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Monday, December 26, 2011

Feast of St Stephen-Proto-Martyr


For many years St Stephen, the first Martyr, has been the accepted Patron of all those who serve at the Altar. All who are privileged to assist the priest during Holy Mass, and at the other sacred ceremonies of the Church, will be anxious to learn all they can about their great Patron Saint, and to ask his guid­ance, his intercession, and his blessing.

The story of St Stephen is a very simple one, as is the story of all God's saints. We need not try to improve upon the account of St Stephen's life -which has already been written by a divinely inspired pen in the Acts of the Apostles. It is there that we meet our Patron and read of his life and works. He was one of the very first followers of Our Divine Lord, and we find him in the company of the Apostles after Our Lord had ascended into heaven. The Apostles were his best friends, and he loved to help them in their task of spreading the Faith among the people. He was a young man and full of love for his great work. He considered it the greatest of privileges to work for the cause of Christ, and he felt that he could best do this by assisting the Apostles who were the first priests of Christ's Church. So he helped them in every way. Nothing was too tiring or too hard for him. He went around among the people, helping, consoling, and encouraging them, because in those early days it was so terribly hard to be a Christian. So gentle and sympathetic and so full of kindness was our Patron, particularly towards the poor, that he was loved and admired by everyone. He loved God above everything else, and the Spirit of God filled him through and through.

Now, as the Church grew with miraculous rapidity the Apostles were being worked to death. Just imagine twelve men trying to look after thousands upon thousands of people, giving them instructions, attending the sick, offering Holy Mass, feeding the hungry, finding lodging for those who were homeless because of the Faith they had embraced—just twelve Apostles striving to do all this and all the time in constant danger from the enemies of Christ. Can you wonder that the Apostles found it impossible to cope with all of it and that some of the social work was being neglected ?

The Seven Deacons
We cannot be surprised to find that after some time the work became too much for this little band of Apostles and soon all sorts of troubles started. Some of the people began to complain that they were not being properly cared for and that they were not getting their share of food which was daily distributed among the needy. Some of these people had given up every­thing to become Christians and they complained that they simply could not starve. Well, all these and many other diffi­culties increased daily. Things became gradually " out of hand ", as we would say. So one day St Peter, who was Head of the Church, called a meeting of the Apostles and between them they talked the whole matter over. When they had come to a definite conclusion they called a general meeting of all the Christians of Jerusalem and explained to them what they were going to do to ease the situation. They called upon the people to elect from among them seven men of good reputation to help in the work so that the Apostles themselves might have more time to carry out their sacred mission of teaching all nations. So seven men were solemnly elected, and from what you have already heard about him, you will not be surprised to learn that the very first of these was St Stephen, whom every­one knew to be " full of Faith and the Holy Ghost." The Apostles there and then laid hands upon these seven men and ordained them to be seven Deacons of the Church.

Stephen's Enemies Alarmed
Now, filled even more by the grace given him, Stephen set to work to carry out his task with the greatest zeal possible, with the result that a great many more people were received into the Faith and even a " large number of priests " of the Jewish religion became Christians. The Holy Spirit of God was indeed with St Stephen and through him worked many great miracles in the presence of all the people. So many converts came eagerly forward to embrace the teaching of Christ that Stephen's enemies became really alarmed, and began to think of devices to stop him preaching. First of all they arranged debates and discussions between Stephen and the learned men of the Jewish religion, thereby hoping to shake the people's confidence in him. But in this they failed, for the Wisdom of the Holy Ghost was with every word that Stephen spoke, and he always completely turned the tables upon his enemies. Indeed, every discussion served only to make the people have even more trust and confidence in St Stephen. Matters went from bad to worse for St Stephen's enemies. They realised that sooner or later they must do something to put an end both to him and his preaching. They plotted together how best to destroy him. They knew that they would have to use every possible care in doing this, because the people loved St Stephen so much that there might very easily be serious trouble and that in the end Stephen might escape.

