Saint Stephen, Deacon, the First Martyr
c. Early First Century–c. 36
Second Day in the Octave of Christmas
Liturgical Color: Red
Patron Saint of deacons, altar servers, stonemasons, and headaches
Christ rises in indignation as the first martyr is brutalized
The practical explanation for a historical event is normally the most convincing. Psychological analysis, guesswork, and overinterpreting frowns and whispers are best ignored. Why did the army invade on this day and not the next? Because they ran out of food. Why did the capital move from the plains to a new location in the hills? Because of flooding. And why did Christians branch out from Jerusalem and not remain attached to its temple? Because they were running for their lives. The stoning of today’s saint boiled over into an anti-Christian fever on the streets of Jerusalem. Christians were hunted down, imprisoned, or killed. The very day Stephen was martyred, “a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria…Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison” (Acts 8:1–3). So while Jesus told his followers to “make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28:19), early Christianity began to spread for a very practical reason—Stephen’s murder. His co-religionists, especially Greek-speaking former Jews like Stephen, fled to nearby lands. And thus fresh, baby-faced Christianity was lifted out of its cradle for the first time and carried out of Jerusalem.
Stephen is described as “a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit”(Acts 6:5) who is one of the first seven deacons of the Church, ordained into Holy Orders by the very hands of the Apostles to assist them in their priestly ministry. Stephen was “full of grace and power” and performed “great wonders and signs among the people” (Acts 6:8). But his success provoked jealousy and hatred among his former fellow Jews, who slandered and distorted his words so grievously that Stephen was arrested by the Sanhedrin. What the Jewish leaders could not accomplish by argument, they would accomplish by force. Stephen gave a long and impassioned speech to the Jewish Council explaining how his belief in Christ fulfilled God’s plans for the Jews as foretold by Abraham and Moses and as embodied in Solomon’s temple. As Stephen’s words poured out, they spilled like fuel on his enemies’ burning rage.
When Stephen called them Christ’s “betrayers and murderers,” the Jewish leaders “became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen” (Acts 7:52–54). Stephen then “gazed into heaven and saw…Jesus standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:55). The Lord whom the Creed describes as “seated at the right hand of the Father” seems indignant and rises from His throne at the injustice He sees unfolding below. Stephen is forcibly dragged out of Jerusalem and stoned to death, with the future Saint Paul a witness, if not a participant, to the brutal event. Stephen’s last words were to beg forgiveness of God for his attackers. Stephen’s death was not the result of a pogrom or mob violence. The Acts of the Apostles describes it as a quasi-judicial capital case presided over by Jewish authorities, perhaps in the power vacuum between Pontius Pilate leaving Palestine and the replacement governor’s arrival.
Devotion to the protomartyr Stephen was likely immediate, and he became an icon of Christian sacrifice throughout Roman times and beyond. Saint Paul continued viciously persecuting the Church until his conversion on the road to Damascus. But after his conversion, Saint Paul paradoxically carried out the mission of the man whose death he personally witnessed. Saint Paul brings the Gospel to the Gentiles, the non-Hebrews. Saint Paul goes to the Greeks, Stephen’s own people, and to the Latin speakers of Rome. The blood of Stephen watered Paul’s seed of faith. And the plant that grew from that seed gripped the soil the world over. Stephen died so that the faith could live. In this he emulated Christ Himself.
Saint Stephen, may your courage, conviction, and knowledge of Scripture inspire all teachers and apologists to likewise convince through their education, through their passion, and mostly through their example of noble suffering.