By Jean McCurdy Meade
Thanks to the charming carol, “Good King Wenceslas,” most Christians know that the day after Christmas is the Feast of Stephen. But why?
To begin with, Stephen is the “protomartyr,” the first Christian believer to be killed for witnessing to his faith in Jesus of Nazareth as Messiah and Lord. So he gets the first day after Christmas, which celebrates the birth of our savior, as the commemoration of his witness to the significance of that birth. That seems a little grim so soon after celebrating singing angels sending shepherds to visit the Holy Family; but when you think about it, it’s not as grim as the feast of the “Holy Innocents” two days later, commemorating all the little boy babies executed by jealous, demented King Herod, whom the Wise Men inadvertently tipped off when they sought directions from him to find “he that is born King of the Jews.” Sadly, the glad tidings of great joy also bring hatred of the good news, which leads to terror and death. The forces of evil conspire to extinguish the everlasting light from the beginning; they much prefer darkness. But the light is not overcome, not then, not now!
Jesus warned his disciples that others would revile them and persecute them and say all manner of evil against them for his sake; but declared that they were at that moment also “blessed,” in a state of blessedness as a gift of God. The story of Stephen (Acts 6:1-8:3) is a moving and realistic example of that beatitude which overcomes hatred with forgiveness and witnesses to at least one hardened heart at the moment of his suffering and death.
Stephen, described twice as “full of faith and of the Holy Spirit,” is one of the seven men chosen to be deacons, or ministers — to see that the distribution of food in the new and growing Christian community was equitable between the Hellenist and Hebrew believers. (N.B.: There were factions from the very beginning of the Church!) The apostles feel that it is “not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables,” and call for seven men “of good repute, full of the Spirit and wisdom” to be chosen to do that. So, Stephen’s job description is not to preach, but to serve tables in the community. But evidently his charism is to preach anyway after his table serving work is done! This is a very interesting point for us today as, even in the church, our job descriptions and talents are analyzed, specified, and we are cautioned to “stay in our lane” in the work we are given to do.
But Stephen’s example reminds us that we are each called to be a proclaimer of the faith, even if one is not an “apostle.” Note also that Stephen does not imitate what Jesus did, teaching in parables or aphorisms, and remaining silent when the council brings charges of blasphemy against him. “What would Jesus do?” is a fine consideration but does not call for exact imitation of Jesus’s actions. Instead, Stephen seems to have heeded Jesus’ words to those who believed in him, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations,” as well as, “And when they bring you before the synagogues and the rulers and the authorities, do not be anxious how or what you are to say; for the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say.”
So, Stephen starts preaching in his synagogue, doing great signs and wonders as well, enraging those who “cannot withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke.” They drag him before the Sanhedrin just as Jesus’ accusers did him. But Stephen preaches to the council rather than following Jesus’ example of silence. Jesus is the Word of God; Stephen is a believer who knows his call is to proclaim that truth with his words to anyone who will listen. As he does so, his face appears like the face of an angel. (Someone who was there must have remembered the words and the face.)
Stephen’s speech recounts the history of Israel in detail, but, when he gets to his point — “Which of the prophets did not your father persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it” — they become enraged and grind their teeth. He, however, is “blessed,” as Jesus promised. He gazes into heaven and sees Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and announces that vision to them, turning their rage into murderous madness.
They drag him outside the city walls and stone him to death — a lynching, as we would put it today. How different from Jesus’ trial before the council, who were careful to turn him over to the Roman authorities for a legal trial and execution! What a dreadful waste of a talented preacher and devout believer it seems to be. Stephen follows his Lord’s example in commending his spirit to God as he dies and calling out for forgiveness for those who are killing him; the difference is that he prays to the Lord Jesus (not to the Father, as Jesus did) to receive his spirit, and then, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them,” whereas Jesus prayed to his Father to forgive them “for they know not what they do.” But now Stephen gives Jesus the title “Lord,” with which Jews address God. As Peter proclaimed on Pentecost: “God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” That is the new Christian proclamation — that Jesus is Lord, and, by implication, God.
Remember who is hearing those words, surely noting that Stephen prays to Jesus as Lord. It is Saul of Tarsus who is standing by, holding the coats to those who are stoning him, and “consenting to his death” even as he declines to participate in throwing stones. A few months later Saul, traveling to Damascus to arrest followers of Jesus, is struck down by a light from heaven and a voice that says, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He says, “Lord, who are you?”, and the voice replies, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” Saul arises blind from the encounter, but the image in his mind of the voice that called him is surely that of Stephen, the follower of Jesus whom he did persecute, and who died with a prayer of forgiveness to Jesus on his lips. Saul, later called Paul, goes on to heed the call of the voice and become the apostle who carried the gospel of Christ to the Gentiles, writing epistles to them that comprise most of the New Testament.
Stephen, the first Christian martyr, who is honored the second day of Christmas, did not die in vain: rather, the manner of his death was his most eloquent and effective preaching, lighting the torch that enlightened the Gentiles and brought salvation to the ends of the earth.
The Rev. Jean Meade, Ph.D. is a priest of the Diocese of Louisiana, now retired.