Methods to trap St Stephen
Now St Stephen, like his Divine Master, always spoke openly to the people and never flinched from his duty. He always gave a clear proof for everything he said so that all could see the truth of his statements. How then were his enemies to trap him ? In the previous year they had managed to seize and put to death Jesus of Nazareth. The means they had used then would have to be used again. So they decided upon the vilest and lowest methods to trap Stephen. They employed some rough men and paid them to go about saying every wicked thing possible against St Stephen, saying that he spoke blas­phemous and sinful words against God and against the Temple. This terrible campaign of evil report against St Stephen went on for a long time until at least some of the evil effect had been caused. Then, one morning when Stephen was preaching as usual to a great crowd of people, a number of paid men began to create trouble and considerable disorder among the assembled people. In the midst of all the noise, someone slipped away and reported to the military authorities, who at once sent a guard of soldiers to put things in order and to arrest the culprits. But they arrested only St Stephen, not the men who had created the trouble, and led him away to the Council to be tried.

Now this Council, before whom our Saint now stood, was the very same Council of Jews which had tried and condemned to death, just a year before, Our Divine Lord Himself. We can imagine, therefore, how anxious this Council would be to condemn any follower of Our Lord to death. Nevertheless, in order to give some sort of semblance of justice, a trial must be gone through. The witnesses against Stephen were called and we can imagine how well those paid men came forward, deter­mined to earn to the full the money they had been promised. So the whole Court heard again those insidious lies which had already been spread among the people. Among those in the Court that day was Saul of Tarsus, who had come to Jerusalem especially to seek out and destroy the Christians of Jerusalem. In the midst of all these bitter enemies stood St Stephen, listening intently to all that was said against him.

When the witnesses had finished their evil work, the President of the Council called upon Stephen to defend himself against the charges that had been levelled against him. Now what did Stephen say ? Did he defend himself ? Did he show to every­one that all the witnesses had lied against him ? No, he did not utter one word in his own defence. Instead, he was anxious to instruct and correct the ways of those who were present in the Court. With his great knowledge of Sacred Scripture, he drew for them a picture of the whole history of the Jewish race, and told his audience that history proved that they had gone con­tinually against the Holy Will of God, and that they had even persecuted and put to death the Prophets and Teachers whom God had sent to them. Finally, Almighty God in His infinite goodness had sent to them Jesus Christ, His only Son, and how had they treated Him ? They had turned against Him and finally they had had Him condemned and put to a terrible death upon the Cross. St Stephen then told them that they had done all this because they were filled with false pride and were a stiff-necked people, not humble enough to perceive the great goodness of God and God's loving kindness towards them. They had rejected Jesus the Saviour of the World !

Riot and Shouting
Now we can imagine the effect of these words on the assembly, especially on the Council who themselves had condemned Christ to death. The burning words of St Stephen seared their hearts. They were filled with a terrible hatred and rage, and began to shout and rave, and all the assembly joined in shouting and demanding " Death to Stephen." Can you imagine the scene with all this riot and shouting going on, and our young Patron standing very quietly iri the midst of it, with his eyes raised towards heaven and his thoughts upon God ?

Presently, those who were watching him saw his face light up with great radiance as he gazed intensely towards heaven, and suddenly, above all the noise of the rabble, St Stephen's voice rang out clear and loud in the Court. There was great joy and triumph in his voice. " I see the Heavens open," he cried, " and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God ! " This sudden cry brought a hush upon everyone, and for a moment there was silence. Then, with greater fury and hatred than ever, Stephen's enemies began to rave at him. They gnashed their teeth, and rent their garments, while others put their fingers into their ears, lest they should hear anything more that he would say. Their pride and hatred blinded them from seeing the great grace of God that was working among them. Those who turned to look at him, however, were overcome, for his face was shining " as it were the face of an angel." But the verdict of the Court had already been fixed, even before the trial began, and now everyone in the Court, including Saul, knew that the end was very near for Stephen. A messenger was dispatched to the Roman Governor asking for the death warrant. This was quickly done and the document of death was signed in a few minutes. Stephen, however, still stood unmoved in the Court, completely absorbed in the vision which God had given to him. Soon he was roughly seized, and a great crowd of struggling people followed the soldiers to the place of execution.

