St. Stephen

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St. Stephen

Proto-Martyr
(† 35)

St. Stephen, whom Holy Writ calls a man full of faith and of the Holy Ghost, full of grace and strength, was the first who had the happiness to give his blood and life for the Gospel of Christ; hence he is called “Proto-martyr.” He is also called Archdeacon, because he was the first of those seven men, who were chosen by the Christian community and ordained deacons by the Apostles. Where he was born and who his parents were, is not known; but it is certain that he came from Judea, and had been a disciple of the celebrated Gamaliel, and that, soon after the descent of the Holy Ghost, he had become famous for his zeal in professing the faith, and for his eminent piety; and that he had always enjoyed, among the Jews, the reputation of great wisdom in the divine laws, as well as of an irreproachable character. After having been ordained deacon, he had not only to distribute the alms among the poor, but also to aid the Apostles in their sacred functions, both of which he did most perfectly. There were no longer complaints about the distribution of alms, as it was done with love and faithfulness. He preached with the Apostles the gospel of Christ fearlessly, all through Jerusalem, and was greatly aided by the Almighty, who bestowed upon him the power of working many and great miracles, as is testified in Holy Writ in these words: “Stephen, full of grace and fortitude, did great wonders and signs among the people.”

The Jews knew that Stephen was exceedingly well-informed in the laws of Moses; but as he preached, with great freedom, the Gospel of Christ, they ventured to dispute with him, to convict him of error by their subtle questions and assertions. At that period, there existed Various schools at Jerusalem, in which the Jews were instructed in the laws. Several disciples from each of these schools came to dispute with him; but, notwithstanding their cunning and malice, they were unable to contend with the wisdom with which he spoke. Seeing that he daily converted many to Christ, they became more and more embittered against him, and endeavored to do away with him. They suborned some wicked men to disseminate among the people that Stephen had blasphemed against Moses and God, and that they themselves had heard it. This stirred up not only the people, but also the Elders and Scribes. Full of rage, they laid hands on him and brought him to the Council, which had assembled on his account, and when the Highpriest, Caiphas, and other priests and Pharisees were present, the accusers brought forward their charges, and the suborned witnesses testified to them.

“This man,” said they, “ceases not to speak words against the holy place and the law. For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth shall destroy this place, and shall change the traditions which Moses delivered to us.” All present looked fixedly into the face of the accused to notice any change which fear or apprehension might work in it; but, contrary to their expectation, the countenance of the holy Arch-deacon was so illuminated by God, as a sign of his innocence, that they deemed it the face of an Angel, as is said in Holy Writ. And in truth, he might have been called an Angel, not only on account of his angelic purity, but also on account of his fearless zeal in defending the honor of God. Is it therefore, to be wondered at, that an angelic brightness shone in his countenance?” Because he was pure and chaste,” writes St. Augustine, “therefore was his face that of an Angel.” But notwithstanding this, the assembled judges desisted not from their wicked design. The High-priest asked, whether what his accusers had said and the witnesses testified, was true? The Saint answered in a long speech, full of learning and wisdom, which is to be found in the 7th chapter of the Acts. In it he said much in praise of Moses, and cited his prophecy in regard to the coming of Christ. In conclusion, he reproached them with their obstinacy, and the murder they had committed on the true Messiah. “You stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Ghost; as your fathers did, so also do you. Which of the prophets have your fathers not persecuted? And they have slain them who foretold of the coming of the Just One, of whom you are now the betrayers and murderers.”

This reproach the assembled people could not bear. The wildest rage took possession of them, their hearts were torn with fury against St. Stephen. He failed not to perceive it, and knew well that they would sacrifice him to their rage. Hence, he turned his eyes to heaven, to receive thence strength for the approaching struggle. At that moment, he saw Jesus Christ, the Son of God, standing at the right hand of His heavenly Father, as if to assure His faithful servant that He would aid him in his fight. Stephen cried aloud: “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing on the right hand of God.” This caused a terrible outcry in the assembly, and they stopped their ears so as not to hear such blasphemy, and violently assailing him, they cast him from the Council and dragged him out of the city to stone him to death. The false witnesses who, according to the law, were to cast the first stones upon the accused, took off their garments, that they might be more free in the exercise of their cruelty, and gave them in charge of a youth, named Saul, who afterwards became the celebrated St. Paul. Hardly was St. Stephen out of the city, when they began to cast stones upon him. Every one was eager to take part in his death. The Christian hero stood looking unmoved to heaven, invoking Jesus, for whose honor he suffered martyrdom, and said: “Lord Jesus, receive my soul!” After this, kneeling down, to resemble his Saviour, who prayed for His murderers on the Cross, he said: “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.” Having said this, he fell asleep in the Lord, amid a hail of stones.

