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StStephen GiacomoCavedone

Saint Stephen

IntroductionEdit

Saint Stephen, a devoted disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ, was the first of Christ's followers to die a martyr’s death. Because of this, he has been given the honorary title, "Protomartyr" [First Martyr].

Very little is known about Saint Stephen except for what we read in the book of Acts. We learn here that Stephen was appointed head deacon of the early Church at a time when food distribution needed careful administration; and how he became the target of a certain Jewish sect, who, upon hearing him speaking out boldly about the risen Lord, decided to challenge him. After failing to discredit Stephen’s testimony about Jesus, they plotted to have him killed.

Stephen’s martyrdom helps Christians understand the incredible challenges that early Christians faced in trying to get Christ's message across to the people, as well as the love and deep devotion which Christ's followers had for Him, the mediator of the new religion, and the religion itself. Christians are encouraged by Stephen’s bold stand against his accusers even when facing death. We also learn from this event, the length to which leaders of the period would go in order to suppress the gospel, especially when their traditions are stake.

Saint Stephen and the Early ChurchEdit

The Church's MissionEdit

During the time of Stephen’s martyrdom, around 34-35AD, the Church was already being persecuted for its teachings about Jesus Christ. The Savior had just ascended back into heaven to sit at the right hand of God the Father, and had sent the Holy Spirit [the Comforter] to His followers as promised [[1] [Also see “Pentecost”]. The disciples of Jesus, now empowered by Holy Spirit, embarked on the important mission of spreading the Gospel of salvation to all people. In spite of threats of arrest and imprisonment, they continued preaching, bringing more and more people into the faith. In addition to the persecution already taking place, a more widespread persecution broke out against the Church at Jerusalem on the day of Stephen's martyrdom; and this led to the scattering of all the faithful, except for the apostles, throughout Judea and Samaria.

Acts 5:12-16 discusses the achievements of the apostles during the church's formative years. The passage reads: “12The apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders among the people. And all the believers used to meet together in Solomon's Colonnade. 13No one else dared join them, even though they were highly regarded by the people. 14Nevertheless, more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number. 15As a result, people brought the sick into the streets and laid them on beds and mats so that at least Peter's shadow might fall on some of them as he passed by. 16Crowds gathered also from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing their sick and those tormented by evil spirits, and all of them were healed.”

Stephen’s Appointment as DeaconEdit

When it became necessary to appoint deacons of the church for the administration and distribution of food to the poor, Saint Stephen was one of the seven men who assigned to this important task.

The biblical passage which relates this event is found at Acts 6:1-7, and reads, “1In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Grecian Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. 2So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, "It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. 3Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them 4and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word." 5This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. 6They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them. [2]

Stephen's Arrest & TrialEdit

The book of Acts, chapters six and seven relate the steps leading up to Stephen’s arrest, trial and martyrdom. It reveals that Stephen was a man “full of God’s grace and power” and one “who did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people.”

Certain Jews of Cyrene and Alexander and provinces of Cilicia and Asia, who were from the Synagogue of the Freedmen, came to Jerusalem and began arguing with Stephen. When they saw that they could not win the argument [because he was filled with the Holy Spirit], they maliciously conspired against him, persuading others to say they heard him speak blasphemously against God and Moses.

As a result, Stephen was arrested and brought to trial before the Sanhedrin [Supreme Court]. At the trial, false witness testified that they had heard him speaking “against the Temple’s Holy Place and against the law” of Moses. They went even further and twisted Jesus’ words concerning the destruction of the Temple exclaiming that they heard Stephen say that he [Jesus] “will destroy this place and change Jewish customs that had been handed down by Moses.” [3] When called on to testify on his own behalf, Stephen pointed to major events in the Jews’ history that revealed how they had been disobedient to God from the very start. He explained how God first chose Abraham to be the forefather of the Jews. He told them how Moses, who had been commissioned by God to deliver them from slavery in Egypt, had prophesied that a prophet [Jesus] would come to them just as he [Moses] did, meaning that Moses had been referring to none other than the Lord Jesus Christ who had also been sent by God to deliver them from slavery, but this time, it was from slavery to sin. Their forefathers, Stephen told them, refused to listen to Moses, and even began worshipping a golden calf. These and other acts of disobedience caused God to give them over to the worship of heavenly bodies.

Finally, Stephen concluded his testimony by calling those assembled a “stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears!” He likened them to their forefathers because they too “always resist the Holy Spirit!” This was shown when they “killed those who predicted the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ, whom they themselves “betrayed and murdered.” Stephen, by his testimony, showed them how hypocritical they were to pretend to uphold and defend the Law now, when they themselves had never obeyed it.

At one point, Stephen repeats God’s words [in the book of Amos] concerning Judah’s notorious deeds and its subsequent deportation to Babylon. In verse 42, Stephen says,

  "Did you bring me sacrifices and offerings 
     forty years in the desert, O house of Israel? (Amos 5:25)
   43You have lifted up the shrine of Molech (your king)
     and the star of your god Rephan, 
     the idols you made to worship
  Therefore I will send you into exile beyond Babylon [paraphrasing of Amos 5:26-27] (See Acts 7:42-43[4])

Saint Stephen’s MartyrdomEdit

When the Sanhedrin [judges]heard Stephen’s words, the Bible states that they were “furious and gnashed their teeth at him.” But Stephen, it says, being filled with Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. His exact words were, “Look! I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God" (Acts 7:54).

These final words by Stephen drove them to madness. They first began covering their ears. Then yelling at the top of their voices, they went rushing at him. They then dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. In the end, Stephen prayed to God asking Him not to hold this sin against his accusers. In so doing, he displayed the same act of forgiveness and unconditional love that Christ showed to His accusers. [5] [Saint Stephen was buried by a group of holy men and his death was heavily mourned.]

Saint Stephen’s Feast DaysEdit

Christians in the West celebrate the “feast of Stephen” on on December 26th. It is an official holiday in many nations that were historically Catholic, Anglican and Lutheran: Austria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Slovak Republic, Poland, Republika Srpska, United Kingdom (where it is also called "Boxing Day"), Ireland, Italy, Germany, Finland, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. In Catalonia (though not elsewhere in Spain), it is called Sant Esteve and is a bank holiday. In France, the day of Saint Étienne is a bank holiday in the Alsace-Moselle region, but not elsewhere. December 26th is also a holiday in Tuguegarao City, Philippines, which celebrates a fiesta in honor of St Stephen Protomartyr, its patron saint.

In the Eastern Orthodox Church and those Eastern Catholic Churches which follow the Byzantine Rite, St. Stephen's feast day is celebrated on December 27. (This date in the Julian Calendar currently corresponds to January 9 in the Gregorian Calendar.) This day is also called the "Third Day of the Nativity". http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Stephen]

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