‘The Stoning of Saint Stephen’ by Rembrandt. (Photo supplied)
In today’s world where there is a dearth of heroes and models for politically persecuted truth seekers among the youth, the life of St. Stephen Protomartyr can fill the vacuum and provide answers and inspiration to us all.
St. Stephen Protomartyr, whose feast day is celebrated on Dec. 26, was the first Christian martyr. He was killed by stoning after he was falsely accused of blasphemy.
Stoning is a manner of capital punishment where a group throws stones at a person until the subject dies from blunt trauma. In recent times, this form of punishment for grave misdeeds employed since ancient times has caused controversy.
According to the Acts of the Apostles, Stephen was a deacon of the early church and frequented the synagogues where he taught. Members of the various synagogues, provoked by his teachings, challenged Stephen, who instead of being silenced delivered a long speech on the history of Israel encompassing almost the whole of Chapter 7 of the Acts of the Apostles.
Denouncing the Jewish authorities who sat in judgment of him — “Was there ever a prophet your ancestors did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered Him” (Acts 7:51-53) — further earned for him the envy and ire of the Jews.
Defeated and humiliated, the Jews accused him of blasphemy against Moses and God. For this offense, the Sanhedrin sentenced him to be stoned to death.
But in fact, “St. Stephen appealed to the Jewish scriptures to prove how the laws of Moses were not subverted by Jesus but instead were being fulfilled,” according to Pope Benedict XVI.
St. Stephen’s speech, according to scholars, has three places where his retelling of the stories of Israelite history diverges from the scriptures where these stories originated.
But theologians argue that these may not be discrepancies but rather a condensing of historical events for people who were already familiar with them.
Born in 5 AD in Jerusalem and killed in 33-35 AD, placing his age at 28-30, it is said that Stephen was the eldest among the deacons and was therefore called “archdeacon.”
Stephen is mentioned in Acts 6 as one of the Greek-speaking Hellenistic Jews selected to participate in a fairer distribution of welfare to the Greek-speaking widows. Stephen, said to be full of faith and the Holy Spirit, performed “signs and wonders” in the synagogues of Hellenistic Jews. Deacons were appointed to address the dissatisfaction among Hellenistic (Greek-influenced and Greek-speaking) widows, due to the preference given to Hebraic widows in the daily distribution of food.
Venerated in the Roman Catholic Church, Eastern Catholic Churches, Eastern Orthodox Church, Oriental Orthodox Churches, Assyrian Church of the East, Anglican Communion, St. Stephen is the patron saint of altar servers. Eastern Christian iconography shows him as a young, beardless man with a tonsure, wearing a deacon’s vestments, and often holding a miniature church building or a censer.
Take away the names of the actors and replace the place and time with the here and now, I can almost see our young human rights defenders, students and young professionals, citing the Bill of Rights to deliver the message that “human rights and life should be respected.”
I can hear the logical, clear, valid arguments of our young lawyers as they face the panel of purported legal experts and glib-tongued spokespersons and I can see the red-faced Pharisees as they are bested by the gentle soft-spoken hearts.
Not being able to take the degradation, they counter by presenting false witnesses, probably hoping that this would end with stoning. To really think about it, stoning is more merciful than being confined for an endless period behind bars because of a belief, a creed or a principle.
Accounts in the Bible say that Stephen prayed for forgiveness for his killers. Expecting a scared and defeated demeanor, the persecutors were surprised to see Stephen’s face like an angel even as he was being stoned. Stephen exclaimed: “Look! I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing on the right hand of God!”
In spite of or maybe despite the harassment, don’t we see more and more young people taking the initiative to bring food supply to poor communities, to volunteer and to help in relief measures, to provide the voice for the voiceless, to protect the helpless?
Stephen, steeped in holiness, studied his facts, he knew his history, he found the truth and proclaimed it with courage and charity, and he forgave. The reward? The gates of heaven opened.
Truly the “blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” (Tertullian)
Be consoled, for “The tyrant dies and his rule is over. The martyr dies, and his rule begins.” (Soren Kierkegaard)
And to the family and friends left by the martyrs, know that now they live in the country where love, justice and peace reign for all eternity.
St. Stephen, pray for our youth.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.