Feast Day: December 26th | Titles: Deacon, Apologist, Martyr, Protomartyr | Patronage: Altar Servers, Bricklayers, Deacons, Masons, Casket Makers, Headaches | Attributes: Wearing Dalmatic; Holding Censer, Martyr’s Palm, Gospel Book, Miniature Church; Surrounded by Stones.
Good King Wenceslas, it is said, looked out on the Feast of Stephen. The famous carol which begins with those words was composed in the 1830s by John M. Neale (an Evangelical Minister, who, loving Catholic Liturgy, Latin hymns, and religious life, was roundly persecuted by his congregation). The aforementioned Good King looked out from his castle in Bohemia in the 930s, and if he had followed his usual routine, would have already attended Mass, perhaps helping to grind the wheat to make the hosts, and had probably given a few hours to prayer earlier that morning in the darkened and unheated church. The Feast of St. Stephen was celebrated throughout the Church by the 330s when we find him included by name (along with St. John, Ss. Peter and Paul, and often St. John the Baptist) in the Eucharistic Prayers of Rome, Egypt, and Byzantium. But St. Stephen himself barely made it into the 030s.
Stephen, his name meaning “crown” or “wreath” (the word often used to describe someone of honor) was one of the first deacons of the Church, which in those early years had barely yet expanded past the city of Jerusalem. Certainly, many of those who had been converted by St. Peter’s words on Pentecost had carried the Good News of the coming of the Christ back to their homes, but the Apostles were still mostly just preaching in the Temple, and from house to house in the Holy City. It was because they were so busy preaching the Word that they enlisted the help of several men who had known Jesus Himself to be deacons, servants, of the Apostles, directed especially to the care of the poor, and one of those was Stephen.
How did St. Stephen celebrate Christ’s coming? Well, he was not there for Jesus’ birth, but being a friend and disciple of Our Lord, he certainly had pondered again and again the details of Jesus’ death, and the wonder of all the early disciples at His resurrection. Recall Stephen’s words in Acts 7, where he goes back through the entire history of Israel and points out how God had directed their steps all along – Abraham’s sacrifice, Joseph’s survival, Moses’ encounter at the Bush; the Tabernacle in the Desert and the Temple of David and Solomon – and now, Stephen proclaimed, God had intervened and saved, and directed and fulfilled again, in Jesus, and in an utterly unprecedented way. All those previous encounters with God were only a glimpse, an anticipation, of the closeness that He actually wanted to have with His people! God is not content with a relationship of bushes, and tents, and sacrificial lambs.
The Most High does not dwell in houses made by hands. He dwells in us. He dwells with us. He dwells among us. Jesus, Stephen knew, was real, and is real; was alive, and is alive; had come, and still comes. As that first deacon proclaimed this to the astonishment of the bystanders, the Holy Spirit opened his eyes to see heaven, the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of the Father. Stephen saw the veil pulled back, and the closeness of God revealed, and notice what happens next:
Not just his suffering, the hurled stones, and Saul standing by, but notice that Stephen plays out in his own life and death, the life and death of His Savior. He, like Jesus, spoke of the Son of Man at the righthand of God. He, like Jesus, for that claim, is made an outcast, and taken out of the city to die. He, like Jesus, begs the Heavenly Father to forgive his persecutors. And he, like Jesus, gives His Spirit over to God.
The coming of Christ is not just about God become like us. It is also about us becoming like God. We cannot embrace the child in the manger, if we will not embrace Christ upon the cross. But if we are willing to go to Bethlehem and Jerusalem, to the crib and the cross, to receive the Spirit and a share in Our Lord’s suffering, then we with Stephen, and Saul, and Wenceslaus and Abraham, will see God with us, not just in the past, nor just in heaven, but with us – with you, and me, and our families – today.
– Fr. Dominic Rankin was ordained a deacon, like St. Stephen dedicated to service of the Church, 5 years ago. It was on the feast of St. Wenceslaus, on September 28th 2017. He was not martyred after giving his first homily, nor has he hiked miles in the snow to deliver food to the hungry. Thankfully, God can make a saint of him yet.