The Octave of St. Stephen the First Martyr
YESTERDAY we finished the Octave of the Birth of Jesus; to-day we shall finish the Octave of St Stephen; but this without losing sight one moment of the Divine Babe, whose Court is formed by Stephen, John the Beloved Disciple, the Holy Innocents, and St Thomas of Canterbury. In five days we shall see the Magi prostrate before the Crib of the new-born King; they are already on the way, and the Star is advancing towards Bethlehem. Let us spend the interval in reconsidering how great is the glory of our Emmanuel in his having lavished such extraordinary favours on these Saints whom he has chosen to be near him at his first coming into the world.
Let us begin with Stephen, for this is the last day of the Octave dedicated to him by the Church. We must take leave of him now till the month of August, when we shall again meet him on the Feast of the Finding of his Relics.
In a sermon which was for a long time thought to have been written by St Augustine, we find it mentioned that St Stephen was in the flower of his youth when he was called by the Apostles to receive the sacred character of deaconship. Six others were ordained deacons with him; and these seven, whose office was to minister at the Altar here below, represented the seven Angels, whom St John saw standing near the Altar in heaven. Stephen was appointed as the head of the Seven, and St Irenæus, who lived in the second century, calls him the Arch-Deacon.
The characteristic virtue of a Deacon is fidelity. Hence, he is intrusted with the care of the treasures of the Church, treasures which consist not merely in the alms destined for the poor, but in that which is the most precious thing in heaven and earth—the Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, of which the Deacon is the minister, in virtue of his Order. For this reason, the Apostle St Paul, in his first Epistle to Timothy, bids the Deacons hold the Mystery of Faith in a pure conscience.
It was, therefore, more than an appropriate coincidence, that the first of all the Martyrs was a Deacon, for Martyrdom is the great proof of fidelity, and fidelity is the official virtue of the Diaconate. This same truth is still more strongly impressed upon us by the fact that the three who stand pre-eminent amongst the Martyrs of Christ are vested in the holy Dalmatic—the three glorious Deacons: Stephen, the glory of Jerusalem; Laurence, the pride of Rome; and Vincent, of whom Spain so justly boasts. The present holy season gives us Stephen, who has been gladdening us with his festal presence ever since Christmas Day, and Vincent, whose feast falls on January 22. Laurence will come to us, with his rich waving Palm, in the sunny month of August; and Stephen, in the same month, will visit us, a second time, in the Feast of the Finding of his Relics.
With the intention of paying respect to the Holy Order of Deaconship in the person of its first representative, it is a custom in a great many Churches, on the Feast of St Stephen, that Deacons should fulfil every office which is not beyond their Order. For example, the Chanter yields his staff of office to a Deacon; the Choristers, who assist the Chanter, are also Deacons, vested in Dalmatics; and the Epistle of the Mass is sung by a Deacon, because it is the passage from the Acts of the Apostles which relates the history of the holy Martyr’s death.
The institution of St Stephen’s Feast, and its being fixed on the day immediately following that of our Lord’s Birth, are so ancient that it is impossible to assign their date. The Apostolic Constitutions, which were compiled at the latest towards the close of the third century, mention this Feast as already established, and that, too, on the morrow of Christmas Day. St Gregory of Nyssa and St Asterius of Amasea, both of them earlier than the miraculous discovery of the Holy Deacon’s Relics, have left us Homilies for the Feast of St Stephen, in which they lay stress on the circumstance of its having the honour to be kept the very day after the solemnity of Christmas. With regard to its Octave, the institution is less ancient, though the date cannot be defined. Amalarius, who wrote in the ninth century, speaks of this Octave as already established; and Notker’s Martyrology, compiled in the tenth century, makes express mention of it.
But how comes it that the Feast of a mere Deacon has been thus honoured, whilst almost all those of the Apostles have no Octave? The rule followed by the Church in her Liturgy is to give more or less solemnity to the Feasts of the Saints, according to the importance of the services they rendered to mankind. Thus it is that the honour she pays to St Jerome, for example, who was only a Priest, is more marked than that she gives to a great number of holy Popes. It is her gratitude which guides her in assigning to the Saints their respective rank in her Calendar, and the devotion of the Faithful to the saintly benefactors whom she now venerates as members of the Church Triumphant is thus regulated by a safe standard. St Stephen led the way to Martyrdom; his example inaugurated that sublime witnessing by shedding one’s own blood, which is the very strength of the Church, ratifies the truths she teaches to the world, and confirms the hopes of eternal reward promised by those truths. Glory, then, and honour to the Prince of Martyrs! As long as time shall last, so long shall the Church on earth celebrate the name of Stephen, who was the first to shed his blood for the God who died on Calvary!
