Yesterday, we finished the Octave of the Birth of Jesus; today, we shall finish the Octave of St. Stephen; but this, without losing sight, one moment, of the Divine Babe, whose Court is formed by Stephen, John the Beloved Disciple, the Holy Innocents, and St. Thomas of Canterbury. In five days, we shall see the Magi prostrate before the Crib of the new born King; they are already on the way, and the Star is advancing towards Bethlehem. Let us spend the interval in reconsidering how great is the glory of our Emmanuel, in his having lavished such extra ordinary favors on these Saints, whom he has chosen to be near him at his first coming into the world. Let us begin with Stephen, for this is the last day of the Octave dedicated to him by the Church. We must take leave of him now till the month of August, when we shall again meet him on the Feast of The Finding of his Relics (August 3).
In a Sermon, which was for a long time thought to have been written by St. Augustine, we find it mentioned, that St. Stephen was in the flower of his youth, when he was called, by the Apostles, to receive the sacred character of Deaconship. Six others were ordained Deacons with him; and these Seven, whose office was to minister at the Altar here below, represented the Seven Angels, whom St. John saw standing near the Altar in heaven. Stephen was appointed as the head of the Seven, and St. Irenaeus, who lived in the second century, calls him the Archdeacon.
The characteristic virtue of a Deacon is fidelity. Hence, he is entrusted with the care of the treasures of the Church, treasures, which consist not merely in the alms destined for the poor, but in that which is the most precious thing in heaven ‘and earth the Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, of which the Deacon is the minister, in virtue of his Order. For this reason, the Apostle St. Paul, in his first Epistle to Timothy, bids the Deacons hold the Mystery of Faith in a pure conscience,
It was, therefore, more than an appropriate coincidence, that the First of all the Martyrs was a Deacon, for Martyrdom is the great proof of fidelity, and fidelity is the official virtue of the Deaconate. This same truth is still more strongly impressed upon us by the fact, that the three, who stand preeminent amongst the Martyrs of Christ, are vested in the holy Dalmatic the three glorious Deacons: Stephen, the glory of Jerusalem; Laurence, the pride of Rome; and Vincent, of whom Spain so justly boasts. The present holy season gives us Stephen, who has been gladdening us with his festal presence ever since Christmas Day, and Vincent, whose Feast falls on January 22nd. Laurence will come to us, with his rich waving Palm, in the sunny month of August; and Stephen, in the same month, will visit us, a second time, in the Feast of the Finding of his Relics.
With the intention of paying respect to the Holy Order of Deaconship in the person of its first representative, it is a custom in a great many Churches, on the Feast of St. Stephen, that Deacons should fulfil every office, which is not beyond their Order. For example, the Chanter yields his staff of office to a Deacon; the Choristers, who assist the Chanter, are also Deacons, vested in Dalmatics; and the Epistle of the Mass is sung by a Deacon, because it is the passage from the Acts of the Apostles, which relates the history of the holy Martyr’s death.
The institution of St. Stephen’s Feast, and its being fixed on the day immediately following that of our Lord’s Birth, are so ancient, that it is impossible to assign their date. The Apostolic Constitutions, which were compiled, at the latest, towards the close of the 3rd century, mention this Feast as already established, and that, too, on the morrow of Christmas Day. St. Gregory of Nyssa, and St. Asterius of Amasea, both of them earlier than the miraculous discovery of the Holy Deacon’s Relics, have left us Homilies for the Feast of St. Stephen, in which they lay stress on the circumstance of its having the honor to be kept the very day after the solemnity of Christmas. With regard to its Octave, the institution is less ancient, though the date cannot be defined. Amalarius, who wrote in the 9th century, speaks of this Octave as already established, and Notker’s Martyrology, compiled in the 10th century, makes express mention of it.