The Place of Stoning
The procession did not go to Calvary, as it did on the first Good Friday, but to the Jewish place of execution which was also outside the walls of Jerusalem. This was called the place of stoning. At length, the weary procession arrived and pre­parations were made for putting Stephen to death by stoning. The executioners stripped themselves to the waist and Saul, who had come along to see the death of the young man, held the coats of the executioners. Stephen stood alone in an open space just a short distance from those who were to kill him. The crowd gathered round to witness the terrible business, and some even to urge the. executioners and encourage them in their task. And so the first stones were hurled with brute force at Stephen, and presently his poor face and body were battered, bruised, and bleeding. Still he stood with his eyes fixed firmly on heaven, and all the while his lips moved, as he prayed fervently. Presently, there was a stir of interest in the crowd. They saw that he would soon fall, and, even as they watched, they saw him sink slowly down upon his knees. The executioners with a cry of triumph increased the savagery of their attacks, and the rough stones tore their way into the already mutilated body of Stephen.

Death, however, was not far off—the glorious death of Christ's first Martyr. He was to die like Christ, even as he had followed throughout life the " perfect" way taught by Christ. While Stephen was still upon his knees he suddenly amazed the onlookers by uttering a great cry. It was a cry for mercy . . . but not for himself, for even as Christ had asked for mercy for those who were cruelly nailing Him to the Cross, so now the whole heart of Stephen cried out, " Lord, lay not this sin to their charge ! " AH who heard this remarkable cry were astonished that one so weak and so near to death could possibly make so beautiful an appeal in such a powerful voice. But the executioners were not moved by any such sentiments, rather were they provoked to further violence, and in a short while they saw that Stephen's strength even to kneel was failing, and presently he sank to the ground. Never­theless his lips continued to move in prayer. His voice they would hear once more before the silence and peace of death would finally and gently close his lips. They heard their victim with his last breath meekly beg the Sweet Master, whom he so greatly loved, to allow him to join Him in the Eternal Kingdom. " Lord Jesus," he prayed, " receive my spirit."

So, peacefully and gloriously, he fell asleep in the Lord, and his sacred bloodstream flowed to mingle with the Precious Blood of Christ to intercede eternally before God's throne for the souls of mankind.

The Conversion of St Paul
Saul, who had watched to the bitter end, turned away, but, though the scene of Martyrdom could be left behind, the prayer of St Stephen accompanied him and burned into his soul. That prayer, as the Fathers of the Church tell us, wrought the miracle of grace in the soul of Saul, a grace that changed both his name and his way of life. For he became the great St Paul, the Apostle of the Gentiles, who, after a life consecrated and dedicated to the work of Christ, shared the glory of Stephen, and like him was crowned with the undying diadem of Martyrdom. Then, when all was quiet, and the crowds had dispersed, some noble Christian people came and removed the body of St Stephen and placed it in a special tomb over which they erected a great monument. So, even like Christ's, the very tomb of Stephen was a glorious one. Later, during times of persecution, for fear of desecration, the body of our Saint was removed and buried in a secret place, so secret indeed that later on all traces of it were forgotten.But God, in His goodness, did not allow the body of His first Martyr to be desolate and forgotten. The grace of God came to some holy people some centuries later, and they were told the exact spot where they would find the remains of St Stephen. They set out at once to find the place, and after a long search they found it and, amid the devotion of great multi­tudes, the body of the first Martyr was removed to a glorious resting place. Later on a beautiful church was erected on the spot where St Stephen was stoned to death and, in the year 444, his sacred relics were solemnly placed there. Many great miracles accompanied the discovery and the translation of the saint's relics, and a special feast-day was instituted by the Church to commemorate the Finding of St Stephen. This second feast is kept on August 3rd every year.

The Feast of Martyrdom is kept on December 26th, which in Catholic countries is always known as St Stephen's Day.
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