SAINT STEPHEN THE PROTOMARTYR – Etenim sederunt principes
Introit: (Ps 119) Princes moreover did sit, and did witness falsely against me, and the ungodly pressed sore upon me: O Lord my God, stand up to help me, for thy servant is occupied continually in thy commandments. Ps. Blessed are those that are undefiled in the way: and walk in the law of the Lord. Glory be … Princes moreover did sit …
Collect: Grant, O Lord, that in all our sufferings here upon earth, for the testimony of thy truth, we may stedfastly look up to heaven, and by faith behold the glory that shall be revealed: and, being filled with the Holy Ghost, may learn to love and bless our persecutors, by the example of thy first Martyr Saint Stephen, who prayed for his murderers to thee, O blessed Jesus, who standest at the right hand of God to succour all those that suffer for thee, our only Mediator and Advocate; who livest and reignest with the Father and the same Holy Ghost, one God, world without end. Amen.
(For Christmastide) Almighty God, who hast given us thy only-begotten Son to take our nature upon him, and as at this time to be born of a pure Virgin: Grant that we being regenerate, and made thy children by adoption and grace, may daily be renewed by thy Holy Spirit; through the same our Lord Jesus Christ, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the same Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.
OT Lesson: Though the righteous be prevented with death, yet shall he be in rest. For honourable age is not that which standeth in length of time, nor that is measured by number of years. But wisdom is the gray hair unto men, and an unspotted life is old age. He pleased God, and was beloved of him: so that living among sinners he was translated. Yea speedily was he taken away, lest that wickedness should alter his understanding, or deceit beguile his soul. For the bewitching of naughtiness doth obscure things that are honest; and the wandering of concupiscence doth undermine the simple mind. He, being made perfect in a short time, fulfilled a long time: For his soul pleased the Lord: therefore hasted he to take him away from among the wicked. This the people saw, and understood it not, neither laid they up this in their minds, That his grace and mercy is with his saints, and that he hath respect unto his chosen. Thus the righteous that is dead shall condemn the ungodly which are living; and youth that is soon perfected, the many years and old age of the unrighteous. (Wisdom 4.7-16)
Gradual: Princes did sit and speak against me: and the wicked have persecuted me. V. Help me, O Lord my God, and save me according to thy mercy.
NT Lesson: In those days: Stephen, full of faith and power, did great wonders and miracles among the people. Then there arose certain of the synagogue, which is called the synagogue of the Libertines, and Cyrenians, and Alexandrians, and of them of Cilicia and of Asia, disputing with Stephen. And they were not able to resist the wisdom and the spirit by which he spake. Then they suborned men, which said, We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses, and against God. And they stirred up the people, and the elders, and the scribes, and came upon him, and caught him, and brought him to the council, and set up false witnesses, which said, This man ceaseth not to speak blasphemous words against this holy place, and the law: for we have heard him say, that this Jesus of Nazareth shall destroy this place, and shall change the customs which Moses delivered us. And all that sat in the council, looking stedfastly on him, saw his face as it had been the face of an angel. Then said the high priest, Are these things so? And he said, Men, brethren, and fathers, hearken: … Ye stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do ye. Which of the prophets have not your fathers persecuted? and they have slain them which shewed before of the coming of the Just One; of whom ye have been now the betrayers and murderers: who have received the law by the disposition of angels, and have not kept it. When they heard these things, they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed on him with their teeth. But he, being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up stedfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God, and said, Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God. Then they cried out with a loud voice, and stopped their ears, and ran upon him with one accord, and cast him out of the city, and stoned him: and the witnesses laid down their clothes at a young man’s feet, whose name was Saul. And they stoned Stephen, calling upon God, and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. And he kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge. And when he had said this, he fell asleep. (Acts 6.8—7.2; 7.51-60)
Alleluia. I see the heavens opened, and Jesus standing on the right hand of the power of God. Alleluia.
