St Stephen – 26 December
By Catherine Sheehan
After the joy of Christmas Day, the feast of St Stephen—the first Christian martyr—celebrated the very next day on 26 December, is a rather sharp reminder that being a follower of the Christ Child is no walk in the park.
Stephen was stoned to death just outside the walls of Jerusalem, two years after Christ’s crucifixion. His story is related in the 6th and 7th chapters of the Acts of the Apostles.
Described as “a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit”, Stephen was one of the first seven deacons of the infant Church chosen by the Apostles to assist them in their ministry.
Stephen’s persecution and martyrdom, echoes the passion of Christ. Like Jesus, Stephen provoked jealousy among the Jewish leaders because he was “full of grace and power” and “did great wonders and signs among the people”.
The leaders of various synagogues tried to debate Stephen and refute his belief in Christ, however “they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke”.
Desperately seeking his downfall, Stephen’s enemies “stirred up the people and the elders and the scribes” against him. They arrested Stephen and brought him before the Jewish council where false accusations were made against him.
Stephen’s faith was so profound that he was aglow with the Holy Spirit. We are told that “gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel”.
During a lengthy speech in his own defence, Stephen reminds his listeners of the faith of their ancestors Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and Moses, and of the disobedience of the house of Israel, which often turned against God and persecuted the prophets.
Not doing himself any favours, Stephen ends his speech with a stinging rebuke for the death of Christ: “Which of the prophets did not your fathers persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.”
Stephen was swiftly taken outside the city walls and stoned to death.
Before he died he cried out, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing at the right hand of God”.
Just like Christ, Stephen died praying for the forgiveness of his murderers.
St Stephen’s feast, the day after Christmas Day, reminds us that following Christ will bring persecution. Christ warned us of this when he said, “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you” (Jn 15:20).
For the Christ Child himself was born to be martyred to save us from our sins.
However, we know the story has a happy ending, that following his death came his glorious resurrection, and our hope of eternal life with him.