Today our Church celebrates the feast of Saint Stephen Protomartyr.
Saint Stephen was one of the first ordained deacons of the Church. He was also the first Christian martyr. In the Acts of the Apostles, St. Luke praises St. Stephen as “a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit,” who “did great wonders and signs among the people” during the earliest days of the Church.
This spirit of detachment from material things continued in the early Church, in which St. Luke says believers “had all things in common” and “would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” After fulfilling the customary observances in the Temple, they would meet in their homes to attend to the Apostles’ teaching, to offer praise to the Lord Jesus Christ and to share with gladness in the banquet of eternal life, the seal of their communion with God and of their love for one another-the holy Eucharist (Acts 2:42-47; 4:32-34).
In order that the Twelve might devote themselves without distraction to prayer and to teaching as the number of disciples continued to increase, they decided to appoint seven of the brethren, who were well-respected for their wisdom and full of the Holy Spirit, to relieve them of the task of looking after the material welfare of the community, especially of waiting on the brethren when they ate together and of assisting the widows and the needy. The seven deacons upon whom the Apostles laid their hands were Stephen, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicholas (Acts 6:1-6).
The activity of Stephen, who was their head, extended well beyond providing for the material needs of the community. Being filled with the grace of the Holy Spirit, he worked miracles and spoke with the authority of a messenger from God. All the people admired him to such an extent that their leaders, angry because they were incapable of answer his arguments, brought him before the Sanhendrin, the high priest’s council, and accused him falsely of blasphemy and of intending to subvert the ordinances of the law.
Stephen responded with a discourse recorded in the seventh chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. He described Israel's resistance to God's grace in the past, and accused the present religious authorities of “opposing the Holy Spirit” and rejecting the Messiah.
Before he was put to death, Stephen had a vision of Christ in glory. “Look,” he told the court, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!”
The council, however, dragged the deacon away and stoned him to death.
“While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit,’” records St. Luke in Acts 7. “Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ When he had said this, he died.”
Adorning the Church with the costly pearls of his blood, Stephen the first martyr of the Christian Church. The Greek word from which we derive the English word martyr literally means witness. In that sense, every Christian is called to bear witness to Jesus Christ, in both their words and their actions. Not all are asked to shed their blood.