The Holy Gospel: At that time: Jesus spake unto the Scribes and Pharisees, saying: Behold, I send unto you prophets, and wise men, and scribes: and some of them ye shall kill and crucify; and some of them shall ye scourge in your synagogues, and persecute them from city to city: that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed upon the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel unto the blood of Zacharias son of Barachias, whom ye slew between the temple and the altar. Verily I say unto you, All these things shall come upon this generation. O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not! Behold, your house is left unto you desolate. For I say unto you, Ye shall not see me henceforth, till ye shall say, Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord. (S Matthew 23.34-39)
“And as they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”
What is the Church thinking? Doesn’t it realise that it’s Christmas? Just yesterday we celebrated the birth of our Lord and King. And now today, we are covered in red, the blood of the martyrs. But this is St Stephen’s Day, and it really doesn’t get any merrier from here. Tomorrow we commemorate St John, the Apostle and Evangelist, who was poisoned, and later boiled in oil, because of his testimony for Christ, yet miraculously survived both ordeals. Tuesday is the day dedicated to the Holy Innocents—those baby boys in Bethlehem two years old and younger, who were killed by King Herod in an attempt to destroy Jesus before he could become a threat to his throne. And the day following is the Feast of St Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, killed by the knights of King Henry II right on the steps of the altar in Canterbury Cathedral. Whatever happened to the “two turtledoves, three French hens, four colly-birds, and five golden rings”?
St Stephen’s Day actually antedates the celebration of the Nativity of Christ on the 25th. Evidence exists for the commemoration of St Stephen on December 26th as far back as the 3rd century. There are, however, records even in the 2nd century of encomiums and exhortations to martyrdom being preached concerning St Stephen, in places as disparate as Palestine and Lyons. But the description of St Stephen’s glorification and his prominence in the text of the Acts of the Apostles argue strongly that this commemoration goes back well into the first century, and that what is recorded by St Luke in Acts 6 and 7 is a piece of tradition which he has received directly. In any case, it is clear that St Stephen’s Day is one of the very earliest feasts of the Christian Church, being predated only by Easter and Pentecost, and possibly Epiphany. In other words, before “Christmas” was ever celebrated, St Stephen’s Day was on the Church Kalendar, and may well actually commemorate the very day on which he was stoned to death for his testimony to the Christian Faith. In any case, the story of St Stephen represents the transformation of the Jewish tradition of commemoration of prophets and martyrs into the Christian understanding of sainthood, both theologically and liturgically. He is not only the protomartyr, but also the paradigm by which sainthood is Biblically understood.
In T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, Archbishop Thomas Becket, preaching in Canterbury Cathedral on Christmas morning, 1170, begins: “Whenever Mass is said, we re-enact the Passion and Death of Our Lord; and on this Christmas Day we do this in celebration of His Birth … Beloved, as the World sees, this is to behave in a strange fashion. For who in the World will both mourn and rejoice at once and for the same reason?” Our 21st-century world has the Christmas season upside down. It is not the lead-up to December 25th, whereupon it exhausts itself with the unwrapping of the last present or the downing of the final cookie. For the Church, the Christmas season flows from December 25th, and continues for twelve days. And the first thing the Church speaks to us about during Christmastide is a martyr. (“Martyr,” incidentally, simply means “witness” in Greek.) Eliot/Becket continues:
Consider also one thing of which you have probably never thought. Not only do we at the feast of Christmas celebrate at once Our Lord’s Birth and His Death: but on the next day we celebrate the martyrdom of his first martyr, the blessed Stephen. Is it an accident, do you think, that the day of the first martyr follows immediately the day of the Birth of Christ? By no means. Just as we rejoice and mourn at once, in the Birth and Passion of Our Lord; so also, in a smaller figure, we both rejoice and mourn in the death of martyrs. We mourn, for the sins of the world that has martyred them; we rejoice, that another soul is numbered among the Saints in Heaven, for the glory of God and for the salvation of men.
Remembering the death of Stephen helps us recall that the Child born in a manger became the man who died on the cross for our sins, who is also the God incarnate who could not be contained by death. Now death no longer causes us dread. The Feast of St Stephen helps us to appreciate the wonderful change the incarnation has effected in the world, transforming death itself into an occasion for peace and rejoicing.
