Thursday, December 26, 2013

Feast of St. Stephen

As both of my readers will know, today the Church celebrates the glorious feast of her first martyr, St. Stephen, a Greek-speaking Jewish Christian of the first generation of Christians, who is numbered among the seven men traditionally considered to be the Church's first deacons (Acts 6:1-7).

Not content to merely assist with the daily distribution, the inspired author of the Acts of the Apostles recorded, "Now Stephen, filled with grace and power, was working great wonders and signs among the people" (Acts 6:8). Neither was Stephen content assisting with the distribution and "working great wonders and signs." So, he engaged in disputations: "Certain members of the so-called Synagogue of Freedmen, Cyrenians, and Alexandrians, and people from Cilicia and Asia, came forward and debated with Stephen, but they could not withstand the wisdom and the spirit with which he spoke" (Acts 6:9-10).

The Coronation of St. Stephen, by Annibale Carracci, ca. 1597

According to the account in Acts, which was well-vindicated as history by the great Lutheran exegete and Scripture scholar, Martin Hengel (see his Acts and the History of Earliest Christianity- It was Hengel's work to which Pope Emeritus Benedict pointed in his letter to prominent atheist Piergiorgio Odifreddi), the cause of Stephen's stoning was the displeasure he incurred by what he said in these disputes. The long discourse, which comprises most of the seventh chapter of Acts, gives us a deep insight into the content of Stephen's preaching and teaching.

As a result, we learn,
When they heard this, they were infuriated, and they ground their teeth at him. But he, filled with the holy Spirit, looked up intently to heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” But they cried out in a loud voice, covered their ears, and rushed upon him together. They threw him out of the city, and began to stone him. The witnesses laid down their cloaks at the feet of a young man named Saul. As they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he fell to his knees and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them”; and when he said this, he fell asleep (Acts 7:54-60)
Traditionally, meaning not much these days, 26 December is a day for deacons. I have the happy blessing of being named Scott Stephen from my birth. So, along with St. Martin of Tours, on whose great feast I was born, St. Stephen is my patron saint. Perhaps being a deacon was my destiny. Who, but God alone, knows?

St. Stephen, holy deacon and martyr, pray for us. Pray especially for deacons that we, like you, may be love-filled and fearless heralds of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, whose Incarnation we celebrate during these days.

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