My dear friends, today we celebrate a great Saint in the Catholic Church.
St. Stephen is called the “Protomartyr” which means the first Martyr ever. He was the first Saint who had sacred orders, the first Saint to die while seeing our Lord Jesus Christ, and sort of an ambassador, or a scout, who showed us for the first time the death of a Saint.
I would like to explain to you today a little bit about his story, because I find the character of this man fascinating, and truly inspiring.
After Pentecost, many Jews converted to the Catholic Faith, as you all know. Now, something that characterized this first community of the Catholic Church, is that it became a mix of what we would call today religious life, and secular life.
I say this because many of the first Christians, while keeping their state in the world, actually decided to keep the counsels of the Gospel, of Poverty, Chastity and Obedience. In other words, many of the faithful abandoned their material possessions, kept chastity and virginity, and put themselves under the order and care of the Apostles, to live with them an apostolic life.
This became a large community, where people would work, and share all they had with one another, and devote themselves in as much as they could, to the spread of the Gospel, to prayer and acts of charity.
Now, many times people see this first time of the Church in a sort or idealistic way. There is a great truth in the fact that there were great saints, and most of the people who were part of this incipient Church were holy and apostolic in their lives. But to pretend that there were no problems, no dissensions, no difficulties or imperfections, is to ignore reality, and even Scriptures themselves.
Human nature will always be part of our process of sanctification. And it was actually human nature, and the problems inherent to this large community, that prompted the Apostles to enact in the Church a beautiful institution, part of the Sacrament of Orders, left by Our Lord Jesus Christ: The Diaconate.
You see, in this community of first Catholics, there were mostly Jews. But Jews at that time distinguished themselves by those born in Palestine, and those born in other countries of Greek culture. To these last, they would refer as “the Greeks”.
Now, there arose a problem among the Catholics, because there seemed to be some favoritism towards the Jews from Palestine. When the time for the meals came, it seemed to the Greeks that their widows, their women were not given as much as it was given to those of Palestinian descent.
I say “it seemed” to them, because Scripture tells us that they complained, but it doesn’t specify if it was truly so. Many times people can feel they are mistreated, and it is not necessarily so.
But at any rate, this prompted the Apostles to acknowledge that the chores incumbent on daily life maters where becoming too time consuming for them. They had a greater mission to continue, they had to travel and spread the Gospel far and wide, and could not stay watching over this sedentary community.
And so the Apostles, with Peter at their head, asked the people to select seven among them, that they might receive power from the Apostles, the Power of Sacred Orders, not as Priests, but as Deacons, which is to say as “servants” for that is the meaning of the word in Greek.
From the names of these men, it can be gathered that all of them or most, were from the side of the “Greeks”, which proves to us that there was harmony and charity, for everyone was willing to correct whatever problem there had been in the past, and people consented to have mostly Greeks given this higher dignity.
These were the first ordinations ever made in the Church by someone other than Christ, and the first “seminarians” the first men ever to become ecclesiastics, by the hands of the first Pope ever, St. Peter Himself.
Now among these, one in particular became quite important, and that was Stephen, whose name in Greek, means “crown” or “garland”. He was indeed to be crowned with the first martyrdom.
This man would preach fervently, and serve faithfully. Back and forth he became a strong carrier of the word of God. Imagine him, talking to people, fervently conversing with the Jews, with the Priests, with the Pharisees, the same men who had crucified Our Lord but a few months ago. He spoke to them fearlessly and openly.
This is the first fact about St. Stephen, the ardor of His Faith, and of His love for Christ.
It was not long, before his speech and his preaching gained enemies for him. And soon enough, the Pharisees and others bribed men to accuse him of blasphemy, and they came, beat him up and dragged him to the Sanhedrin, to be judged.
And here comes the second fact about St. Stephen, the imitation of Christ.
Now, I want you to come and be present at that moment, to truly see it with your own eyes.
Imagine this young man, talking fervently perhaps to a family in the streets about Christ, when suddenly the people start walking away from him. As they do, he turns back, and he sees several men, with the guard of the temple coming towards him, he realizes what is about to happen, and while he waits for them standing, they come at him, hit him with clubs, and bring him down, spit on him, tie him up, and drag him towards the Sanhedrin.
Among the Jews, there were several tribunals. The most serious was the one called Sanhedrin. If one was brought to this tribunal, it was understood that the question was whether if the accused was to be put under penalty of death.
When Stephen was brought before these men, the same that had condemned our Lord Jesus Christ to the Cross, his martyrdom began.
Martyrdom, my dear friends, means “to bear witness” and a martyr, is a witness. And here, before these men, once again witness was given for the Messiah, the Christ, for Jesus.
Imagine Stephen before this tribunal. But instead of lowering his head, instead of being ashamed or defeated, or even weary, he raised up his eyes, and his face, and look towards heaven, and became suddenly a spokesman of God, a prophet, and one could say that almost with God’s voice, he spoke to these men, not as an accused, but as a judge and accuser.
Scripture tells us that they saw his face illuminated, as the face of an angel. And it gives us part of his speech. It seems strange for us to read it, and off the point, because it seems to have nothing to do with his cause. It seems also that he is telling the Pharisees and priests things they already knew. But if one is familiar with the Jewish custom at that time, one knows that to enumerate the story of the chosen people was a way to make a profession of faith, such as it is for us to recite the Creed, and it was also a way to deliver a message of particular importance, specially a message from God.
And so Stephen started, uninterrupted and with power and fervor, to recount all the privileges given by God to the Jewish people, all the times he had delivered them, and sent prophets to them, all the cares he had given them, all the promises, from Abraham to Moses, recounting the delivery of Egypt, and the building of the Temple, and as he continued in his speech, his words became more ardent and more powerful, the holy Ghost spoke through him, and thundered against the proud Pharisees who stubbornly continued to deny their King, and one can almost see Stephen, as he pointed his finger toward them, and in the name of God rebuked them saying:
“You hardened, and pagan in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Ghost, as your Fathers did, so do you also.
Which of the Prophets have not your Fathers persecuted? And they have slain them who foretold of the coming of the Just One; of whom you have been now the betrayers and murderers:
You, who received the law by the ministry of angels… but did not keep it!”
What glorious man, what glorious beginning of the sacrament of Orders, of the Church!
They covered their ears, and shouted loudly to avoid listening to him, rushed him and dragged him out, threw him in a ravine, and gathered people about, to throw stones at him.
And one can see this young man, kneeling as a column, his eyes fixed in heaven, as he saw for the first time our Lord Jesus Christ glorious in heaven, Him of whom he had spoken, the rocks broke his skin and his bones, but the blood was mixed with tears of joy, and as his body fell buried by the rocks, his face must have shown a peaceful smile.
And he has given us the third great characteristic of his soul. His Martyrdom. His witness.
My dear friend, as we celebrate Christmas, let us take this inspiration to our Faith, never to hide it, but rather to proclaim the truth we know, to defend and acknowledge our Lord in our Daily lives, as St. Stephen did, by:
An ardent Faith in Christ.
The Imitation of his virtues.
And the duty to bear witness, to suffer little martyrdoms every day, in order never to deny our Christianity.