In Christian tradition, St Stephen Martyr has significant importance. For some versions, Stephen was a Jewish boy; for others Greek. It is agreed upon that he converted to Christianity at some point in his life, becoming a living witness to it.
The history of St Stephen Martyr
New conversions due to the Apostles’ preaching were growing in large numbers. At that point, they were forced to elect seven Deacons to provide for material affairs.
One of these was St Stephen Martyr, who remained in Jerusalem despite the persecution of Christians following the ban on the Apostles’ teaching in Jesus’ name. Stephen became a favorite target of those who hated and did not tolerate Christians. One day Stephen responded with the intensity of inspired speech, highlighting the new law and new covenant as superior to the old law. His interlocutors could not stand up to his eloquence and successfully silenced him only by violence.
They bought witnesses and led Stephen before the judges demanding the death sentence. Stephen asked to speak for his defense and again extolled the new covenant and the new law, attributing to them the death of the Messiah. He was dragged out of the city and stoned to death. Falling to his knees, he proclaimed, “Lord, Jesus, receive my spirit. Do not impute this sin to them.”
Who was the first martyr?
A Jew of Hellenistic origin, St Stephen Martyr (which means “crowned” in Greek) had a profound knowledge of the sacred Scriptures. This enabled him to sustain a protracted dispute in the Sanhedrin. He was brought because of his active preaching, especially among the Jews of the diaspora. Thanks to them, he gained numerous faith in the crucified and risen Jesus. Arrested and brought to the judgment of the Sanhedrin, he was condemned.
A group of fanatics, stirring up the fury of the people against him, took to pelting him with stones, laying their cloaks at the feet of a young man named Saul – the future Paul – who was present at the stoning.
The killing of Stephen and the persecution that followed provided the concrete occasion that drove the Hellenists to disperse.
Driven out of Jerusalem, they became itinerant missionaries. From being an internal movement within Judaism, Christianity began its independent journey into the world.
St. Stephen martyr, the Saint of a thousand relics
The burial place of this Saint was kept hidden for a very long time, hundreds of years, when he was found in Jerusalem in 415. It is said that just touching the relics of St. Stephen was enough to cause miracles.
From there on, pilgrimages began to be many, and the Crusaders in the 13th century decided well to smuggle the body out and bring it to Europe. Thus began the proliferation of St. Stephen’s relics that seem to be scattered all over the continent, Venice, Constantinople, Naples, Ravenna, and Rome. Suffice it to say that in Rome, the skull was venerated in the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls. An arm in the Church of Sant’Ivo Sapienza and a second in the Church of San Luigi Francesi.
Even a third arm (even!) in the Basilica of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, and finally, the whole body in the Basilica of San Lorenzo Outside the Walls. In short, Santo Stefano had died in 6-7 arms, fragments of his body everywhere.
Unfortunately, all of this was because of the stealing of his body, especially the dismemberment. Which inevitably produced forgeries that are impossible to dispel today.
Was Saint Stephen faithful to God?
To be saved, the world needs witnesses connected to Jesus, the Savior. St. Stephens’s martyr was chronologically the first in a long, unbroken series in Church history.
First martyr. The liturgical celebration of St Stephen Martyr has always been set on December 26, immediately after Christmas. He is celebrated in the days following the manifestation of the Son of God.
Thus on December 26 is St. Stephen, the first martyr of Christendom, followed on December 27 by St. John the Evangelist, the beloved of Jesus, author of the Gospel of love. On the 28th, the saints’ Innocents, children killed by Herod, hoping to eliminate even the Child of Bethlehem centuries ago.
The celebration of St. Peter and St. Paul the Apostles also happened in the week after Christmas, being later moved to June 29.
What else do we know about St. Stephen’s martyr?
A legend related to the nativity tells that a crowd gathered to worship him on Christmas night before the hut where Jesus came into the world. Among them was a girl who tried to get closer to see Mary. The girl’s name was Thesia, and she had no children, although she wanted them. To get inside the manger, Thesia wrapped a stone like a child.
According to legend, as soon as Our Lady noticed this, she transformed the stone into a real baby named Stephen.
Finally, one last curiosity concerns the Saint’s relics scattered around Europe. In addition to being celebrated on December 26, it is said that the Saint is also the patron saint of Serbia. And is celebrated there on January 9, according to the Gregorian calendar.
The conclusion about Saint Stephen
The feast of St Stephen Martyr immediately follows the memory of Christ’s birth. The Word that became flesh, the light that came into the world, finds in him the witness of the disciple who resembles his Master. The servant who resembles his Lord.
Stephen’s testimony is nothing less than the life of Christ continues in the life of the church. Stephen retraces Christ’s Passion, which is associated with his death, to become a participant in his Resurrection. He is stoned, and he suffers the death of sinners. Still, he lives all this by entrusting his life to the Lord in the words of the Psalm: Into your hands, O Lord, I lay down my spirit. (Ps. 31:6).
The love of God, which the Holy Spirit poured into St Stephen Martyr heart. This also led him to that love for enemies and persecutors that makes possible even what seems impossible to us.