Over the next two days, we celebrate the Feast of St. Stephen, Deacon and Protomartyr of the Christian Church. The Western part of the church celebrates St. Stephen today, while the Eastern traditions celebrate tomorrow. What we know of Stephen comes to us from the Acts of the Apostles. Chapter 6 recounts the selection and ordination of “the Seven” men dedicated to caring for the needs of the Greek-speaking Christian community of Jerusalem, with Stephen the first name listed. What I have always found fascinating is that the two members of this “deacon class” (although they’re never actually called “deacons” in the text) which we read about — Stephen and Philip — are never depicted serving only the Greek-speaking Christian community! Stephen, of course, preaches to the entire community, which gets him in trouble with the authorities and leads eventually to his martyrdom; Philip is shown being led by the Spirit to a variety of places, including the famous encounter with the Ethiopian official. He explains scripture to him and then baptizes him before being led by the Spirit to another place. As Pope St. John XXIII would say later, in a different context, “In the present order of things, Divine Providence is leading us to a new order of human relations which, by men’s own efforts and even beyond their very expectations, are directed toward the fulfillment of God’s superior and inscrutable designs.” Stephen and his brothers were being directed by the Spirit to fulfill God’s “inscrutable” designs!
For a variety of reasons (not the least of which is his Greek name!), we may assume that Stephen was himself a Greek-speaking Jewish Christian of Jerusalem. It may seem somewhat strange that the first person we memorialize after the great feast of Christ’s birth is the first martyr [“witness”] of the New Covenant, but it’s not really a leap at all. Christ came to us in the fullness of humanity, with special care and concern for those most in need. Christ’s birth was proclaimed first to shepherds “living in the fields” — rough men, living in the open, not the expected recipients of angelic messages! Then there were the wise men who came from outside the Jewish religious and cultural tradition. Christ came to all people, and not just to some privileged religious class or group.
Perhaps this is the legacy of Stephen: as the first witness of the New Covenant, he proclaims the universal message of Christ with his very life, with a special concern for those “unexpected” recipients of God’s care and concern.
One of our most beloved “Christmas Carols” involves St. Stephen, and even before Christianity renewed a contemporary diaconate, the connection between Christ, Christmas, Stephen and the poor is made beautifully clear. In “Good King Wenceslaus,” the saintly monarch connects Christ’s birth immediately to the care of the poor man. I, for one, don’t find the fact that this takes place “on the feast of Stephen” to be accidental at all.
Christ comes for all; we serve all. It’s not the end of the story, but the beginning.
So, in honor of one of our great patrons — as Christians and as Deacons — pray and sing along!
Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the feast of Stephen
When the snow lay round about
Deep and crisp and even
Brightly shone the moon that night
Though the frost was cruel
When a poor man came in sight
Gath’ring winter fuel
“Hither, page, and stand by me
If thou know’st it, telling
Yonder peasant, who is he?
Where and what his dwelling?”
“Sire, he lives a good league hence
Underneath the mountain
Right against the forest fence
By Saint Agnes’ fountain.”
“Bring me flesh and bring me wine
Bring me pine logs hither
Thou and I will see him dine
When we bear him thither.”
Page and monarch forth they went
Forth they went together
Through the rude wind’s wild lament
And the bitter weather
“Sire, the night is darker now
And the wind blows stronger
Fails my heart, I know not how,
I can go no longer.”
“Mark my footsteps, my good page
Tread thou in them boldly
Thou shalt find the winter’s rage
Freeze thy blood less coldly.”
In his master’s steps he trod
Where the snow lay dinted
Heat was in the very sod
Which the Saint had printed
Therefore, Christian men, be sure
Wealth or rank possessing
Ye who now will bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing.