The Divine Liturgy joins the joy of our Lord’s Nativity to the gladness we feel at the triumph of the first martyr. The place of honor among all who, stand around the crib of the newly born Jesus belongs rightfully to St. Stephen the Protomartyr, who, as the church sings of him, “was the first to pay back to the Savior the death suffered by the Savior.”
The feast of St. Stephen can be thought of as having special reference to Christmas. A connection was beautifully developed in the kontakion: “Yesterday the Master to us in life and today his servant departs from life; yesterday he who is King was born as man, today his servant is stoned to death. Through him, the beloved God, Stephen, became the first martyr of all.”
The Acts of the Apostles graphically describes the martyrdom. “Now as they (the Jews) heard these things, they were cut to the heart and gnashed their teeth at him, but he, being full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ear and rushed upon him all together. And they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man name Saul. And while they were stoning Stephen he prayed and said, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit’. And falling on his knees, he cried out with a loud voice, saying: “Lord, do not lay this sin against them.” And with these words he fell asleep.” (Acts 7:45 – 60)
St. Stephen was one of the seven deacons mentioned in the Acts (6:5 – 7) wand was, like them ordained by the apostles themselves. He was the first who willingly shed his blood for Christ and hence is known as the “proto –“ or “first” martyr. The actual day of his death is unknown; but since he was the first to sacrifice his life for Christ, his heavenly birthday is celebrated immediately after the earthly birthday of Christ.
The veneration of St. Stephen dates back to the early days of Christianity and can even be said to be as old as the Church itself. Many Churches and chapel were dedicated to him in Constantinople, of which the oldest was built under Constantine. The name of St. Stephen is to be found already in the earliest liturgical sources, as in the Arian martyrology, dating from around 360 A.D.
The cult of St. Stephen received additional impetus with the discovery of his relics at Kaphar – Famala, situated on the eastern shore of Lake Genesareth. The discovery of the relics took place on December 5, following a revelation said to have been made to Lucian, a priest of Jerusalem, who sent letters describing the event to all other churches and thus helped spread devotion to the first martyr. Pilgrims and those seeking relief from their afflictions visited his churches and chapels. Numerous answers to prayer and miracles of healing hollowed, to which the sermons of St. Agustine testify (Sermon 316; 3 – 24). Pope Simplicius (483 A.D.) erected a basilica in St. Stephen’s honor in Rome.
Upon their discovery, most of the relics were brought to Jerusalem, though portions were taken elsewhere, especially to Constantinople where, in 439 A.D., the Empress Eudoxia placed them in the basilica of St. Lawrence. The same empress, just one year before, had erected a church on the spot where St. Stephen was stoned.
St. Gregory of Nyssa, in one of his sermons on St. Stephen, says: “Yesterday the Lord of the universe rejoiced our soul; today His follower rejoices us. Christ, for the sake of men, assumed the form of human nature; while St. Stephen, for the sake of Christ laid aside the corruptible body.”
Next Feast Days
|December 26||Synaxis of the Mother of God|
|December 27||Feast of St. Stephen, the Protomartyr|
|January 1||Circumcision of our Lord and The Feast of St. Basil the Great|
|January 6||Epiphany (the Baptism of our Lord) … ( Theophany)|