Stephen, we are told, was full of grace and power and performed great signs and wonders. He was also an evangelist and even travels outside the area of Jerusalem, teaching and preaching in the local synagogues. But some of the people of these assemblies rise up against Stephen, accusing him of blasphemy. They haul him before the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem and set up false witnesses who claim that he has said that Jesus will destroy the temple and do away with the law of Moses. And yet even as these men told lies about him, St Luke tells us that Stephen sat there with the face of an angel—he was peaceful even in the face of condemnation. When the high priest finally gave him a chance to defend himself, Stephen did not apologize or make excuses, but instead, took the opportunity to preach the Gospel of Christ to the whole Sanhedrin. He reminded them of their forebears who were rescued from slavery in Egypt, how God had cared for them in the wilderness and drove out their enemies in Canaan to give them a homeland; but he noted how, over and over, the people rejected God—gladly claiming the great things He gave them, but never truly receiving God Himself. And with that Stephen brings them right down to Jesus.
And what was their response? “When they heard these things, they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed on him with their teeth. But he, being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up stedfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God, and said, Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God. Then they cried out with a loud voice, and stopped their ears, and ran upon him with one accord, and cast him out of the city, and stoned him.”But St Luke adds a seeming throwaway line, “and the witnesses laid down their clothes at a young man’s feet, whose name was Saul.”
So Stephen is dragged off, thrown into a pit, and stoned to death. But Stephen’s story does more than just encourage us to share the Good News and to stand firm in our faith. He reminds us what it means to witness the Gospel of Christ in our deeds. Stephen did not reciprocate their anger; he saw them as Jesus saw them: sinful men whom God loved. St John reminds us that anyone who claims to love God, but hates his brother, is a liar—that we cannot have experienced the redeeming love of God and still hold grudges and harbour hatred in our heart against those who have wronged us. To hold a grudge, to fail to show a forgiving spirit, is to be self-righteous—it is to ignore what God had done for us! Stephen could look on these angry men with love, precisely because he had himself experienced the love of Christ and God’s forgiveness. And lest we think that Jesus is just speaking in hyperbole when He tells us to love our enemies, St Stephen shows us how the love of Christ really does work out in our lives—or at least how it should, if we truly love God and have experienced His grace and forgiveness. Stephen had that vision of the Lord Jesus before his eyes, and so even as these men began hurling stones at him, he responded with Christlike love. When Jesus was hanging on the cross, He said, “Father, forgive them, for they know now what they do,” and Stephen, with his eyes fixed on Jesus, does the same, praying for them: “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.” And thus he fell asleep in the Lord, and was born in heaven.
Yet the story of Stephen holds the seeds of at least two other stories which are about to begin. First, it triggers a fierce persecution of the followers of Jesus which results in arrests and imprisonment for many. But it also sends the Christians out of Jerusalem to far off places where they preach and teach the Good News so that the Church begins to spread. And secondly, remember that apparent throwaway line from earlier? St Luke specifically tells us that St Paul was there that day; in fact, he was holding the coats of the men who were stoning Stephen, and the next verse (8.1) tells us that he approved of Stephen’s execution. Of course, this was when he was known as Saul—before he met Jesus on the Damascus Road. We may not know for certain what impact Stephen’s martyrdom had on Saul’s future conversion, but Luke surely included this detail for a reason. Perhaps it was Stephen’s witness, his assurance of faith, his words, his vision, his peaceful and gracious death, and his willingness to forgive his enemies, that sparked off in Saul the thought that maybe, just maybe, this Jesus was indeed the Way, the Truth and the Life.
One of the earliest sermons for St Stephen’s Day comes from St Fulgentius of Ruspe, a 6th-century North African bishop and student of St Augustine. It offers a deep insight which warrants quoting at length:
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 court in the Virgin’s womb and graciously visited the world. Today his soldier leaves the earthly 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 marvellous 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 neighbour 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.
