The Liturgical Year: Saint Stephen, the First Martyr

Saint Stephen the Martyr26 December

Saint Peter Damian thus begins his Sermon for this feast:

“We are holding in our arms the Son of the Virgin, and are honouring, with our caresses, this our Infant God. The holy Virgin has led us to the dear Crib. The most beautiful of the Daughters of men has brought us to the most beautiful among the Sons of men, and the Blessed among women to him that is Blessed above all. She tells us that now the veils of prophecy are drawn aside, and the counsel of God is accomplished. Is there anything capable of distracting us from this sweet Birth? On what else shall we fix our eyes? Lo, while Jesus is permitting us thus to caress him, while he is overwhelming us with the greatness of these mysteries, and our hearts are riveted in admiration – there comes before us Stephen, full of grace and fortitude, doing great wonders and signs among the people. Is it right that we turn from our King to look on Stephen, his soldier? No – unless the King himself bid us do so. This our King, who is Son of the King, rises to assist at the glorious combat of his servant. Let us go with him, and contemplate this standard-bearer of the Martyrs.”

The Church gives us, in today’s Office, this opening of a Sermon of Saint Fulgentius for the Feast of Saint Stephen:

“Yesterday, we celebrated the temporal Birth of our eternal King: today, we celebrate the triumphant passion of his Soldier. Yesterday, our King, having put on the garb of our flesh, came from the sanctuary of his Mother’s virginal womb, and mercifully visited the earth: today, his Soldier, quitting his earthly tabernacle, entered triumphantly into heaven. Jesus, while still continuing to be the eternal God, assumed to himself the lowly raiment of flesh, and entered the battle-field of this world: Stephen, laying aside the perishable garment of the body, ascended to the palace of heaven, there to reign forever. Jesus descended veiled in our flesh: Stephen ascended wreathed with a martyr’s laurels. Stephen ascended to heaven amidst the shower of stones, because Jesus had descended on earth midst the singing of Angels. Yesterday, the holy Angels exultingly sang, Glory he to God in the highest; today, they joyously received Stephen into their company. Yesterday, was Jesus wrapped, for our sakes, in swaddling-clothes: today, was Stephen clothed with the robe of immortal glory. Yesterday, a narrow crib contained the Infant Jesus: toay, the immensity of the heavenly court received the triumphant Stephen.”

Thus does the sacred Liturgy blend the joy of our Lord’s Nativity with the gladness she feels at the triumph of the first of her Martyrs. Nor will Stephen be the only one admitted to share the honours of this glorious Octave. After him, we shall have John, the Beloved Disciple; the Innocents of Bethlehem; Thomas, the Martyr of the Liberties of the Church; and Sylvester, the Pontiff of Peace. But the place of honour amid all who stand round the Crib of the new-born King, belongs to Stephen, the Proto-Martyr, who, as the Church sings of him, was “the first to pay back to the Saviour, the Death suffered by the Saviour.” It was just that this honour should be shown to Martyrdom; for Martyrdom is the Creature’s testimony, and return to his Creator for all the favours bestowed on him: it is Man’s testifying, even by shedding his blood, to the truths which God has revealed to the world.

In order to understand this, let us consider what is the plan of God, in the salvation he has given to man. The Son of God is sent to instruct mankind he sows the seed of his divine word; and his works give testimony to his divinity. But, after his sacrifice on the cross, he again ascends to the right hand of his Father so that his own testimony of himself has need of a second testimony, in order to its being received by them that have neither seen nor heard Jesus himself. Now, it is the Martyrs who are to provide this second testimony, and this they will do, not only by confessing Jesus with their lips, but by shedding their blood for him. The Church, then, is to be founded by the Word and the Blood of Jesus, the Son of God; but she will be upheld, she will continue throughout all ages, she will triumph over all obstacles, by the blood of her Martyrs, the members of Christ: this their blood will mingle with that of their Divine Head, and their sacrifice be united to his.

The Martyrs shall bear the closest resemblance to their Lord and King. They shall be, as he said, like lamhs among wolves. The world shall be strong, and they shall be weak and defenceless: so much the grander will be the victory of the Martyrs, and the greater the glory of God who gives them to conquer. The Apostle tells us, that Christ crucified is the poiuer and the tuisdom of God – the Martyrs, immolated, and yet conquerors of the world, will prove, and with a testimony which even the world itself will understand, that the Christ whom they confessed, and who gave them constancy and victory, is in very deed the power and the wisdom of God. We repeat, then, it is just that the Martyrs should share in all the triumphs of the Man-God, and that the liturgical Cycle should glorify them as does the Church herself, who puts their sacred Relics in her altar-stones; for, thus, the Sacrifice of their glorified Lord and Head is never celebrated, without they themselves being offered together with him, in the unity of his mystical Body.

