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Catholic Heroes… St. Stephen, Protomartyr

December 26, 2017 saints No Comments

By CAROLE BRESLIN

In the popular Christmas carol, The Twelve Days of Christmas, a different gift is given for each of the twelve days of Christmas.
This celebration of twelve days begins with December 26, the Feast of St. Stephen, and ends with the Epiphany, traditionally celebrated on January 6.
The Catholic Church celebrates the Christmas octave, eight days of observing the great Feast of Christmas, from December 25 through January 1. The day after the birth of Christ, the Feast of St. Stephen, the first martyr of the Church, is celebrated by many Christian denominations.
Outside of Sacred Scripture little or nothing is known about St. Stephen. In the Acts of the Apostles, the speech given by Stephen when he was brought before the Sanhedrin is the longest speech in the Acts of the Apostles.
The account of his election to be a deacon sheds some light on who St. Stephen was.
“Now in those days, as the number of the disciples was increasing, there arose a murmuring among the Hellenists against the Hebrews that their widows were being neglected in the daily ministration. So the Twelve called together the multitude of the disciples and said, ‘It is not desirable that we should forsake the word of God and serve at tables. Therefore, brethren, select from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, that we may put them I charge of this work. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.’
“And the plan met with the approval of the whole multitude, and they chose Stephen, and Philip and Prochorus and Nicanor and Timon and Parmenas and Nicholas, a proselyte from Antioch” (Acts 6:1-5).
First of all, we can see that already St. Stephen was considered a man full of the Sprit and wisdom. Later events would prove this as well.
Secondly, St. Stephen may have been among 72 disciples who were sent out (Luke 10:1-23). Most historians say that he did not go out as one of that group. However, he had been with the apostles long enough to have learned and acted with some authority.
Thirdly, this election of the deacons is probably the first time that deacons were ordained in the Catholic Church. “These they set before the apostles, and after they had prayed they laid their hands upon them” (Acts 6:6).
Finally, because Stephen was elected to minister to the Hellenistic, or Greek-speaking Jews, he was most likely a Greek-speaking or Hellenistic Jew himself. In fact, in the Greek language, Stephen means crown. Perhaps he is called Stephen because he was the first Christian to win the crown of martyrdom.
The final days of Stephen, as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, are very similar to the last days of Jesus Christ before He was crucified. Filled with the Holy Spirit, Stephen worked many miracles and frustrated the leaders of the synagogue.
“Now Stephen, full of grace and power, was working great wonders and signs among the people. But there arose some from the synagogue which is called that of the Freedmen, and of the Cyrenians and of the Alexandrians and of those from Cilicia and the province of Asia, disputing with Stephen. And they were not able to withstand the wisdom and the Spirit who spoke. Then they bribed men to say they had heard him speaking blasphemous words against Moses and God” (Acts 6:8-11).
Hence, these people brought their false claims before the Sanhedrin claiming that Stephen had said the Temple would be destroyed and that he preached against the teachings of Moses. Despite all the allegations brought against him, Stephen did not fear. He did not look like a person who was seeking to disrupt the people.
In fact, as the men of the Sanhedrin sat in judgment of Stephen, they looked on him and described his face as “though it were the face of an angel” (Acts 6:15). Then the high priest of the Sanhedrin questioned Stephen, asking him if the charges were true.
Stephen responded to this by recounting the history of Abraham, Moses, the selling of Joseph, the reign of Solomon, and the promise of the Messiah.
He concluded his narrative with a rebuke to his accusers: “You always oppose the Holy Spirit; as your fathers did, so you do also. Which of the prophets have not your fathers persecuted?” (Acts 7:51-52).
When they heard this, they became angry. Stephen remained at peace, exclaiming: “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:56).
The men in the Sanhedrin rushed Stephen, dragged him outside the city walls and stoned him to death after placing their cloaks at the feet of Saul of Tarsus. Stephen begged for the Lord to forgive them as he died.
The similarities to the death of Jesus are clear. Stephen helped the poor, worked miracles, and spoke with the wisdom of the Holy Spirit. As with Jesus, the Jews were angered at this and at their inability to trip him up.
Also as with Jesus, although Stephen was innocent, they found him guilty and stoned him to death. The legality of his death is questionable since the Romans did not allow the Jews to engage in capital punishment.
Most important, like Jesus, Stephen asked God the Father to forgive his persecutors. Those who buried Stephen, like those who buried Jesus, “made great lamentations” (Acts 8:2).
St. Stephen, patron of stonemasons, provides us with great hope. Not only did he receive the words of wisdom provided by the Holy Spirit as promised by our Lord in Matt. 10:19, but he also died willingly, with great joy, beholding the Son of Man.
St. Stephen showed us that we need not fear martyrdom. Following Christ brings great joy not only in the next world but in this world as well.
Dear St. Stephen, you practiced justice and peace and fearlessly proclaimed the truth even in the midst of your enemies. By your intercession, may we receive the grace to fearlessly and lovingly proclaim the truth and embrace the sufferings and persecutions that may follow. Amen.

+ + +

(Carole Breslin home-schooled her four daughters and served as treasurer of the Michigan Catholic Home Educators for eight years. For over ten years, she was national coordinator for the Marian Catechists, founded by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)

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