Martyrdom of St. Stephen, the Protomartyr Archdeacon | January 8
St. Stephen, the first deacon in the early Church and was the first Christian martyred for his faith. Although his name is Greek (from Stephanos, meaning crown), Stephen was a Jew. He was one of the seven deacons who helped the apostles (Acts 6: 1-6). He is the first named and the best known among the seven and is singled out as “a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit,” (Acts 6:5).
He was “filled with grace and power and began to work miracles and great signs among the people” (Acts 6: 8). We commemorate him in the fourth diptych (Thubden) of the Holy Qurbana ‘the illustrious Saint Stephen, Chief of the Deacons, and first of the Martyrs’
The Jews envied him and seized him and brought him to the Council. They also set up false witnesses who said, “This man does not cease to speak blasphemous words against this holy place and the law; for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs which Moses delivered to us.” (Acts 6:12-13) And all who sat in the Council, looking steadfastly at him, saw his face as the face of an angel. (Acts 6:13)
Then the high priest said, “Are these things so?” St. Stephen answered with convincing words and told them the history from Abraham to Moses. The coming out of Abraham from Haran, the birth and the circumcision of Isaac, Jacob and his sons and their selling of Joseph, and how Joseph revealed himself to his brothers. St. Stephen continued to narrate to them all the events until the building of the temple. He concluded by saying, “You stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears! You always resist the Holy Spirit; as your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who foretold the coming of the Just One, of Whom you now have become the betrayers and murderers, who have received the law by the direction of angels and have not kept it.” (Acts 7: 51-53)
When they heard these things, they were cut to their hearts, and they gnashed at him with their teeth. Then they cried out with a loud voice, stopped their ears, and ran toward him with one accord; and they cast him out of the city and stoned him. But he, being full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and said, “Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” He thus experienced a ‘theophany’, a man full of Holy Spirit; saw both the Father and the Son.
As he was being stoned, Stephen was calling on God and saying, “Lord Jesus receive my Spirit.” Then he knelt down and like Jesus (Lk. 23: 34) cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not charge them with this sin.” And when he said this, he fell asleep. (Acts 7:51-60) Like Jesus Christ (Matt. 27: 59), devout men carried St. Stephen to his burial and made great lamentation over him.
Stephen died praying for his executioners. The similarities between Stephen’s martyrdom and the crucifixion of Our Lord emphasize his imitation of Christ even unto the complete gift of self. He showed us the way to become like Jesus Christ – Our Lord and Saviour. The final moments of Stephen’s life are his crowning glory. His last words are those of a true disciple. “As they were stoning him, Stephen said in invocation, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my Spirit.‘ Then he knelt down and said aloud, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ And with these words he fell asleep.” (Acts 7: 59-60).
As a deacon he was pre-eminently fitted for the work he was chosen. His abilities and character suited its meaning ‘servant’. St. Stephen suffered physically for Christ, but he kept his perspective, his integrity, his Christian identity, and commitment. St. Stephen experienced a great trial due to his faith in Christ. St. Stephen’s life in Christ became a definitive example of complete faith in Christ. St. Stephen’s witness for Christ has been an enduring lesson for twenty centuries of believers. St. Stephen’s knowledge of Christ and the centuries leading to Christ is an inspiration. St. Stephen lost his life in witness to Christ. Believers draw strength from the lives of martyrs such as St. Stephen. Believers have a responsibility to live and teach the way of Christ.
His uncommon oratorical powers and unimpeachable logic no one was able to resist, so much so that to his arguments replete with the divine energy of the Scriptural authorities. He spoke with vigour and courage. St. Stephen is invested with a crown of martyrdom for Christianity. “There were some devout people, however, who buried Stephen and made great mourning for him.” (Ac 8: 2). The final moments of Stephen’s life are his crowning glory. The early Christians built a small chapel in Jerusalem which was dedicated to his memory and was known as the chapel of St Stephen the Protomartyr (First Martyr). January 8th marks the martyrdom of St. Stephen, the Archdeacon and the first martyr (protomartyr).
May his prayers be with us. Amen.