The First Martyr

Stained glass depiction of stoning of St. Stephen

In celebrating the birth of our Saviour, we were full of joy and expectation.  But suddenly on Boxing (St Stephen’s) Day the atmosphere has turned sombre.

According to the Acts of the Apostles, St. Stephen was a deacon in the early Church at Jerusalem and was appointed by the Apostles to bring about the distribution of food to the poor.  He performed many miracles but he also angered members of various synagogues by his teachings as a follower of Christ.  Accused of blasphemy at his trial, he denounced the Jewish authorities and they had become enraged with him.  They judged that St. Stephen should be stoned to death.  Weakened from the stone bombardment and filled with the power and spirit of God, Stephen looked up intently to heaven and saw Jesus at the right hand of God.   St Stephen, the first Martyr, even prayed for his persecutors as he lay dying.  Saul of Tarsus was one of them, he was guarding the cloaks of the stone-throwers and fully approved of their actions.  We know this man was later converted to the faith and became the great missionary St Paul.  The writer of the Acts of the Apostles (St. Luke) spent some time journeying with St. Paul and so his account of these events can be taken as more or less how Paul had witnessed it.

But why does the Church commemorate the gruesome stoning to death of St Stephen so soon after the celebration of the Nativity of Christ?  The intention here is not to demote Christmas, but to manifest more clearly an important meaning of the Christmas celebration – that Christmas should essentially renew us in becoming a true disciple of Christ…and a true disciple ought to tread the way of the cross – “If any want to be my disciple, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me” (Lk 9: 23).  Christmas becomes a true reality when Jesus is born in our hearts… St Stephen experienced the joy of having Christ born in His life. We might reflect on whether we today experience Christmas in a similar way that transforms and makes us authentic disciples, discovering the true and genuine meaning of Christmas in our lives!

St Stephen is also patron saint of altar servers.  He would have seen the warmth and compassion Jesus showed to those He healed and witnessed His desire to help others. It was these characteristics that inspired Stephen to reach out and help those in need.  He would also have been aware of the time Jesus spent in prayer and how that prayer inspired him. This is why Altar Servers are important. They bring reverence and dignity to our prayer celebrations – most especially the Eucharist.  Let us ask Jesus to open our hearts like St Stephen to help the vulnerable, the sick, those unemployed, those suffering domestic violence or torture because of their faith.

altar server kneeling at altar


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