We have already noticed St Stephen’s imitation of Jesus, by praying for and forgiving his enemies; it is the circumstance which the Church continually alludes to in her Office of his Feast. But there is another very important incident in the martyrdom of our Saint which we must, for a moment, dwell upon. One of the accomplices in the murder which was being committed under the walls of Jerusalem was a young man of the name of Saul. He made himself exceedingly active, for he was of an ardent temperament, and, as the Fathers observe, he helped every man who stoned the holy Deacon, because he took care of the murderers’ garments whilst they committed the crime. Not long after, this same Saul, whilst travelling to Damascus, was converted into an Apostle of that Jesus whom he had heard Stephen confess as the Son of God. He was the fruit of Stephen’s dying prayer. The blood of Stephen cried to heaven for mercy, and heaven sent to the Gentiles the Apostle who would bring them to the knowledge and love of Jesus. ‘What an admirable scene!’ cries out St Augustine. ‘Here is Stephen being stoned, and Saul taking care of the garments of them that stone him. But this Saul is now Paul, the Apostle of Jesus Christ, and Stephen is the servant of Jesus Christ. … O Saul! thou hast been prostrated, and raised up again: prostrated a persecutor, raised up a preacher. Everywhere are thy Epistles read; everywhere art thou bringing to Christ them that are his enemies; everywhere art thou the good Shepherd, surrounded by a numerous flock. Thou art now reigning with Christ, in company with him thou didst once stone. Both of you are looking upon us; both of you now hear what I am saying; do both of you pray, also, for us. He who crowned you both will hear both. Stephen was a lamb; Saul was a wolf; now both are lambs, and both will acknowledge us as of the flock of Christ, and will pray for us, that the Church of their Master may be blessed with a peaceful and tranquil life.’ Stephen and Paul both visit us during this grand season of Christmas; for we shall keep the Feast of the Conversion of St Paul on January 25; and thus Stephen leads his spiritual conquest to the Crib of their common Lord and Master.
Catholic piety has chosen St Stephen as one of the Patrons of a Happy Death. This choice was suggested by the death of the Holy Martyr: a death so tranquil that the Scripture calls it a Sleep, in spite of the cruel torture to which his executioners put him. Let us, therefore, beg the intercession of St Stephen for that awful hour of our death, when we must return to our Creator these souls of ours; nay, let us ask him to pray that we may be habitually in such a disposition of mind as to be ever ready to make the total sacrifice of the life which God has given to us: it was a sacred deposit he intrusted to our keeping, which we were to hold in readiness for him whensoever he might demand it at our hands.
The Mass is given above, p. 228, except the Collect, which is as follows:
Omnipotens sempiterne Deus, qui primitias Martyrum in beati LevitæStephani sanguine dedicasti: tribue, quæsumus, ut pro nobis intercessor existat, qui pro suis etiam persecutoribus exoravit Dominum nostrum Jesum Christum, Filium tuum.
O Almighty and eternal God, who didst consecrate the firstfruits of Martyrdom in the blood of blessed Stephen the Levite; grant, we beseech thee, that he may intercede for us, who even for his persecutors begged mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ, thy Son.
Commemoration of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Deus qui salutis æternæ, beatæ Mariæ virginitate fœcunda, humano generi præmia præstitisti; tribue, quæsumus, ut ipsam pro nobis intercedere sentiamus, per quam meruimus auctorem vitæ suscipere, Dominum nostrum Jesum Christum Filium tuum.
O God, who, by the fruitful Virginity of the Blessed Mary, hast given to mankind the rewards of eternal salvation, grant, we beseech thee, that we may experience her intercession, by whom we received the Author of life, our Lord Jesus Christ, thy Son.
The third Prayer is one of the following:
Against the persecutors of the Church
Ecclesiæ tuæ, quæsumus, Domine, preces placatus admitte: ut, destructis adversitatibus et erroribus universis, secura tibi serviat libertate.
Mercifully hear, we beseech thee, O Lord, the prayers of thy Church, that all oppositions and errors being removed, she may serve thee with a secure and undisturbed devotion.
For the Pope
Deus omnium fidelium Pastor et Rector, famulum tuum N. quem Pastorem Ecclesiæ tuæ praeesse voluisti, propitius respice; da ei, quæsumus, verbo et exemplo, quibus præest, proficere; ut ad vitam, una cum grege sibi credito, perveniat sempiternam. Per Dominum.
