St. Stephen, Proto-Martyr
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.”
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.)
Lives of the Saints: Compiled from Authentic Sources with a Practical Instruction on the Life of Each Saint, for Every Day in the Year by Rev. F. X. Weninger. Permissu Superiorum. New York: P. O’Shea, Publisher, 67 Barclay Street and 42 Park Place. 1876.