Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Feast of St. Stephen: deacon, martyr

Today, the day after we celebrate the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ, we celebrate the Feast of St. Stephen. Like the other six men on whom the apostles laid hands, thus setting them apart, that is, consecrating them, to serve, Stephen was a Greek-speaking Jew. These men were set apart to insure that the daily distribution of food was divided equally between Greek-speaking and, presumably, Aramaic-speaking widows in the earliest Christian community in Jerusalem. It was the complaining of the Greek-speaking members of the community that led the apostles to ask the community to select seven men to serve the community (Acts 6:3-4).

Just after Easter this year, I was re-reading parts of the late Jaroslav Pelikan's theological commentary on the Acts of the Apostles, which is the very last book published by the great historian of Christian doctrine before his passing in 2006. In the course of my reading I came across his commentary on Acts 2:1, which says, "When the day of Pentecost was fully come."

In his theological commentary on this foundational passage, Pelikan highlighted "[t]he theological theme of the connection between the Holy Spirit and 'fullness'," which, he noted, "runs through the entire narrative of Acts." He went to on cite examples from the text of this companion volume to The Gospel According to St. Luke, sometimes called "The Gospel of the Holy Spirit," of those who were filled with the Holy Spirit, along with the example of Ananias (Acts 5:1-11), who was not. In this he points forward to Acts chapter six, where we read about the seven men being set apart for service. The instruction of the Twelve to the community was "pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty" (Acts 6:3 ESV). Note: being filled with the Spirit was a requirement.

Despite being set aside and consecrated for service, specifically "table" service, we quickly find St. Stephen preaching. Apart from the teaching of our Lord Himself and St. Peter's Pentecost preaching, which led to the baptism of many, many people, Stephen preaches perhaps the greatest sermon in the whole of Sacred Scripture (Acts 6:8-13; Acts 7:1-53). Stephen was indeed  "a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit and of wisdom' (6:5)." Stephen, Pelikan went on to point out, was also noted for being "'full of grace and power (6:8)"... who at his protomartyr's death, 'full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus stand at the right hand of God' (7:55)."

St. Stephen, by Ulisse Sartini


This painting of St. Stephen, which I discovered on New Year's Day 2012, is by the contemporary Italian master Ulisse Sartini and was commissioned by an anonymous benefactor. Sartini depicts St. Stephen dressed in a golden dalmatic with the palm of martyrdom in his right hand and the Book of the Gospels held between his left arm and his body. At the top of the picture the Cross is barley detectable. The original is in the Church of St. Stephen, Martyr in the city of Rivergaro, Italy.

St. Stephen's day is the day the Church celebrates deacons. In my own diocese, the Diocese of Salt Lake City, the restored and renewed diaconate was inaugurated by Bishop Joseph Lennox Federal on 26 December 1976.

St. Stephen, who, along with St. Martin of Tours, on whose feast I was born, is my patron saint from birth, my middle name being Stephen. He is also the patron of Καθολικός διάκονος, which remains dedicated to the diakonia of koinonia (i.e., the service of communion). Koinonia is the transliterated form of the Greek word κοινωνία, which refers to being in communion by "intimate" participation. It is the word used frequently throughout the New Testament to describe the fellowship (i.e., the communion) of the Early Church. Specifically, it is used to describe the Eucharist.

St. Stephen, proto-martyr, pray for all deacons, that, like you, we may be witnesses, that is, martyrs, for Jesus Christ.

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