Our Lord told His followers that if they would be worthy of Him, they must take up their crosses and follow Him. For most of us this means accepting, as He did, whatever suffering comes our way. For not a few, it has meant martyrdom, laying down their lives as He did, in defense of His name and His teachings.
The first person to win a martyr’s crown and thus become the protomartyr (“first-martyr”) of Christianity was St. Stephen the Deacon. The New Testament book, Acts of the Apostles, tells the story of the death of this heroic young man.
In addition to the Temple, there ware also, in Jesus’ day, a number of synagogues in Jerusalem. Some of these were frequented by Greek-speaking Jews who had returned to Jerusalem from elsewhere in the Mediterranean world, but preferred to pray in congregations where their own Greek tongue was spoken. Although nothing is known of Stephen’s background, he was evidently one of these “Hellenist” Jews. His very name, “Stephanos” (Greek for “crown”) seems to confirm it. After Pentecost, when the Apostles began to preach Christianity, many Hellenist Jews asked for baptism. One of these was Stephen. “Full of faith and the Holy Spirit”, he became a natural leader among the Hellenist Jews of Jerusalem.
As the number of conversions from both Hellenist and Hebrew Jews increased, the Apostles were faced with a problem. They were trying both to feed and give alms to the Jewish converts, but this charitable operation cut into their more important work of preaching and administering the sacraments. They therefore decided to delegate some of their tasks, particularly charitable work, to others. Choosing, with the advice of the faithful, seven able converts, they bestowed on them the rank of deacon (i.e. servant).
First in rank and zeal among these deacons was Stephen. He not only helped serve the faithful but preached Christ to the other Jews, particularly the Hellenists.
His very success in converting some, prompted others to turn against him. His message was that Christ had come to fulfill the Old Law, to build upon Moses and to replace the Temple worship with the more spiritual worship of which it was only a foreshadowing. Those who opposed him brought him before the Sanhedrin, the ruling Jewish council. They denounced him, untruthfully, as a blasphemer for allegedly attacking Moses’ Law, and for predicting the destruction of the Temple.
Even the Sanhedrin did not frighten the deacon. Speaking with a prophet’s zeal, he fervently rebuked for their blindness those who would not listen, and likened them to their forefathers who in bygone times had slain the great God-sent prophets rather than heed their warnings. As these enemies shouted at him, he looked up to heaven and said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God.”
This was enough, and more than enough, for the listeners. They judged Stephen deserving of the penalty for blasphemy: stoning to death. Hurrying him outside the city wall, they pelted him with stones until he was dead. “Lord,” he meanwhile prayed, “lay not this sin to their charge.” And then, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” The Acts of the Apostles makes special note that one of the crowd encouraging this execution was an Hellenic Jew named Saul of Tarsus. Saul watched the cloaks of those who threw the stones. Saul was none other than the future St. Paul. As St. Augustine later observed, “If Stephen had not prayed, the Church would not have Paul.”
The Christians in Jerusalem, grieving over the death of this first Christian martyr, laid him to rest, but the tomb was eventually forgotten. In the year 415, however, the body was rediscovered. Portions of his relics were reverently enshrined in many places, east and west. In Rome, some of his bones were deposited with those of the Roman deacon-martyr, St. Lawrence, In the Church of San Lorenzo.
Stephen became a popular saint throughout Christendom. His feast had been celebrated everywhere on the day after Christmas. If this seems in sad contrast to the joy of Christmas day, it also points out how close St. Stephen was to his Master.
–Father Robert F. McNamara