Some devout men took care to inter the body of the holy Proto-martyr, as Holy Writ tells us. It is believed that the celebrated Scribe, Gamaliel, was the principal among these, and that St. Stephen was buried at a country-seat belonging to Gamaliel, seven miles from Jerusalem, as we related on the third day of August. The Holy Fathers, in their encomiums of St. Stephen, praise his blameless life, his angelic purity, his fearless zeal in proclaiming the Gospel of the Lord, and his strength of mind and constancy; but above all, his heroic love for his persecutors and enemies, for whom he humbly prayed to the Almighty in his last moments. Without doubt, many of those, in consequence of this prayer, received grace from God and were converted. St. Augustine hesitates not to say this of Saul, when he writes: “If St. Stephen had not prayed, the Church would not possess Paul. Paul was raised up, because the prayer of St. Stephen, who was cast down, was accepted by the Almighty. Let us, therefore,” continues this Father, “commend ourselves to his intercession; for, Christ will surely grant his prayers now more readily, when he intercedes for those who invoke him.”

PRACTICAL CONSIDERATIONS.

Before I give you some special points for practical consideration, I wish you to observe why the Jews were so much embittered against St. Stephen, that they dragged him out of the city and stoned him. You find no other reason but that the holy Levite preached the truth fearlessly, and laid their vices clearly before their eyes. Ought not the Jews to have given thanks to him and have done penance for their sins? For, what he did, was done only from the desire to save them. He wished them to recognize their wickedness, and therefore secure their penance and with it their salvation. Oleaster, an ancient writer, says, that the same happens today to many preachers, who represent the awful truths of the faith, and duly reproving the prevailing vices, announce the evident danger of eternal damnation in plain words to the unrepentant. They do so because they are bound to it by their office. They have no other intention than to convert the people and to lead them from the path of vice to that of a Christian life and of salvation. But many become angry at the words of the preacher, stop their ears, will no longer listen to him, no longer endure him. If they dared, they would tear him from the pulpit, cast him out of the city, and who knows if they would not stone him, as the Jews stoned St. Stephen? As they cannot take real stones, they have recourse to moral stones, which according to Oleaster, are defamations, calumnies, and abuse. These they cast at the preacher, and endeavor to make him hateful to others. But how iniquitous is this, and how must it end? I fear it will end as it did with the hardened Jews. Most of them remained in their wickedness and went to destruction. This will be the fate of those who do not listen to the truth, and who abuse, slander and persecute its preachers. Will you be one of them? Now to the usual instructions

I. St. Stephen, during his martyrdom, fixes his eyes on the heavens, and sees them open, and Christ standing at the right hand of His heavenly Father; soon after, he kneels down, in the midst of the hail of stones thrown at him, and prays for his executioners: “Lord, lay not this to their charge.” First, learn from this, whither you should turn your eyes, in suffering, that is, upon the Crucifix, as I have already advised you elsewhere, or towards heaven, which is open to you, if you suffer patiently. Jesus is ready to strengthen you, and to reward you eternally, after you have ended your struggle, in submission to His will. Gazing upward will lighten your burden, however heavy it may be, and the contemplation of Christ always ready to strengthen you, will not permit you to become faint-hearted and despondent. Secondly, consider St. Stephen’s prayer. St. Maximus writes: “At a moment when another would have forgotten his best friends, the holy Levite thinks of his enemies and persecutors, and prays for them.” He had doubtless heard that Christ our Lord had prayed for His enemies, saying: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” This beautiful example of his divine Master, St. Stephen, as a faithful disciple, followed. What are you doing? If you entertain in your heart malice against any one who has wronged you, cleanse your heart from it, and pray yet today for all those who have ever offended you. The example of Jesus Christ, your Saviour, demands it of you, who have not suffered as much as He. “If you say to me,” writes St. Augustine, ” Christ could do it, because He was God and man; I cannot, because I am only human; look at St. Stephen, your fellow servant. Was he a man, or was he God? Surely he was only human. He was what you are. Well then, if you cannot follow the Lord, follow your fellow-servant; follow St. Stephen; follow all the holy Martyrs. They were men; they were your fellow-servants.”

