PROTOMARTYR SAINT STEPHEN (Fr. Varghese Paul, SJ)

We know about Stephen from the Acts of the Apostles in the Bible. The name Stephen means crown or garland in Greek. Stephan was one of the seven deacons selected by the apostles. The chapters 6 and 7 in the Acts speak mainly about Stephen.

Within a year of Jesus Resurrection the number of the disciples and followers of Jesus have increased to 5000 people. The twelve apostles of Jesus could not attend to all the spiritual and material needs of so many disciples. Then, there was also a quarrel among the different ethnic followers of Jesus. So the Acts notes, the number of disciples kept growing, there was a quarrel between the Greek-speaking Jews and the native Jews. The Greek-speaking Jews claimed that their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of funds (Acts 6, 1).

In this context the twelve Apostles called all the disciples and asked them to select 12 people from among them so that they could oversee the equitable distribution of goods among all the followers of Jesus. Saint Stephen was one of the seven thus chosen by the disciples.

The whole group was pleased with the apostles proposal, so they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, and Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a Gentile from Antioch who had earlier been converted to Judaism. The group presented them to the apostles, who prayed and placed their hands on them (Acts 6, 5-6).

Stephen was a man full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom as the Apostles wanted in the deacons or Helpers. Then, he was also a man possessing practical wisdom. The Acts says that Stephen was a man richly blessed by God and full of power and he performed great miracles and wonders among the people (Acts 6, 8). Then, some Jews came to Stephen to argue with him. But the Spirit gave Stephen such wisdom that when he spoke, they could not repute him (Acts 6, 10).

The opponents of Stephen failed to defeat him in arguments. So they used devious means to arrest him and bring him to the Council. So they bribed some men to say, we heard him speaking against Moses and against God! In this way they stirred up the people, the elders, and the teachers of the Law. They seized Stephen and took him before the Council. Then they brought in some men to tell lies about him. This man, they said, is always talking against our sacred Temple and the Law of Moses. We heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will tear down the Temple and change all the customs which have come down to us from Moses! (Acts 6, 11-14).

When Stephen got an opportunity to speak up in self-defense in front of the Council he said in a long speech, Stephen answered, Brothers and fathers, listen to me! Before our ancestor Abraham had gone to live in Haran, the God of glory appeared to him in Mesopotamia and said to him, Leave your family and country and go to the land that I will show you (Acts 7, 2-3).

Stephens long speech in Acts chapter 7 shows that he was well versed in the Jewish scripture. Beginning from Abraham up to the death of Jesus on the cross, Stephen recalled the Salvation history of the Jewish people. Stephens concluding words were direct attack on the Council and the High Priest.

How stubborn you are! Stephen went on to say. How heathen your hearts, how deaf you are to Gods message! You are just like your ancestors: you too have always resisted the Holy Spirit! Was there any prophet that your ancestors did not persecute? They killed Gods messengers, who long ago announced the coming of his righteous Servant. And now you have betrayed and murdered him. You are the ones who received Gods law, that was handed down by angels yet you have not obeyed it! (Acts 7, 51-53).

The opponents of Stephen were horrified to hear such assertion of Stephen that they become very angry. They dragged Stephen out of the town and stoned him to death. As they stoned him, Stephen prayed for them!

They kept on stoning Stephen as he called out to the Lord, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit! He knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, Lord! Do not remember this sin against them! He said this and died (Acts 7, 59 60).

Stephen embraced martyrdom as Jesus embraced the Cross. He prayed for those who were stoning him to death and forgave them! Thus Stephen has courageously shown his love for his enemies by forgiving them and praying for them.

On the north of Jerusalem there was a church called the Church of Stoning of Stephen. In 460 A D Empress Eudoxia got built St. Stephens Basilica and also a monastery for the training of Deacons in the place of the old church. The Basilica and the monastery were destroyed in the twelth century. But the Dominican Fathers bought the place of the old Basilica and built again there a Church called St. Stephens Church. According to another tradition Stephen was martyred in the Cedron Valley to the east of Jerusalem. So a gate on the eastern side of the wall surrounding the old city is called St. Stephens Gate. It is also sometimes known as Damascus Gate or Lion Gate.

The Acts has mentioned about some devotees burying Stephen and mourning his death. Some devout men buried Stephen, mourning for him with loud cries (Acts 8, 2). Following in the footsteps of the protomartyr St. Stephen we see an army of martyrs in the history of the Christian religion.

Stephen was a popular saint in Europe from the middle ages. His name is mentioned in the old Eucharistic prayer. Your apostles and martyrs John, Stephen, Mathias and Barnabas Even today the priests who use the first canon or Eucharistic prayer invoke the name of Stephen in the Mass.

In India too Stephen is a popular saint. There are churches, schools, hospitals and other Christian institutions named after him. Parents too name their children Stephen honoring St. Stephen.

The feast of St. Stephen is celebrated every year on December 26, the day after Christmas in the Latin rite. The New Catholic Encyclopedia mentions that St. Augustine wonderfully propagated devotion to St. Stephen in Hippo

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