Byzantine-rite Eastern Catholic Churches, Saint Stephen will be remembered tomorrow on 27 December, which is also known as the Third Day of the Nativity.
Saint Stephen (Στέφανος, Stephanos) is known as the Protomartyr (Πρωτομάρτυς, Protomartis, or first martyr) of Christianity. Saint Stephen is mentioned for the first time in the New Testament at the appointment of the first deacons (Acts 6: 5). Because of dissatisfaction in the Church over the distribution of alms from the community funds, seven men were selected as deacons to take care of the temporal relief of the poorer members.
The Greek-speaking Christians complained that their widows and orphans were being over-looked in the daily distribution of food. The 12 Apostles called a meeting and decided to appoint seven good men from the Body of the Church to deal with these worries.
Stephen, is the first named and the best known of these seven. Although we know nothing about his life before this, as a deacon Stephen was full of grace and power. He worked great miracles and signs. Many came and argued with him but they could not hold their own against his wisdom. Because of this he made enemies.
The Acts of the Apostles tells how Stephen was hen tried by the Sanhedrin for blasphemy against God and for speaking against the Temple and the Law of Moses (Acts 6: 11-14). He and was then stoned to death by a mob encouraged by Saul of Tarsus, the future Saint Paul (Acts 8: 1).
Stephen’s final speech recalls the persecution of the prophets who spoke out in the past: “Which one of the Prophets did your fathers not persecute, and they killed the ones who prophesied the coming of the Just One, of whom now, too, you have become betrayers and murderers” (Acts 7: 52).
Stephen's name is derived from the Greek Stephanos, meaning “crown.” Saint Stephen is traditionally invested with a crown of martyrdom and is often depicted in icons and art with three stones and the martyrs’ palm. In Orthodox iconography he is shown as a young beardless man with a tonsure, robed in a deacon’s vestments, and often holding a church building and a censer.
As he was on trial and being prosecuted, Saint Stephen experienced a theophany, in which he saw both the Father and the Son: “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God” (Acts 7: 56.
The Lions’ Gate In the old city of Jerusalem is also called Saint Stephanus Gate, because tradition says that Stephen was stoned to death there, although it probably occurred at the Damascus Gate.
When Stephen’s relics were discovered in 415, they were solemnly transferred to a church built in his honour in Jerusalem. When Christian pilgrims were travelling in large numbers to Jerusalem, a priest named Lucian said he had learned in a vision that the tomb of Saint Stephen was in Caphar Gamala, north of Jerusalem.
His relics were exhumed and were carried to the Church of Mount Sion. In the year 460 they were placed in the Basilica erected by the Empress Eudocia outside the Damascus Gate on the spot where it was believed the stoning had taken place. Later, during the reign of Emperor Theodosius the Younger (408-450) they were moved to Constantinople.
In Dublin, we have Saint Stephen’s Church in Mount Street, and, of course, Saint Stephen’s Green. Saint Stephen’s Chapel in Westminster was first built in the reign of Henry III and eventually became the first location of the chamber of the House of Commons. During visits to Vienna, I have always made a point of visiting the Stephansdom, the Cathedral of Saint Stephen, founded in 1147. And I like to remember this day because Stephen was the baptismal name of my grandfather, my father and my eldest brother.
In the Anglican tradition, we ordain men and women as deacons, and traditionally, they wait a year before ordination to the priesthood. Although many forget this, all priests who are ordained in this traditional form remain deacons, and today’s saint, Stephen the first Deacon and Martyr, is a good reminder that the Ministry of a Deacon, the Ministry of service that involves waiting on others and looking after the needs of the marginalised and the forgotten, is the foundation of all ordained ministry.
Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.