And now Paul rejoices with Stephen, with Stephen he delights in the glory of Christ, with Stephen he exults, with Stephen he reigns. Stephen went first, slain by the stones thrown by Paul; Paul followed after, helped by the prayer of Stephen. This, surely, brethren, is true life, a life in which Paul feels no shame because of Stephen’s death, and Stephen delights in Paul’s companionship; for in them both love itself rejoices. In Stephen, love overcame the ferocity of the Jewish mob; in Paul, love covered a multitude of sins; in both, love won for them the kingdom of heaven.
Throughout Advent the lessons reminded us that we need to be prepared—that we need to be living and growing in the new life of grace that Our Lord has brought to us by His First Advent, and that He has given us the mission of building His kingdom as we await His Second Coming in glory. But as much as our mission is a joyful one, it is still hard work—sometimes even dangerous work. In our Gospel lesson we hear His warning: “Behold, I send unto you prophets, and wise men, and scribes: and some of them ye shall kill and crucify; and some of them shall ye scourge in your synagogues, and persecute them from city to city…” He also says in the Beatitudes: “Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven … Blessed are ye when men shall revile you and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice and be exceeding glad, for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.”He prepares us for the fact that, as we follow Him and work for His kingdom, as we witness to the great peace and joy we have found in the manger and at the cross, we too will face the persecution of the world. Yet we can find peace and joy even in persecution, because when we make Christ our Lord, He gives us that eternal perspective we have been learning about during Advent, and suddenly the things of the world are much less important. This change in perspective means that we can effectively communicate the Gospel to someone while being tormented or even killed. We saw Love Incarnate in the manger yesterday. And now, because God has so changed our perspective, we can love as He loves. We can even love our enemies and do good to those who persecute us. The closer we grow to Christ, the better able we will be to live the life of faithfulness and love which He both commanded and exemplified. And the better we live that life, the closer we will be to Christ.
When it comes right down to it, each of us must ask ourselves: Who is this Jesus, and is He worth standing up for in life? Is He worth becoming a martyr for (that is, should I be a witness for Him)? And what does it mean to be a witness to Him? Stephen shows us very dramatically what it means to live our witness. We never know who is watching us or how they may be influenced for Christ by what we say and do. Who could have imagined that Stephen’s witness that day might change the whole course of Church history, as Saul of Tarsus—Hebrew of the Hebrews and member of the Sanhedrin, the man who hunted down Christians and brought them to trial before the Jewish authorities, should later become Saint Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles?
Without witness, the church is a dead thing—“our house is left desolate.” But by faithful and consistent witness, we unleash the power of God which can turn enemies into friends. Our own witness, our martyrdom, to Jesus may seem small, but if we remain true to Him it can accomplish infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. Our lives as seen by others will express the truth of Christmas all year long: that God is in Christ reconciling the world to Himself. Everything we do will be done for Him.
Saint Stephen was, as the Church calls him, “the protomartyr.” That means more than just the first martyr chronologically. “Proto” means that he is the prototype of what every follower of Christ ought to be, one who is so deeply in love with Jesus that he is more than willing to die for the One whom he loves. Perhaps the hardest part of dying for Christ is living for Him. It is that “dying” life which is so costly. This is the example St Stephen holds before us.
“He, being made perfect in a short time, fulfilled a long time: for his soul pleased the Lord.”
Collect: Almighty and everlasting God, who in the blood of the blessed Deacon Stephen didst consecrate unto thyself the first-fruits of thy Martyrs: grant, we beseech thee; that he may ever intercede for us, who prayed even for his persecutors unto our Lord Jesus Christ thy Son; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, world without end. Amen.
Grant, we beseech thee, Almighty God: that we who through our ancient bondage are held beneath the yoke of sin, may by the new Birth of thine only-begotten Son in the flesh obtain deliverance; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
May he who by his Incarnation joined heaven to earth and earth to heaven, fill you with his joy and peace; And the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, be amongst you, and remain with you always. Amen.