Saint Stephen, First Christian Martyr
Feast Day, December 26.
Symbols:deacon carrying a pile of rocks; deacon with rocks gathered in his vestments; deacon with rocks on his head; deacon with rocks or a book at hand; stones; palm
Jesus had twelve apostles. An apostle is someone with a special mission, who is sent out to do a special job. Jesus chose His apostles to build His Church. The apostles lived with Jesus, learned from Him and traveled with Him around the countryside as He went from town to town teaching about His Father.
Jesus also had many disciples, people who came to learn from Jesus. The Bible tells us there were 72 disciples.
After Jesus ascended into Heaven, the apostles began to preach to the people themselves, and to start the Catholic church. There was a lot of work to do. People came to them with gifts, others came asking for healing, or food. Soon, the apostles were so busy organizing the people that they had no time to teach them anymore.
So, they asked the disciples to choose seven men to take care of the poor and the organizing. These seven men were the first deacons of the church. The apostles ordained them as deacons by praying and placing their hands on the heads of the deacons.
Saint Stephen was one of the first seven deacons. He began to serve the poor and preach to the people about Jesus. More and more people joined the Christians. The high priests of the temple were jealous of Saint Stephen's successes, and accused him of blasphemy, which means telling lies about God.
They took him in front of a judge, just like they did to Jesus. At the trial, Saint Stephen kept on teaching about Jesus. He told the judges that they were hard-hearted murderers of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. When the crowd heard this, everyone became so angry that they stopped the trial, dragged Saint Stephen outside and threw rocks at him.
Saint Stephen forgave the people who were stoning him, and asked God not to punish the people. Then he said, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." and died. Saint Stephen was the first Christian martyr, the first person to die because he loved Jesus so much that he wouldn't stop talking about Him.
Saint Stephen is the first Christian martyr. In the Acts of the Apostles, written by Saint Luke, the Evangelist, his faith and martyrdom is described.
In the days after the Ascension and Pentecost, the numbers of disciples grew so large that the apostles had no time to concentrate on prayer and the ministry of the Word. So they assembled the community and told them to choose seven men to be deacons. These deacons were to oversee the distribution of alms, food and property, and some of the spiritual needs of the community.
The Apostles ordained the deacons by first praying over them and then by laying hands on their heads. Saint Stephen was one of the deacons chosen. He was already a 'man filled with grace and power, who worked great wonders and signs among the people.' (Acts 6:8)
Of course, those who had conspired against Jesus and saw Him as a threat to the Jewish faith were still in Jerusalem. To their dismay, crucifying Jesus hadn't stopped His teaching. The Apostles and the deacons continued meeting in the temple and on street corners, teaching the Gospel. Many people, including priests joined the Christians.
A group called the Libertines, or the Synagogue of Roman Freemen, tried to argue with Saint Stephen. But when they could not win any debates with him, they found false witnesses to accuse him of blasphemy to the Sanhedrin.
At Saint Stephen's trial, he was given the opportunity to answer the charges laid against him. At this point, he could have apologized, told the court that he was wrong and promised to never talk about Jesus again. Instead, he delivered a powerful homily, and witness of his faith.
He showed those assembled that although Moses foretold a new law and a Messiah, and that Solomon had built the Temple, both were temporary and were supposed to fall in order than God might introduce more perfect institutions. This had been fulfilled by the coming of the Messiah. He accused them of persecuting and murdering prophets who foretold the Christ, and finally of betraying and murdering Him in person.
Finally, turning his eyes upwards, he saw the Heavens open and his Saviour, Jesus Christ ready to protect, receive and crown his servant, Stephen. Joyfully, he informed the crowd of this vision. This enraged both the Sanhedrin and the crowd so much, that they abandoned the procedures of the court and the sentencing power of the Roman governor and dragged Stephen out of the city.
'Piling their cloaks at the feet of a young man named Saul' they began stoning Saint Stephen. He died crying out to the Lord "Receive my spirit." and "Lord, lay not this sin to their charge."
Saul later became Saint Paul, a great evangelist for the Church.
Saint Stephen was unquestionably Jewish, and was most likely a Diaspora jew who spoke Greek. His spoken name was Stephanos, which in Greek means "crown". The circumstances of his conversion aren't known, but he appears in the Acts when amongst the growing numbers of gathered disciples there were murmurs against the treatment of widows who spoke Greek by the Hebrews.
The Apostles gathered the Faithful together and told them they could not dispense with preaching and prayer to 'care for tables', and they would have to choose seven holy men to continue to preach and pray. This was unanimously accepted by the community and Stephen, "full of Faith and the Holy Ghost" along with Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicholas the proselyte of Antioch were chosen. Then the Apostles laid hands on the men in confirmation, and thus the first deacons were ordained.
Stephen spoke with such elegance and wisdom that many converted, and this raised the ire of the elders of the synagogue. They wished to up-end the saint, but were unable to argue him into submission, so they obtained false witnesses to say Stephen had blasphemed Moses and God. Specifically that he had foretold the destruction of the temple, and spoke that the Mosaic traditions were hollow and no longer acceptable to God, since Jesus the Christ had thrown them away.
He was allowed to speak, and what follows in Acts 7:2-53 is an inspired dissertation on the economy of salvation beginning with Abraham and ending with Jesus. His witness ends with a stinging rebuke of the Sanhedrin as " … stiff-necked and uncircumcised in hearts and ears … who have received the law by the disposition of angels, and have not kept it."
The Jews were enraged and Stephen, full of the Holy Ghost, spoke of a vision of heaven with the Saviour at the right hand of God. The assembly cried out with one voice and resolved to put him to death without delay. They rushed en masse at the saint. They pushed him about town, finally dragging him outside the city and relieving their rage against him by stoning him. Stephen implored the Lord to receive his spirit, and that his killers not be condemned for their act. Thus he went to his reward as the first martyr for Christ.
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