Now, the glorious Martyr-band of Christ is headed by Saint Stephen. His name signifies the Crowned – a conqueror like him could not be better named. He marshals, in the name of Christ, the white-robed army, as the Church calls the Martyrs; for, he was the first, even before the Apostles themselves, to receive the summons, and right nobly did he answer it. Stephen courageously bore witness, in the presence of the Jewish Synagogue, to the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth; by thus proclaiming the Truth, he offended the ears of the unbelievers; the enemies of God, became the enemies of Stephen, and, rushing upon him, they stoned him to death. Amid the pelting of the blood-drawing missives, he, like a true soldier, flinches not, but stands, (as Saint Gregory of Nyssa so beautifully describes it) as though snowflakes were falling on him, or roses were covering him with the shower of their kisses. Through the cloud of stones, he sees the glory of God: Jesus, for whom he was laying down his life, showed himself to his Martyr, and the Martyr again rendered testimony to the divinity of our Emmanuel, but with all the energy of a last act of love. Then, to make his sacrifice complete, he imitates his divine Master, and prays for his executioners: falling on his knees, he begs that this sin be not laid to their charge. Thus, all is consummated – the glorious type of Martyrdom is created, and shown to the world, that it may be imitated, by every generation, to the end of time, until the number of the Martyrs of Christ shall be filled up. Stephen sleeps in the Lord, and is buried in peace until his sacred Tomb shall be discovered, and his glory be celebrated a second time in the whole Church, by that anticipated Resurrection of the miraculous Invention of his Relics.

Stephen, then, deserves to stand near the Crib of his King, as leader of those brave champions, the Martyrs, who died for the Divinity of that Babe, whom we adore. Let us join the Church in praying to our Saint, that he help us to come to our Sovereign Lord, now lying on his humble throne in Bethlehem. Let us ask him to initiate us into the mystery of that divine Infancy, which we are all bound to know and imitate. It was from the simplicity he had learned from that Mystery, that he heeded not the number of the enemies he had to fight against, nor trembled at their angry passion, nor winced under their blows, nor hid from them the Truth and their crimes, nor forgot to pardon them and pray for them. What a faithful imitator of the Babe of Bethlehem! Our Jesus did not send his Angels to chastise those unhappy Bethlehemites, who refused a shelter to the Virgin-Mother, who in a few hours was to give birth to Him, the Son of David. He stays not the fury of Herod, who plots his Death, but meekly flees into Egypt, like some helpless bondsman, escaping the threats of a tyrant lordling. But, it is under such apparent weakness as this, that he will show his Divinity to men, and He the Infant-God prove himself the Strong God. Herod will pass away, so will his tyranny; Jesus will live, greater in his Crib, where he makes a King tremble, than is, under his borrowed majesty, this prince-tributary of Rome; nay, than Caesar Augustus himself, whose world-wide empire has no other destiny than this – to serve as handmaid to the Church, which is to be founded by this Babe, whose name stands humbly written in the official registry of Bethlehem.


Mass

The Introit is composed of the words of the holy Martyr, who, in the language of the Royal Psalmist, tells us of the plot formed against him by the wicked, and of his own humble confidence in God, whereby he triumphed over their persecutions. From the murder of the innocent Abel to the future Martyrs, who are to shed their blood in the days of Antichrist; the Church is always under persecution; in some one country, she is ever shedding her blood; but, her strength lies in her fidelity to Jesus her Spouse, and in the simplicity, which the Babe of Bethlehem is come to teach her by his own example.

In the Collect, the Church asks, both for herself and her children, that divine vigour, which makes the holy Martyrs forgive their persecutors, and perfects, not only their testimony to the truth, but also their imitation of Jesus Christ. It speaks the praise of Saint Stephen, who was the first to follow our Saviour’s example.