O God, the Pastor and Governor of all the Faithful, look down in thy mercy on thy servant N. whom thou hast appointed Pastor over thy Church; and grant, we beseech thee, that, both by word and example, he may edify all those that are under his charge, and, with the flock intrusted to him, arrive, at length, at eternal happiness. Through, etc.
Commemoration of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Tua, Domine, propitiatione, et beatæ Mariæ semper Virginis intercessione, ad perpetuam atque præsentem hæc oblatio nobis proficiat prosperitatem et pacem.
Being appeased, O Lord, by the intercession of blessed Mary ever Virgin, grant that this oblation may avail for our present and lasting prosperity and peace.
Against the persecutors of the Church
Protege nos, Domine, tuis mysteriis servientes: ut divinis rebus inhærentes, et corpore tibi famulemur et mente.
Protect us, O Lord, while we assist at thy sacred mysteries, that being employed in acts of religion, we may serve thee both in body and mind.
For the Pope
Oblatis, quæsumus, Domine, placare muneribus, et famulum tuum N., quem Pastorem Ecclesiæ tuæ præesse voluisti, assidua protectione guberna. Per Dominum.
Be appeased, O Lord, with the offering we have made, and cease not to protect thy servant N., whom thou hast been pleased to appoint Pastor over thy Church. Through, etc.
Commemoration of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Hæc nos communio, Domine, purget a crimine; et intercedente beata Virgine Dei Genitrice Maria, cœlestis remedii faciat esse consortes.
May this communion, O Lord, cleanse us from sin, and by the intercession of blessed Mary, the Virgin-Mother of God, make us partakers of thy heavenly remedy.
Against the persecutors of the Church
Quæsumus, Domine Deus noster, ut quos divina tribuis participatione gaudere, humanis non sinas subjacere periculis.
We beseech thee, O Almighty God, not to leave exposed to the dangers of human life, those whom thou hast permitted to partake of these divine mysteries.
For the Pope
Hæc nos, quæsumus, Domine, divini sacramenti perceptio protegat: et famulum tuum N., quem Pastorem Ecclesiæ tuæ præesse voluisti, una cum commisso sibi grege, salvet semper et muniat. Per Dominum.
May the participation of this divine Sacrament protect us, we beseech thee, O Lord; and always procure safety and defence to thy servant N., whom thou hast appointed Pastor over thy Church, together with the flock committed to his charge. Through, etc.
We will now select from the ancient Liturgies a few additional pieces in honour of our Saint. We begin with two Responsories as given in the Roman Breviary.
℟. Stephanus, servus Dei, quem lapidabant Judæi, vidit cœlos apertosi vidit et introivit: * Beatus homo, cui cœli patebant.
℣. Cum igitur saxorum crepitantium turbine quateretur, inter æthereos aulæ cœlestis sinus divina ei Claritas fulsit. * Beatus homo.
℟. Patefactæ sunt januæ cœli Christi Martyri beato Stephano, qui in numero Martyrum inventus est primus: * Et ideo triumphat in cœlis coronatus.
℣. Mortem enim, quam Salvator noster dignatus est pro nobis pati, hanc ille primus reddidit Salvatori. * Et ideo.
℟. Stephen, the servant of God, whom the Jews stoned, saw the heavens opened; he saw and entered: * Blessed man, to whom the heavens were opened.
℣. While, therefore, the loud pelting of the storm of stones was beating against him, a divine brightness shone upon him from the ethereal recesses of the heavenly court. * Blessed man.
℟. The gates of heaven were thrown open to Stephen, the blessed Martyr of Christ, who was the first among the Martyrs. * And he therefore triumphs in heaven, with his Crown upon him.
℣. For he was the first to pay back to the Saviour the Death our Saviour deigned to suffer for us. * And he.
The Church of Milan, in its Ambrosian Missal, consecrates this Preface to the praise of the Prince of Martyrs.
Vere dignum et justum est, æquum et salutare, nos tibi semper et ubique gratias agere, aeterne Deus: qui Levitarum præconem vocasti Stephanum. Hic tibi primus dedicavit Martyrii nomen: hic tibi inchoavit primus effundere sanguinem: hic meruit videre cœlos apertos, et Filium stantem ad dexteram Patris. In terris hominem adorabat, et in cœlo Filium Patris esse clamabat. Hic Magistri verba referebat; quia, quod Christus dixit in cruce, hoc Stephanus docuit in sanguinis sui morte. Christus in cruce indulgentiam seminabat: et Stephanus pro suis lapidatoribus Dominum supplicabat.
