Saint Stephen (5-34 AD)
Feast Day: December 26
The martyrdom of Stephen (from the Acts of the Apostles 6:8-7:2a, 44-59)
Stephen was a man filled with grace and power, who worked great wonders and signs among the people. Certain members of the so-called “Synagogue of Roman Freedmen” (that is, the Jews from Cyrene, Alexandria, Cilicia and Asia) would undertake to engage Stephen in debate, but they proved no match for the wisdom and spirit with which he spoke.
They persuaded some men to make the charge that they had heard him speaking blasphemies against Moses and God, and in this way they incited the people, the elders, and the scribes. All together they confronted him, seized him, and led him off to the Sanhedrin. There they brought in false witnesses, who said: “This man never stops making statements against the holy place and the law. We have heard him claim that Jesus the Nazorean will destroy this place and change the customs which Moses handed down to us.” The members of the Sanhedrin who sat there stared at him intently. Throughout, Stephen’s face seemed like that of an angel.
The high priest asked whether the charges were true. To this Stephen replied: “My brothers! Fathers! Listen to me. Our fathers in the desert had the meeting tent as God prescribed it when he spoke to Moses, ordering him to make it according to the pattern he had seen. The next generation of our fathers inherited it. Under Joshua, they brought it into the land during the conquest of those peoples whom God drove out to make room for our fathers. So it was until the time of David, who found favor with God and begged that he might find a dwelling place for the house of Jacob. It was Solomon, however, who constructed the building for that house. Yet the Most High does not dwell in buildings made by human hands, for as the prophet says: “The heavens are my throne, the earth is my footstool; what kind of house can you build me? Asks the Lord. What is my resting-place to be like? Did not my hand make all these things?”
“You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are always opposing the Holy Spirit just as your fathers did before you. Was there ever any prophet whom your fathers did not persecute? In their day, they put to death those who foretold the coming of the Just One; now you in your turn have become his betrayers and murderers. You who received the law through the ministry of angels have not observed it.”
Those who listened to his words were stung to the heart; they ground their teeth in anger at him. Stephen meanwhile, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked to the sky above and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at God’s right hand. “Look!” he exclaimed, “I see an opening in the sky, and the Son of Man standing at God’s right hand.” The onlookers were shouting aloud, holding their hands over their ears as they did so. Then they rushed at him as one man, dragged him out of the city, and began to stone him. The witnesses meanwhile were piling their cloaks at the feet of a young man named Saul. As Stephen was being stoned he could be heard praying, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” He fell to his knees and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And with that he died. Saul, for his part, concurred in the act of killing.
The Armament of Love
Yesterday we celebrated the birth in time of our eternal King. Today we celebrate the triumphant suffering of his soldier. Yesterday our king, clothed in his robe of flesh, left his place in the virgin’s womb and graciously visited the world. Today his soldier leaves the tabernacle of his body and goes triumphantly to heaven.
Our king, despite his exalted majesty, came in humility for our sake; yet he did not come empty-handed. He brought his soldiers a great gift that not only enriched them but also made them unconquerable in battle, for it was the gift of love, which was to bring men to share in his divinity. He gave of his bounty, yet without any loss to himself. In a marvelous way he changed into wealth the poverty of his faithful followers while remaining in full possession of his own inexhaustible riches.
And so the love that brought Christ from heaven to earth raised Stephen from earth to heaven; shown first in the king, it later shone forth in his soldier. Love was Stephen’s weapon by which he gained every battle, and so won the crown signified by his name. His love of God kept him from yielding to the ferocious mob; his love for his neighbor made him pray for those who were stoning him. Love inspired him to reprove those who erred, to make them amend; love led him to pray for those who stoned him, to save them from punishment. Strengthened by the power of his love, he overcame the raging cruelty of Saul and won his persecutor on earth as his companion in heaven. In his holy and tireless love he longed to gain by prayer those whom he could not convert by admonition.
Now at last, Paul rejoices with Stephen, with Stephen he delights in the glory of Christ, with Stephen he exalts, with Stephen he reigns. Stephen went first, slain by the stones thrown by Paul, but Paul followed after, helped by the prayer of Stephen. This, surely, is the true life, my brothers, a life in which Paul feels no shame because of Stephen’s death, and Stephen delights in Paul’s companionship, for love fills them both with joy. It was Stephen’s love that prevailed over the cruelty of the mob, and it was Paul’s love that covered the multitude of his sins; it was love that won for both of them the kingdom of heaven.
Love, indeed, is the source of all good things; it is an impregnable defense, and the way that leads to heaven. He who walks in love can neither go astray nor be afraid: love guides him, protects him, and brings him to his journey’s end.