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Who is St. Stephen?

by Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno)
Orignally published in the November 2000, A.S. XXXV issue of the Dragonflyre, a publication of the Barony of Vatavia.

The Yule event for this year is the “Feast of St. Stephen”. Yet most people only know of these feasts in its reference in the Christmas carol “Good King Wenceslas”. This essay shall endeavor to expand on this knowledge.

St. Stephen is venerated as the first Christen martyr. His story is told in chapters 6 and 7 of “The Acts of the Apostles”. He was a Hellenic Jew, or a Jew who had adopted Greek language and customs. At the start of the Church, around 35 AD, the Hellenic faction felt that it was getting short changed in the regular acts of charity. To avoid the administrative details, so they could continue preaching, the apostles a set of deputies to handle these chores. This particular office became known as a deacon. St. Stephen was one of the first seven.

As the Bible puts it: “And Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people”. This included holding discussions with various congregations of Jews. Now the Church had grown sufficiently large enough to be a concern to the Jewish priests. The Apostles had already been imprisoned once. This time they went after St. Stephen charging him with blasphemy before the Sanhedrin, which is the high rabbinic court.

The defense St. Stephen uses is interesting in that it is essentially an attack on the Temple and the rites associated with it. For St. Stephen redemption comes from returning to the original observances as set by Moses, the Resurrection is never mentioned. This particular brand of Christianity appears nowhere else. St. Stephen ends his defense by effectively accusing his accusers as the ones being blasphemers.

This defense was of course completely ineffectual. And the people there at court immediately took him outside the city and stoned him to death. One notable witness to this was a man named Saul. This seems to also been the starting incident to the first great persecution of Christians. Prominent among the persecutors was the aforementioned Saul, least till he took the road to Damascus and changed his name to Paul.

There is one other feature about St. Stephen’s death. As he ended his defense he had a vision of Christ standing at the right hand of God, prefiguring the Second Coming. This is also the only passage in the New Testament in which the phrase “Son of Man” is used someone other then Jesus.

There are two known legends attached to St. Stephen. The first has it that a member of the Sanhedrin by the name of Gamaliel, who had earlier argued against condemning the Apostles, rescued St. Stephen’s body and buried it. In 415 Gamaliel, in a vision, told the priest Lucian where the body was. When Lucian found the grave, it was marked by blooming red roses. The remains, includes the stones that killed him, traveled to Jerusalem, Constantinople, and finally to Rome. These relics were entombed with those of another, St. Lawrence, which supposedly moved over to make room.

The second legend dates to the 10th century and has the Devil substituting a changeling for the baby Stephen which he then put on ship to some strange land. There he is nursed by a white doe till he gets adapted by the local bishop. And when he grew up went out to preach the faith. Eventually he returns home where he casts out the demon child. This is quite obviously an adaptation of early myths.

St. Stephen is usually depicted in deacon robes, kneeling in prayer for his executioners. He is often paired with St. Lawrence with whom he is buried. Also frequently shown up in the sky is his vision. His emblem, not surprisingly, is a stone; though a book could also appear symbolizing his sermon like defense. He is the patron saint of stone workers and bricklayers.

One the Catholic calendar the feast day for St. Stephen is December 26. Normally a saint’s feast day is the day of his death or burial. Yet it should be remembered that the Christian calendar did not become fixed till the first part of the fourth century when Constantine made it the official state religion. That December 25 was set as Christ’s birthday for social-political reasons (the evidence is that it actually occurred in the spring). And that many days of the calendar are saint’s feast days. It is more of a coincidence that St. Stephen’s feast day is the day after Christmas and as such of no major significance.

As a consequence I have discovered no special traditions associated with the feast of St. Stephen. The one caveat to that is that in the British Isles, December 26 is also know as Boxing Day. It is on this day that they exchange gifts, leaving Christmas Day for religious functions.

St. Stephen is one of the many saints venerated by the people during the Middle Ages—each with their own story, feast day, and traditions. Some were know church wide, others were strictly local. Their celebration could be as little as their inclusion in that day’s Mass to a full blown festival with fairs and processions. It all depended how closely locals identified with the saint or sought his protection.

 

Bibliography

Attwater, Donald. The Penguin Dictionary of Saints. 2nd ed. New York: Penguin (Non-Classics) Books, 1983.

Encyclopedia Britannica. ed. 1986. Vol. 11, pp. 250-251

The Holy Bible, Revised Standard Version. Cleveland: World Publishing Co., 1962.

Metford, J. C. J. Dictionary of Christian Lore and Legend. London: Thames and Hudson, 1983.

Panati, Charles. Sacred Origins of Profound Things : The Stories Behind the Rites and Rituals of the World's Religions. New York: Penguin (Non-Classics) Books, 1996.

 

Copyright © 2000 - present His Lordship Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno). All rights reserved.

 

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