An icon of Saint Stephen, the first deacon and the martyr
Saint Stephen’s Day today [26 December], Holy Innocents’ Day on 28 December, and the commemoration of Thomas à Beckett on 29 December are reminders that Christmas, far from being surrounded by sanitised images of the crib, angels and wise men, is followed by martyrdom and violence. Close on the joy of Christmas comes the cost of following Christ. As the popular expression says: “No Cross, No Crown.”
Saint Stephen (Στέφανος, Stephanos) is the first martyr of Christianity. His name is derived from the Greek word meaning “crown,” and traditionally, he carries the crown of martyrdom. In iconography, Saint Stephen the Deacon is often depicted as a young, beardless man, with a deacon’s stole and holding three stones of his martyrdom and the martyrs’ palm.
According to the brief New Testament account of his life and death (Acts 6:1 to 8: 2), Saint Stephen is one of the seven deacons selected by the Early Church in Jerusalem to attend to the needs of the Greek-speaking widows whose needs were being neglected. Stephen, and the other six deacons – Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas and Nicholas – all have Greek names.
He was denounced for blasphemy later, and was tried before the Sanhedrin. During his trial, he had a vision of 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). He was condemned, taken outside the city walls and stoned to death. Among those who stoned him to death was Saul of Tarsus, later the Apostle Paul.
In the Old City of Jerusalem, the Lion’s Gate is also called Saint Stephen’s Gate, after the tradition that Saint Stephen was stoned to death there, although it probably took place at the Damascus Gate.
In the one of the earliest examples of irony in Western Europe, the Mediaeval Church designated Saint Stephen y as the patron saint of stonemasons and, for some time, he was also the patron saint of headaches.
Saint Stephen’s House, an Anglican theological college in Oxford, is at Iffley Road in the former monastery of the Cowley Fathers, where it is said Dietrich Bonhoeffer decided to return to Germany where he met with martyrdom.
Bonhoeffer’s martyrdom illustrates how the extension to the Christmas holiday provided by this saint’s day would have no meaning today without the faithful witness of Saint Stephen, the first deacon and first martyr, who links our faith in the Incarnation with our faith in the Resurrection.
The interior of Saint Stephen’s Church, Mount Street Crescent, Dublin
This day, the “Feast of Stephen,” is also mentioned in the popular carol, Good King Wenceslas. The carol was published by John Mason Neale (1818-1866) in 1853, although he may have written it some time earlier, for he included the legend of Saint Wenceslas in his Deeds of Faith in 1849.
Good King Wenceslas looked out on the Feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even.
Brightly shone the moon that night, though the frost was cruel,
When a poor man came in sight, gathering winter fuel.
“Hither, page, and stand by me, if you know it, telling,
Yonder peasant, who is he? Where and what his dwelling?”
“Sire, he lives a good league hence, underneath the mountain,
Right against the forest fence, by Saint Agnes’ fountain.”
“Bring me food and bring me wine, bring me pine logs hither,
You and I will see him dine, when we bear them thither.”
Page and monarch, forth they went, forth they went together,
Through the cold wind’s wild lament and the bitter weather.
“Sire, the night is darker now, and the wind blows stronger,
Fails my heart, I know not how; I can go no longer.”
“Mark my footsteps, my good page, tread now in them boldly,
You shall find the winter’s rage freeze your blood less coldly.”
In his master’s steps he trod, where the snow lay dinted;
Heat was in the very sod which the saint had printed.
Therefore, Christian men, be sure, wealth or rank possessing,
You who now will bless the poor shall yourselves find blessing.
Although it is included in neither the Irish Church Hymnal nor the New English Hymnal, this carol reains its popularity, and I imagine it is going to sung in many places today.
Wenceslas was a 10th century Duke of Bohemia who was known for his saintly caring works for the poor. He became the patron saint of Bohemia (now part of the Czech Republic) and his feast day is on 28 September.
In the calendars of the Western Church, Saint Stephen is commemorated today [26 December], while in the calendars of the Eastern Orthodox Church, his feast day is celebrated tomorrow [27 December].
who gave the first martyr Stephen
grace to pray for those who stoned him:
Grant that in all our sufferings for the truth
we may learn to love even our enemies
and to seek forgiveness for those who desire our hurt,
looking up to heaven to him who was crucified for us,
Jesus Christ, our Mediator and Advocate,
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.
II Chronicles 24: 20-22; Psalm 119: 161-168; Acts 7: 51-60; Matthew 10: 17-22.
Post Communion Prayer:
we thank you for these signs of your mercy,
we praise you for feeding us at your table
and giving us joy in honouring Stephen,
first martyr of the new Israel;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Tomorrow (27 December): Saint John the Evangelist.
Canon Patrick Comerford is lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.