Petition to Saint Stephen

O glorious Prince of Martyrs, you were led outside the gates of the City for your sacrifice, and your punishment was that of blasphemers. The Disciple was to be like to his Master, in all things. But neither the ignominy of such a death, nor its cruelty, could daunt your great soul: you did carry Jesus in your heart, and, with Him, you were stronger than all your enemies. And what was your joy, when you saw the heavens open, and this same Jesus in his glorified Humanity, standing at the right hand of God, and looking upon you with love! A God looking complacently on the creature that is going to die for him, and the creature permitted to behold the God for whom he is dying – truly, this was more than enough to encourage you! Let your enemies cast their stones against you, and bruise and tear your flesh, as they please; nothing can distract you from this sight of the Eternal King, who raised himself from his throne to applaud you, and deck you with the Crown, which he had prepared for you from all eternity! Now that you are reigning in the kingdom of heaven, pray for us, that we also may be faithful, and faithful even unto death, to this same Jesus, who not only left his throne, but even came down among us as a Little Child.

Reflection on Martyrs

The Martyrs are given to the world that they may continue the ministry of Christ on the earth, by bearing testimony to his word, and by confirming this testimony by their blood. The world has despised them; like their divine Master, they have shone in the darkness, and darkness has not understood their light. Nevertheless, many have received their testimony, and the seed of the Martyrs’ blood has brought forth in them the rich fruit of Faith. The Synagogue was cast off by God for its having shed the blood of Stephen, after having imbrued its hands in that of Jesus. Unhappy, they who cannot appreciate the Martyrs! Let us, who are Christians, take in the sublime lessons taught us by their generous sacrifice; and let our respect and love for them testify, that we are grateful for the noble ministry they have fulfilled in the Church, and are still fulfilling. The Church is never without Martyrs, just as she is never without Miracles: it is the two-fold testimony that she will give to the end of time, and by which she evidences the divine life she has received from her almighty Founder.


Hymn to Saint Stephen by Saint Ambose of Milan

• To Stephen the first Martyr, let us sing a new canticle: may it be sweet to them that sing, and bring grace to them that believe.
• Come, you disciples of the Lord, thus let us sing: let us give praise to the Martyr, who was the first, after the Redeemer, to follow the cross of Jesus.
• For, having been found, by the Apostles, to be fervent in God’s service, he outran all others and bore off the Banner of death.
• O glorious First place! O blessed victory! Stephen to be the first to follow his Lord! The noble Martyr preaches to men for the love of Christ, with his heart full of the Holy Spirit, and his face beaming as an Angel’s.
• He raises his eyes, and sees the Father with the Son: he tells the people how he beholds, living in heaven, Him whom they had sought to destroy.
• The Jews grow the more enraged, and, seizing up stones in their hands, they ran out to kill the holy Soldier of Christ.
• He was ready, and standing up, right gladly receives the stones: he asks God to forgive them, and joyfully breathes forth his soul.
• Glory be to you, O Lord! Glory be to your Only Begotten Son, together with the Holy Ghost, for everlasting ages.
• Amen.

From the Gallican Sacramentary

O Almighty God, who did give the holy Martyr Stephen to your Church as the first sheaf of your harvest, and did make this First-offering to be the herald of a new confession, because he had yielded such quick ripened fruits, grant to this whole assembly, by the intercession of your well-deserving Martyr, that he may aid the Church by his prayers, as he honoured her by his ministry.

From the Spanish Gothic Mozarabic Missal

It is meet and just, it is right and just, that we praise you, and bless you, and give you thanks, O Almighty and eternal God, who is glorified in the assembly of your Saints, whom you did choose before the foundation of the world, and did mark with a spiritual blessing unto heavenly things; whom also you did associate to your Only Begotten Son, by his Incarnation and his redeeming the world by the cross. You did make to reign in them your Holy Spirit, under whose guidance they were led, by the sweetness of your mercy, to the glory of happy martyrdom. It is just, therefore, O God of hosts, that this festive solemnity should be kept in your praise; that this sacred day should be devoted to you; for on it, the blood of blessed Stephen, your first Martyr, was shed in testimony of your truth, and your name thereby received exceeding honour. For this is he, who was the first Confessor of that Name, which is above all names, and in which, O Eternal Father, you did place the only source of our salvation. This is he, that left in your Church an example of courage, but oh, who can say how grand is the example, and how above all praise? This is he, that was the first to seize the palm of victory, after the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ. This is he, whom the Apostles, by the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, had scarce consecrated to the levitical ministry, than he straightways shone with a snow-white purity, and was vested in the scarlet of a martyr’s blood. O truly noble child of Abraham, worthy to become the first follower and witness of the Apostles’ teaching, and of Jesus’ cross! How well did he deserve to see the heavens opened, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God! It is, therefore, meet and just, Almighty Lord, that, while giving praise to your Name, we praise him whom you did graciously call to this so great glory. In your mercy, grant that we may have him to intercede for us. May he pray for this your people, now that he is in possession of the glory with which Christ welcomed him after his victory. May he now, for our sakes, lift up those eyes, which, during this his mortal life, and in the hour of his martyrdom, beheld the Son of God standing at the right hand of the Father. May he be heard for us, who, while his persecutors were stoning him, prayed for them unto you, O Holy God, Father Almighty, through our Lord Jesus Christ your Son, who, for our sins, vouchsafed to be born of the Virgin, and suffer death; teaching his Martyrs, hereby, by his own example, how they should suffer. To whom most justly do all the Angels and Archangels cry out unceasingly, saying: Holy, Holy, Holy!

