Feast of St. Stephen, Dec. 26

Stephen was among the earliest Christian martyrs, stoned to death for his beliefs. He is the patron of stonemasons, masons, bricklayers, deacons, headaches, and horses

Collect

“We give you thanks, O Lord of glory, for the example of the first martyr Stephen, who looked up to heaven and prayed for his persecutors to your Son Jesus Christ, who stands at your right hand; where he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.”

December 26th: The Feast of St. Stephen. St. Stephen, full of “grace and power” was one of the seven original deacons of the Church who were ordained by the Apostles to care for widows and the poor. His story is in Act 6:8 to 8:1.

Here is the scripture “Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people. Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), Cyrenians, Alexandrians, and others of those from Cilicia and Asia, stood up and argued with Stephen. But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke. Then they secretly instigated some men to say, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.” They stirred up the people as well as the elders and the scribes; then they suddenly confronted him, seized him, and brought him before the council. They set up false witnesses who said, “This man never stops saying things against this holy place and the law; for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses handed on to us.” And all who sat in the council looked intently at him, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel. “Then the high priest asked him, “Are these things so?” “And Stephen replied: “Brothers and fathers, listen to me. You are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.” “When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen. But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.”
The early Christian congregations, like the Jewish synagogues, had a program of assistance for needy widows, and some of the Greek-speaking Jews in the Jerusalem congregation complained that their widows were being neglected.

The apostles replied: “We cannot both preach and administer financial matters. Choose seven men from among yourselves, respected, Spirit-filled, and of sound judgement, and let them be in charge of the accounts, and we will devote ourselves to prayer and the ministry of the word.”

The people accordingly chose seven men, including Stephen, and the apostles laid their hands on them. They are traditionally considered to be the first deacons, although the Scriptures do not use the word to describe them. (The Scriptures do refer to officials called deacons in the local congregations, without being very specific about their duties; and a century or more later, there are organized charities of each local congregation in the hands of its deacons.)

Stephen was an eloquent and fiery speaker, and a provocative one. Acts of the Apostles says that Stephen was a man filled with grace and power, who worked great wonders among the people. Certain Jews, members of the Synagogue of Roman Freedmen, debated with Stephen, but proved no match for the wisdom and spirit with which he spoke. (Some readers have speculated that some of his fellow Christians wanted to put him in charge of alms in the hope that he would administer more and talk less.)

He was stoned to death in AD 34 in controversy with the Jewish priests in ascertaining that much of the old traditional laws of the Jews had been overturned by Jesus. The Temple service for Stephen was no longer the means by which penitent sinners should seek reconciliation with God. He was seized and carried before the Sanhedrin.

In his speech, Stephen recalled God’s guidance through Israel’s history, as well as Israel’s idolatry and disobedience. He then claimed that his persecutors were showing this same spirit. “…you always oppose the holy Spirit; you are just like your ancestors” (Acts 7:51b).

This statement enraged the Temple leaders, who caused him to be stoned to death. As he died, he said, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” He begged God not to punish his killers.

St. Paul not only witnessed the event but held the garments of those stoning Stephen which he regretted later on and carried a lasting sense of guilt.

The Grateful Dead song  “St. Stephen” is about this martyr:

“Saint Stephen with a rose
In and out of the garden he goes
Country garland in the wind and the rain
Wherever he goes the people all complain”

The song has a number of symbols which relate to St. Stephen: 1. The use of the rose can symbolize completion, of consummate achievement and perfection. It can refer to Jesus blood. Stephen died as Jesus did: falsely accused, brought to unjust condemnation because he spoke the truth fearlessly. The rose is a symbol of martyrdom. 2. The garden is a place for non-conformists which certainly fits Stephen. 3. The Greek word for “garland” is “stefanos” for Stephen. 5. The use of “complain” relates to the complaints about Stephen’s teachings from the ruling temple figures.

Today is also boxing day in England, a legal holiday since 1871 but it has nothing to do with the sport or throwing away boxes after Christmas. The boxes have been interpreted in various ways  

1. Alms Boxes in churches for seasonal donations to the needy were opened on Christmas Day, and the contents distributed by the clergy the following day.

2. Some historians say the holiday developed because servants were required to work on Christmas Day, but took the following day off. As servants prepared to leave to visit their families, their employers would present them with gift boxes. As time went by, Boxing Day gift giving expanded to include those who had rendered a service during the previous year. This tradition survives today as people give presents to tradesmen, mail carriers, doormen, porters, and others who have helped them.

3. It may have been inspired By Good King Wenceslas. According to the Christmas carol, Wenceslas, who was Duke of Bohemia in the early 10th century, was surveying his land on Dec. 26 when he saw a poor man gathering wood in the middle of a snowstorm. Moved, the King gathered up surplus food and wine and carried them through the blizzard to the peasant’s door.  

The song begins this way “Good King Wenceslas looked out On the feast of Stephen,” describes an action of the king on the day after Christmas Day. The tune used with this song is older than the words and was previously used with a hymn often sung on the feasts of Stephen and other martyrs. It begins: “Christian friends, your voices raise. Wake the day with gladness. God himself to joy and praise turns our human sadness: Joy that martyrs won their crown, opened heaven’s bright portal, when they laid the mortal down for the life immortal.” This is a hymn “The Truth Above” sung on this day by Ralph Vaughan Williams

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