It is truly meet and just, right and available to salvation, that we should always and in all places give thanks to thee, O Eternal God, who didst call Stephen to be the first of Deacons. He was the first that dedicated unto thee the offering of Martyrdom: he was the first to shed his blood for thee: he it was that merited to see the heavens opened, and the Son standing at the right hand of the Father. He adored Jesus the Man-God on earth, and he proclaimed him to be the Son of the Father in heaven. He repeated the words of his Master; for what Christ said on the cross, that did Stephen teach when shedding his blood in death. Christ on the Cross sowed the seed of his pardon: so did Stephen beseech his Lord to have mercy on them that stoned him.
The same Liturgy has the following Collect for St Stephen’s Feast.
Ministrantium tibi, Deus, eruditor et rector, qui Ecclesiæ tuæprimordia beati Levitæ Stephani ministerio et pretioso martyrii sanguine decorasti; da, quæsumus: ut in excessu nostro veniam consequentes, mereamur exemplis ejus imbui, et intercessionibus adjuvari. Per Dominum Jesum Christum.
O God, the teacher and ruler of them that are thy ministers, who didst adorn the early days of thy Church by the ministry and precious blood of blessed Stephen the Levite; grant, we beseech thee, that meeting with pardon at the hour of our death, we may deserve to follow his example, and be aided by his intercession. Through Jesus Christ our Lord.
The Gothic Liturgy of Spain gives us, in its Mozarabic Missal, the following admirable Prayer to St Stephen.
Beatissime Stephane, Protomartyr, vocabitur tibi nomen novum, quod os Domini nominavit: ut qui mortem pro illo sumeres, coronam per ilium et nomine et virtute susciperes: primus in Martyrio, primus in præmio; primus in aula mundi, primus in aula cœli: ut hic pro Christo lapidatus, illic ab ipso coronatus, exsuites; ut pro quo hic crudelissimam sustinuisti pœnam, illic pretiosissimam susciperes coronam: ergo qui exstitisti Ecclesiæ primitivus, nunc esto patronus assiduus: ut sit Christus nobis, te precante, propitius, pro quo Martyr exstitisti mirificus.
Most blessed Protomartyr Stephen! thou shalt be called by a new name, which the mouth of the Lord hath named: for that thou, who didst suffer death for him, didst by him receive a Crown for thy name and a Crown for thy virtue. Thou wast the first in Martyrdom and first in its reward; first Martyr in the world, and the first in the courts of heaven. Here stoned for Christ; there exulting in the Crown he gave thee. Here thou didst suffer, for his sake, the most cruel torments; there thou didst receive the most precious Crown. Thou, therefore, that wast the first flower of the Church, be now her untiring patron; that so, by thy prayers, that Jesus for whose sake thou wast a glorious Martyr may be merciful unto us.
The following Hymn, remarkable for its unction and simplicity of style, is to be found in most of the ancient Roman-French Breviaries.
Sancte Dei pretiose
Qui virtute charitatis
Dominum pro inimico
Tu cœlestis primitivus
Testis primus gratiæ,
Fundamento lapis vivus,
Saxo cæsus, non mucrone,
Per saxorum cuspides,
Corpus membri passione
Ad decorem sunt coronæ
Tu cœlorum primus stratam
Tu per Christum hebetatam
Primus transis rhomphæam,
Primum granum trituratum,
Ditans Christi aream.
Tibi primum reseratæ
Cœli patent januæ,
Jesum vides potestate,
Cui pugnas strenue;
Stans cum Patris majestate
Tecum est assidue.
Funde preces pro devoto
Tibi nunc collegio,
Ut tuo propitiatus
Nos purgatos a peccatis
Jungat cœli civibus.
Gloria et honor Deo,
Qui te fiore roseo
Coronavit et locavit
In throno sidereo:
Salvet reos, solvens eos
A mortis aculeo.
O holy Protomartyr Stephen,
most dear to God!
in the virtue of charity wherewith
thou wast armed on every side,
thou didst beseech the Lord
to have mercy on thine enemies.
Thou art the Standardbearer
of heaven’s martyr-host;
the herald of truth;
the first witness of Christian grace;
the living foundation-stone,
and ground-work of martyrdom.
Stones were the instrument of thy martyrdom, not the sword. The sharp-edged stones,
like knives of a second circumcision,
tore thine innocent flesh;
but, tinged in thy blood,
they were made rubies for thy Crown.
Thou wast the first to tread the stony rugged path
that leads to heaven; thou wast the first to breast that sword
which had slain our Lord
and lost its keen edge by piercing him;
thou wast the earliest winnowed wheat that graced the granaries of Christ.