From the Greek Menæa

• Illumined in your soul with the grace of the Holy Ghost, your face shone like that of an Angel, O Stephen! The brightness that was within sent forth its rays upon your body, and your soul evinced to the beholders the light and contemplation you did enjoy, when the heavens were miraculously opened before you, O you the leader and the glory of the Martyrs!
• The thickly falling stones were to you as the steps of a ladder reaching the gate of heaven, and by which ascending, you did behold our Lord standing on the Father’s right hand, offering you, with his own life-giving right hand, that which was your very name — a Crown: and now you standest near him, you the glorious conqueror, and the first combatant.
• Illustrious by your wonders and miracles and heavenly teaching, you did burn the Chair of the impious. They stoned you to death, and you did pray God to forgive them, using your Jesus’ own words, and into his hands commending your own most saintly spirit, O Stephen!
• To the King and Lord of all, who is born on our earth, is offered the beautiful Stephen, not adorned with precious gems, but glittering in the scarlet of his own blood. Come then, you that love the Martyrs, cull the flowers of song, and wreathe them into hymns passed on from choir to choir. O Protomartyr of Jesus our God, your spirit beams with wisdom and love; pray for us, that we may receive peace and plentiful mercy.
• You were deservedly made an aid to the Apostles of Christ, and you did minister to them, O well-named Stephen, as the faithful Deacon. Like Jesus, you too did pass through blood.
• O man carrying God within you, you did rise in the east like a sun of fairest light, shedding the rays of your confession, and great fortitude, and most generous resistance.
• You, the first of Martyrs, did look up to heaven and see standing in the immutable divinity and glory of the Father, him that was born of a Virgin-Mother and became a guest among us.
• Yesterday, the Master be came a guest among us by assuming our flesh; today, his servant is unguested from the flesh; he is stoned, and made the Protomartyr, the god-like Stephen.
• Today there shone a bright star for the Birth of Christ – the Protomartyr Stephen; and all the earth was illumined by his dazzling rays. He confuted all the impiety of the Jews, showing them their errors by words of wisdom, and proving his doctrine by the Scriptures, and showing them that Jesus, who was born of the Virgin, was very Son of God. The Protomartyr, the god-like Stephen, confounded their blasphemous impiety.
• You are beyond all praise, Stephen! No tongue can say how honestly was won the laurel-branch you bear. No mortal mind can wreathe a Crown worthy your great acts.
• You, most saintly Stephen, were first of Deacons, and first of Martyrs; for you did open the way to the Saints, and hast led the countless Martyrs to their God: therefore did the heavens open over your head, and God appear unto you. Pray to him for us, that he save our souls.