II. St. Stephen beholds the heavens open, and enters into it by his heroic martyrdom. Heaven is also open to you; it is open to all men. You, as well as all men, may be saved. There is none who can truthfully say that he cannot gain salvation. Oh! how great a consolation, especially for those who are oppressed here on earth, and have many trials! How great a consolation for sinners! To all men heaven is open; all may enter it; all may gain salvation; because all, with the grace of God, can do what God requires of them. But do not forget, that heaven is open to you only whilst you live; that is, as long as you are in this life, you can do all that is necessary to gain salvation; but after your death, this will be no longer possible. Hence, if you have neglected to work out your salvation, death closes for you the gates of heaven for all eternity. As you do not know how long you will live, or when your last hour will come, you do not know how long, how many weeks, years, months, or days, heaven will remain open to you. There is no day, no hour, in which it may not be for evermore closed. If then it is your earnest desire to gain heaven, postpone not for a day that upon which you know your salvation depends. And to be still more incited to do this, think of this terrible truth: hell is open to receive you, hell is open to receive all men. You may be damned, and there is nobody that may not be damned. Why? You may commit sin, and die in it; and thus be condemned for ever more; for, those who die in mortal sin will be condemned. There is none who is not liable to sin; none who may not die in it, and hence be lost for all eternity. Can you think of this truth without fear? Besides this, think that hell is open to you as long as you live; you may be condemned even in your last hour, because you may even then become guilty of sin. Do you not tremble while earnestly representing hell to yourself? Trembling alone, however, does not help you. You must endeavor to escape hell by works. You can escape it, because you can avoid that which leads to hell; you can do what God requires of you to escape the eternal flames. Well then, work, do everything that you know is necessary to escape hell, and in the same manner, do, in remembrance of heaven, everything that God requires of you to enter there. Say sometimes to yourself: “Heaven and hell are open to me. I can be saved; I can be damned. I will do everything to be saved, and will do it without delay; for I do not know how long heaven will remain open to me. Perhaps I shall die soon; if so, I shall then be able to do nothing further to gain salvation; heaven once closed to me, will never again open its gates to admit me, even if I were to cry a thousand times with the foolish Virgins: “Lord, Lord, open to us.” The answer would be: “Amen, I say to you, I know you not.” (Matt., xxv.)

The Litany of St. Stephen

(For private recitation only)

Lord, have mercy on us
Christ, have mercy on us
Lord, have mercy on us,
Christ, hear us,
Christ, graciously hear us.
God, the Father of heaven, have mercy on us.
God, the Son, Redeemer of the world, have mercy on us.
God, the Holy Ghost, have mercy on us.

St. Stephen, first martyr,
pray for us. *

St. Stephen, who suffered for preaching the name of Jesus Christ,*
St. Stephen, who so closely imitated Jesus Christ in that great virtue of charity for your enemies,*
St. Stephen, who, when stoned by your enemies, cast forth sparks, not of anger, but of love, to set on fire their hearts, harder than the stones which they threw,*
St. Stephen, having recommended your own soul to God, cried for your enemies, Pardon them, O Lord, and punish them not for their sins,*
St. Stephen, most zealous for the glory of God,*
St. Stephen, most patient and constant,*
St. Stephen, pattern of chastity and purity,*
St. Stephen, whose heavenly fortitude caused admiration in all,*
St. Stephen, by whom so many miracles were wrought,*
St. Stephen, who, in the love of God, was not inferior to the Apostles themselves,*
St. Stephen, who converted many to the faith of Christ,*
St. Stephen, by whom the Church has received and does continually receive such singular benefits,*
St. Stephen, of whom it is said, that the Holy Ghost, Who inhabited your soul, shone and darted forth his rays into your body,*
St. Stephen, whose face shone like that of an angel,*
St. Stephen, an angel in chastity,*
St. Stephen, full of faith and of the Holy Ghost,*
St. Stephen, dear to the heart of Jesus,*

