The first Christian martyr

Though not on the calendar this year because it falls on a Sunday, this is still the traditional day for remembering St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr.

When they heard this, they were infuriated, and they ground their teeth at him. But he, filled with the holy Spirit, looked up intently to heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God,[a and he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” But they cried out in a loud voice, covered their ears,[b] and rushed upon him together. They threw him out of the city, and began to stone him. The witnesses laid down their cloaks at the feet of a young man named Saul. As they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”[c] Then he fell to his knees and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them”; and when he said this, he fell asleep.

Act 7:54-60
The Stoning of Stephen

Why was Stephen martyred? Because he told the truth and didn’t hide it to those who needed to hear it because their feelings might get hurt and they might get angry. Who did Stephen tell the truth to? The Jewish Sanhedrin, the highest court and legislature of Israel, the very ones who cried out for the death of Jesus.

After facing the false charges of blasphemy he was accused of, after giving a thorough witness and history up to that present moment, Stephen boldly held the Sanhedrin accountable for what they had done but he also witnessed to them God’s opportunity to repent:

“You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised. You are just like your ancestors: You always resist the Holy Spirit! 52 Was there ever a prophet your ancestors did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him— 53 you who have received the law that was given through angels but have not obeyed it.”

Acts 7:51-53

Yes, even upon the death of a fellow saint, especially upon it, in joyful defiance of the world’s darkness, Merry Christmas to you all this second day of Christmastide! But why do we celebrate the death of a saint who was martyred for the faith? Because this moment in history started the Church with her first defender! In fact, when not falling on a Sunday, we celebrate this day not as a solemnity, but a feast day:

“If you know what witness means, you understand why God brings St. Stephen, St. John, and the Holy Innocents to the crib in the cave as soon as Christ is born liturgically. To be a witness is to be a martyr. Holy Mother Church wishes us to realize that we were born in baptism to become Christ — He who was the world’s outstanding Martyr.”

— Love Does Such Things, by Rev. M. Raymond, O.C.S.O.

Stephen’s witness was so powerful, that Chesterton, years later, mentions what he did by the name of the place – St. Stephen’s Green – he saw from the window of his hotel in Ireland, recalling to mind Jesus’ own testimony about the power of witnessing for the Church:

“I tell you, He answered, “if they remain silent, the very stones will cry out. (Luke 19:40)

And so St. Stephen’s statues cry out to this day: Stephen the Martyr is the patron saint of bricklayers, stone masons and deacons. He is the example of the power and possibility of God that mere humans could follow the victorious example of Christ!

Life size statue of St. Stephen, Aachen Cathedral, Germany

“When I had for the first time crossed St George’s Channel, and for the first time stepped out of a Dublin hotel on to St Stephen’s Green, the first of all my impressions was that of a particular statue, or rather portion of a statue. I left many traditional mysteries already in my track, but they did not trouble me as did this random glimpse or vision. I have never understood why the Channel is called St George’s Channel; it would seem more natural to call it St Patrick’s Channel since the great missionary did almost certainly cross that unquiet sea and look up at those mysterious mountains. And though I should be enchanted, in an abstract artistic sense, to imagine St George sailing towards the sunset, flying the silver and scarlet colours of his cross, I cannot in fact regard that[4] journey as the most fortunate of the adventures of that flag. Nor, for that matter, do I know why the Green should be called St Stephen’s Green, nor why the parliamentary enclosure at Westminster is also connected with the first of the martyrs; unless it be because St Stephen was killed with stones. The stones, piled together to make modern political buildings, might perhaps be regarded as a cairn, or heap of missiles, marking the place of the murder of a witness to the truth. And while it seems unlikely that St Stephen was pelted with statues as well as stones, there are undoubtedly statues that might well kill a Christian at sight. Among these graven stones, from which the saints suffer, I should certainly include some of those figures in frock coats standing opposite St Stephen’s Westminster. There are many such statues in Dublin also; but the one with which I am concerned was at first partially veiled from me. And the veil was at least as symbolic as the vision.” – G. K. Chesterton, Two Stones In A Square, Irish Impressions, 1919

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