Monday, December 26, 2011

Feast of St. Stephen, first martyr

Today is the second day in the octave of Christmas. The Church celebrates the Feast of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Stoned outside Jerusalem, he died praying for his executioners. He was one of the seven deacons who helped the apostles; he was "filled with faith and with the Holy Spirit," and was "full of fortitude." The Church draws a comparison between the disciple and his Master, emphasizing the imitation of Christ even unto the complete gift of self. His name is included in the Roman Canon.
St. Stephen
The deacon Stephen, stoned in Jerusalem two years after the death of Christ, has always been the object of very special veneration by the faithful. He is the first martyr. The account in the Acts of the Apostles relating his arrest and the accusations brought against him emphasize the parallel with our Saviour's trial; he was stoned outside the city wall and died, like his Master, praying for his executioners.

Stephen belongs to the group of seven deacons whom the Apostles associated with their work in order to lighten their load. He was "filled with faith and with the Holy Spirit," "full of grace and strength" he showed himself as a man of God, radiating divine grace and apostolic zeal. As the first witness to Christ he confronted his opponents with quiet courage and the promise made by Jesus (Mark 13.11) was fulfilled: ". . .Disputing with Stephen they were not able to resist the wisdom and the spirit that spoke."
In St. Stephen, the first martyr, the liturgy emphasizes the imitator of Christ even to the extent of the complete gift of self, to the extent of that great charity which made him pray in his suffering for his executioners. By establishing the feast on the day after Christmas the Church draws an even closer comparison between the disciple and the Master and thus extends his witness to the whole mission of the redeeming Messiah.

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