Let us pray:

O glorious saint, faithful imitator of Jesus Christ martyr in will and in reality, so full of charity, zeal, love, and purity, deign to intercede for us poor exiles; you who are so high in the favor of God, we do entreat you to procure for us a little spark of that divine love which animated your heart, that we too one day may have the happiness of seeing our God face to face.

Oh! obtain for us that virtue for which you were so eminent, and which in our holy vocation is particularly required–Charity. Amen

The Mystery of Christmas

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The Mystery of Christmas

by the Very Rev. Dom Prosper Guéranger
Abbot of Solesmes

Everything is mystery in this holy season. The Word of God, whose generation is before the day-star, is born in time: A Child is God. A Virgin becomes a Mother and remains a Virgin. Things divine are commingled with those that are human. And the sublime, the ineffable antithesis, expressed by the Beloved Disciple in those words of his Gospel, The Word was made flesh, is repeated in a thousand different ways in all the prayers of the Church.

And rightly so, for it admirably embodies the whole of the great portent that unites in one Person the nature of Man and the nature of God.

The splendor of this mystery dazzles the understanding, but it inundates the heart with joy. It is the consummation of the designs of God in time. It is the endless subject of admiration and wonder to the Angels and Saints. Nay, it is the source and cause of their beatitude. Let us see how the Church offers this mystery to her children, veiled under the symbolism of the Liturgy.

Why the 25th of December?

The four weeks of our preparation are over. They were the image of the 4,000 years that preceded the great coming, and we have reached the 25th day of the month of December as a long desired place of sweetest rest. But, why is it that the celebration of our Savior’s Birth should be the perpetual privilege of this one fixed day, while the whole liturgical cycle has to be changed and remodeled every year in order to yield to that ever-varying day which is to be the feast of His Resurrection, Easter Sunday?

The question is a very natural one, and we find it proposed and answered as far back as the fourth century by St. Augustine in his celebrated Epistle to Januarius. The holy Doctor offers this explanation: We solemnize the day of our Savior’s Birth so that we may honor that Birth, which was for our salvation. But, the precise day of the week on which He was born is void of any mystical signification. … We should not suppose, however, that because the Feast of Jesus’ Birth is not fixed to any particular day of the week, there is no mystery expressed by its always being on the 25th of December.

First, we may observe, with the old liturgists, that the Feast of Christmas is kept by turns on each of the days of the week, that thus its holiness may cleanse and rid them of the curse that Adam’s sin had put upon them.

Second, the great mystery of the 25th of December being the Feast of our Savior’s Birth refers not to the division of time marked out by God himself, but to the course of that great luminary that gives life to the world, because it gives light and warmth. Jesus, our Savior, the Light of the World, was born when the night of idolatry and crime was at its darkest. The day of His Birth, the 25th of December, is the time when the material sun begins to gain its ascendancy over the reign of gloomy night and show to the world its triumph of brightness.

In our Advent, we showed, following the Holy Fathers, that the diminution of physical light may be considered as emblematic of those dismal times which preceded the Incarnation. We joined our prayers with those of the people of the Old Testament, and with our Holy Mother the Church we cried out to the Divine Orient, the Sun of Justice, that He would deign to come and deliver us from the twofold death of body and soul.

God has heard our prayers, and it is on the day of the Winter Solstice – which the pagans of old made so much of by their fears and rejoicings – that He gives us both the increase of the natural light and the One Who is the Light of our souls.

St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Ambrose, St. Maximus of Turin, St. Leo, St. Bernard and the principal liturgists, dwell with complacency on this profound mystery, which the Creator of the universe has willed should mark both the natural and the supernatural world. We shall find the Church also making continual allusion to it during this season of Christmas, as she did in that of Advent.