To thee were heaven’s gates first opened,
showing thee Jesus in his power,
for whom thou didst so bravely fight:
He, standing at the right hand
of his Father’s majesty,
is with thee incessantly.
Pray now for this thy devout people,
that our Lord,
through thy prayers,
may mercifully forgive us our sins,
and grant us fellowship
with the citizens of heaven.
Glory and honour to the God
who gave thee thy Crown of roses
and thy throne above the stars.
May he free us
from the sting of death,
and save us sinners.
We will close our selection with a Sequence composed by Notker; we find it in the collection of St Gall.
Hanc concordi famulatu, colamus solemnitatem,
Auctoris illius exemplo docti benigno,
Pro persecutorum precantis fraude suorum.
O Stephane, signifer Regis summe boni, nos exaudi:
Proficue qui es pro tuis exauditus inimicis.
Paulus tuis precibus, Stephane, te quondam persecutus Christo credit,
Et tecum tripudiat in regno, cui nullus persecutor appropinquat:
Nos proinde, nos supplices ad te clamantes et precibus te puisantes,
Oratio sanctissima nos tua semper conciliet Deo nostro.
Te Petrus Christi ministrum statuit: Tu Petro normam credenti adstruis, ad dextram summi Patris ostendendo, quem plebs furens crucifixit.
Se tibi Christus eligit, Stephane, per quem fideles suos corroboret, se tibi inter rotatus saxorum solatio manifestans.
Nunc inter inclytas Martyrum purpuras coruscas coronatus.
Let us solemnize this Feast in the union of fraternal charity,
Instructed by the sweet example of its Saint
Who prayed for his guilty persecutors.
Hear us, O Stephen, thou standard-bearer of the infinitely merciful King,
Who heard the prayers thou didst offer him for thine enemies.
By thy prayers, O Stephen, that very Paul who once persecuted thee was converted to believe in Jesus,
And now exults with thee in that Kingdom, nigh which no persecutors come.
We, then, who humbly cry to thee for pity, and besiege thee with our prayers,
We, surely, shall be reconciled to our God by thy most holy prayers.
Peter ordained thee as a minister of Christ: and thou to the faithful Peter didst affirm and show this truth, that he whom the mad populace crucified is at the right hand of the Father.
Christ chose thee, O Stephen! as the example whereby he would give courage to his faithful ones, for he showed himself to thee amidst the shower of stones, and sweetly consoled thee.
Now amidst the red-robed army of the Martyrs thou shinest as The Crowned Prince.
We return thee our grateful thanks, O glorious Stephen! for the help thou hast given us in this great Feast of Christmas. It is thy yearly office to initiate us into the sublime mystery of the Birth of Jesus. Thy Feast ever brings us into the company of this Divine Child, and the Church trusts thee to reveal him to the hearts of her children, as thou heretofore didst to the Jews. Thou hast done thy work, dear Saint! and here is our faith: we adore this Babe of Bethlehem as the Word of God; we hail him as our King; we offer ourselves to him, to serve him as thou didst; we acknowledge his absolute right over us, and our obligation of serving him even to the last drop of our blood, should he put our loyalty to that great test. Stephen, Faithful Deacon! pray for us, that we may have the grace to give our whole heart to Jesus from this time forward; that we may use our best efforts to please him; and that we may conform our lives and affections to his blessed will. Doing this, we shall have the grace to fight his Fight, if not before tyrants and persecutors, at least before the base passions of our own hearts. We are the descendants of the Martyrs, and the Martyrs conquered the world; for Jesus, the Babe of Bethlehem, had conquered it before them: shall we, then, be cowards, and re-enslave ourselves to our eternal enemy? Obtain for us also that fraternal charity which pardons every injury, and prays for them that hate us, and converts sinners and heretics when all means else have failed. O valiant Martyr of Jesus! watch over us at the hour of our death; assist us in our agony; show us that Jesus whom thou hast shown us so often as the dear Babe of Bethlehem; show us him then as the glorified, the triumphant, but above all as the merciful Jesus, holding in his divine hands the Crown he has prepared for us; and may our last words be those which thou didst utter when going to thy God: Lord Jesus! receive my Spirit!
 1 Tim. iii 9.
 Sermon 316: The Third for the Feast of St Stephen.
 Acts vii 58.
The Liturgical Year. 1904. Abbot Dom Gueranger, O.S.B. Translated from the French by Dom Laurence Shepherd, O.S.B. Imprimatur, 1910.