By Adam of Saint Victor

• Yesterday the world exulted, and in its exultation, celebrated the Birth of Jesus.
• Yesterday the Angelic Choir, in great joy, stood round the King of heaven.
• The Protomartyr and Deacon Stephen, illustrious for his faith, illustrious for his holy life, illustrious also for his miracles;
• On this day triumphed, and in his triumph vanquished the unbelievers.
• These enemies of the Light rage like savage beasts, at seeing their own defeat.
• This brood of vipers bring up false witnesses, and sharpen their tongues.
• Flinch not, Combatant! You are sure of your reward: fight and persevere, O Stephen!
• Withstand the false witnesses, and confute, by your answers, the synagogue of Satan.
• Your own Witness is in heaven, a Witness true and faithful, and he is Witness of your innocence.
• Your name is The Crowned: it behoves you to suffer, so to win your Crown of glory.
• For a Crown which is to last for ever, what are torments which last but an hour, and are followed by victory?
• Your death will be your Birth: your last pang will introduce you into eternal life.
• Full of the Holy Ghost, Stephen fixes his gaze on the heavens above:
• Seeing there the glory of God, he pushes on to victory, he pants for the crown.
• Behold, Stephen, on God’s right hand is your Jesus, and he is fighting for you.
• Boldly tell it to the crowd, that the heavens are opened for you, and that Jesus shows himself to you.
• He then commends his spirit to his Saviour, for whom he deems it sweet to be thus stoned to death.
• Saul makes himself guardian of the garments of all that cast the stones: casting thus himself each stone they throw.
• But Stephen compassionating their madness, falls on his knees, and prays that this sin be not laid to the charge of his murderers.
• Thus did he sleep in Christ, who thus imitated Christ: and now for ever lives with Christ – Stephen, first of Martyrs.
• Saint Augustine, and common report, assure us, that he raised up six dead men to life, in Africa.
• When, through God’s mercy, his Relics were discovered, the earth, which was parched by a drought, received a plentiful rain.
• The very fragance that came from his Relics, put diseases and demons to flight. Truly, then, is he worthy of praise, and honour, and eternal remembrance.
• O Martyr, whose name is so dear to the Church, refresh our fainting world by celestial fragrance. Amen.

Petition to Saint Stephen

With these praises, which the venerable ages of old offered to you, Prince and First of Martyrs, we presume to unite ours. Fervently do we congratulate you, that you has had assigned you, by the Church, the place of honour at the Crib of our Jesus. How glorious the confession you did make of his Divinity, while your executioners were stoning you! How rich and bright the scarlet you are clad in, for your victory! How honourable the wounds you did receive for Christ! How immense, and yet how choice, that army of Martyrs, which follows you as its leader, and to which fresh recruits will for ever be added, to the end of time.

Holy Martyr, help us, by your prayers, to enter into the spirit of the mystery of the Word made Flesh, now that we are celebrating the Birth of our Saviour. You are the faithful guardsman of his Crib: who could better lead us to the Divine Babe, that lies there? You did bear testimony to his Divinity and Humanity; you did preach this Man-God before the blaspheming Synagogue. In vain did the Jews stop their ears; they could not stifle your voice, which charged them with deicide, in that they had put to death Him, who is at once the Son of Mary and the Son of God. Show this Redeemer to us also, not, indeed, standing in glory at the right hand of his Father, but the sweet and humble Babe, as he now manifests himself to the world, into which he has just been born, wrapped in swaddling-clothes, and laid in a manger. We, too, wish to bear witness to him, and to tell how his Birth is one of love and mercy; we wish to show, by our lives, that he has been born in our hearts. Obtain for us that devotedness to the Divine Infant, which gave you such courage on the day of trial: we shall have devotedness, if, like you, we are simple-hearted and fearless in our love of Jesus; for love is stronger than death. May we never forget, that every Christian ought to be ready for martyrdom, simply because he is a Christian. May the life of Christ, which has again begun within us, so grow within us, by our fidelity and our conduct, that we may come, as the Apostle expresses it, to the fulness of Christ.

But, be mindful, glorious Martyr, be mindful of the Holy Church in those countries, where it is the will of God that she resist even unto blood. May the number of your fellow-martyrs be thus filled up, and let not one of the combatants grow faint-hearted. May every age and sex be staunch; that so, the testimony may be perfect, and the Church, even in her old age, win immortal laurels and crowns, as in the freshness of her infancy, when she had such a champion as you. But, pray, too, that the blood of these Martyrs may be fruitful, as it was in times past; pray that it be not wasted, but become the seed of abundant harvests. May infidelity lose ground, and heresy cease to canker those noble hearts, who, once in the Truth, would be the glory and consolation of the Church. Our own dear Land has had her Martyrs, who, in the hope that God would avenge their blood by restoring her to the Faith, gladly suffered and died. O Prince of Martyrs, pray that this their hope may be speedily fulfilled.


– from the book The Liturgical Year: Christmas, volume 1, by the Very Reverend Dom Prosper Gueranger, Abbot of Solesmes, translated from the French by the Revered Dom Laurence Shepherd, Monk of the English-Benedictine Congregation, 2nd edition; published in Dublin Ireland by James Duffy, 15 Wellington-Quay, 1870