‘Darkness decreases, light increases’

“On this the Day which the Lord hath made,” says St. Gregory of Nyssa, “darkness decreases, light increases and night is driven back again. No, brethren, it is not by chance, nor by any created will, that this natural change begins on the day when He shows himself in the brightness of His coming, which is the spiritual life of the world. It is nature revealing, under this symbol, a secret to those whose eye is quick enough to see it, that is, to those who are able to appreciate this circumstance of our Savior’s coming.

“Nature seems to me to say: ‘Know, O man! that under the things that I show thee, mysteries lie concealed. Hast thou not seen the night that had grown so long suddenly checked? Learn hence, that the black night of sin, which had reached its height by the accumulation of every guilty device, is this day stopped in its course. Yes, from this day forward its duration shall be shortened, until at length there shall be naught but light. Look, I pray thee, on the sun; and see how his rays are stronger, and his position higher in the heavens: Learn from that how the other light, the light of the Gospel, is now shedding itself over the whole earth.”

“Let us rejoice, my Brethren,” cries out St. Augustine. “This day is sacred not because of the visible sun, but because of the Birth of He who is the invisible Creator of the sun… He chose this day whereon to be born, as He chose the Mother of whom to be born, and He bade both the day and the Mother. The day He chose was that on which the light begins to increase, and it typifies the work of Christ, Who renews our interior man day by day. For the eternal Creator, having willed to be born in time, His Birthday would necessarily be in harmony with the rest of His creation.”

The same St. Augustine, in another sermon for the same Feast, gives us the interpretation of a mysterious expression of St. John the Baptist, which admirably confirms the tradition of the Church. The great Precursor said on one occasion, when speaking of Christ: “He must increase, but I must decrease.”

Christ, who is the Light of the world

These prophetic words signify, in their literal sense that the Baptist’s mission was at its close because Jesus was entering upon His. But they convey, as St. Augustine assures us, a second meaning: “John came into this world at the season of the year when the length of the day decreases; Jesus was born in the season when the length of the day increases. Thus there is mystery both in the rising of that glorious star, the Baptist, at the summer solstice, and in the rising of our Divine Sun in the dark season of winter.”

There have been men who dared to scoff at Christianity as superstition because they discovered that the ancient pagans used to keep a feast of the sun on the winter solstice. In their shallow erudition they concluded that a Religion could not be divinely instituted that had certain rites or customs originating in an analogy to certain phenomena of this world.

In other words, these writers denied what Revelation asserts, namely, that God only created this world for the sake of His Christ and His Church. The very facts which these enemies to the true Faith are, to us Catholics, additional proof of its being worthy of our most devoted love.

Thus, then, have we explained the fundamental mystery of these Forty Days of Christmas by having shown the grand secret hidden in the choice made by God’s eternal decree, that the 25th day of December should be the Birthday of God upon this earth.

St. Anastasia

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St. Anastasia

Martyr
(Third Century)

HER name is mentioned in the canon of the mass, in the sacramentary of St. Gregory, and in other ancient catalogues of martyrs. There stands in Rome an ancient church, which is dedicated to God in her memory. In the acts of St. Chrysogonus we are told, that she was of an illustrious descent at Rome, had St. Chrysogonus for her tutor and director in the faith, and when that holy martyr was apprehended at Aquileia in the persecution of Dioclesian, went thither to comfort him in his chains. It is further related, that after suffering exquisite tortures, she was sentenced by the prefect of Illyricum to be burnt alive in 304. Her body was removed to Rome, and laid in the church which still bears her name. In this church the popes anciently said their second mass on Christmas-night, or rather that of the morning, whence a commemoration of her is made in the second mass. The relics of St. Anastasia were translated to Constantinople in the time of the Emperor Leo, and deposited first in the church of Anastasia or the Resurrection, afterwards in the patriarchal church of St. Sophia: but were lost when that city was taken by the Turks. The Greek Menologies and the Muscovite Calendars commemorate our saint on the 22nd of December, the Roman Missal on the 25th. See on her also Nicephorus, Suidas, and Jos. Assemani ad 22 Dec. p. 489.

The Lives of the Saints. Rev. Alban Butler (1711–73). Volume XII: December. 1866.