But, how comes it, that the Feast of a mere Deacon has been thus honored, whilst almost all those of the Apostles have no Octave? The rule followed by the Church, in her Liturgy, is to give more or less solemnity to the Feasts of the Saints, according to the importance of the services they rendered to mankind. Thus it is, that the honor she pays to St. Jerome, for example, who was only a Priest, is more marked than that she gives to a great number of holy Popes. It is her gratitude, which guides her in assigning to the Saints their respective rank in her Calendar, and the devotion of the Faithful to the saintly benefactors, whom she now venerates as members of the Church Triumphant, is thus regulated by a safe standard. St. Stephen led the way to Martyrdom; his example inaugurated that sub lime witnessing by the shedding one’s own blood, which is the very strength of the Church, ratifies the truths she teaches to the world, and confirms the hopes of eternal reward promised by those truths. Glory, then, and honor to the Prince of Martyrs! As long as time shall last, so long shall the Church, on earth, celebrate the name of Stephen, who was the first to shed his blood for the God who died on Calvary!
We have already noticed St. Stephen’s imitating Jesus, by praying for and forgiving his enemies; it is the circumstance, which the Church continually alludes to in her Office of his Feast. But there is another very important incident in the martyrdom of our Saint, which we must, for a moment, dwell upon.
One of the accomplices in the murder, which was being committed under the walls of Jerusalem, was a young man of the name of Saul. He made himself exceedingly active, for he was of an ardent temperament, and, as the Fathers observe, he helped every man who stoned the holy Deacon, because he took care of the murderers’ garments whilst they committed the crime. Not long after, this same Saul, whilst travelling to Damascus, was converted into an Apostle of that Jesus, whom he had heard Stephen confess as the Son of God. He was the fruit of Stephen’s dying prayer. The blood of Stephen cried to heaven for mercy and heaven sent to the Gentiles the Apostle, who would bring them to the knowledge and love of Jesus, ” What an admirable scene” cries out St. Augustine. “Here is” Stephen being stoned, and Saul taking care of the “garments of them that stone him. But this Saul is now Paul, the Apostle of Jesus Christ, and Stephen is the servant of Jesus Christ. Saul! Thou hast been prostrated, and raised up again: prostrated a Persecutor, raised up a Preacher. Everywhere are thy Epistles read; everywhere art thou bringing to Christ them that are his enemies; everywhere art thou the good Shepherd, surrounded by a numerous flock. Thou art now reigning with Christ, in company with him thou didst once stone. Both of you are looking upon us; both of you now hear what I am saying; do both of you pray, also, for us. He who crowned you both, will hear both. Stephen was a lamb; Saul was a wolf; now, both are lambs, and both will acknowledge us as of the flock of Christ, and will pray for us, that the Church of their Master may be blessed with a peaceful and tranquil life. Stephen and Paul, both visit us during this grand season of Christmas; for we shall keep the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul on the 25th of January; and thus, Stephen leads his spiritual conquest to the Crib of their common Lord and Master.
Catholic piety has chosen St. Stephen as one of the Patrons of a Happy Death. This choice was suggested by the death of the holy Martyr a death so tranquil that the Scripture calls it a Sleep, in spite of the cruel torture to which his executioners put him. Let us, therefore, beg the intercession of St. Stephen for that awful hour of our death, when we must return to our Creator these Souls of ours nay, let us ask him to pray, that we may be habitually in such a disposition of mind, as to be ever ready to make the total sacrifice of the life which God has given to us: it was a sacred deposit he entrusted to our keeping, and which we were to hold in readiness for him, whensoever he might demand it at our hands.
The Gothic Liturgy of Spain gives us, in its Mozarabic Missal, the following admirable Prayer to St. Stephen.
Most blessed Protomartyr Stephen! Thou shalt be called by a new name, which the mouth of the Lord hath named: for that thou, who didst suffer death for him, didst, by him, receive a Crown for thy name, and a Grown for thy virtue. Thou wast the first in Martyrdom, and first in its reward: first Martyr in the world, and the first in the courts of heaven. Here, stoned for Christ; there, exulting in the Crown he gave thee. Here, thou didst suffer, for his sake, the most cruel torments; there, thou didst receive the most precious Grown. Thou, therefore, that wast the first flower of the Church, be now her untiring patron; that so, by thy prayers, that Jesus, for whose sake thou wast a glorious Martyr, may be merciful unto us.
The following Hymn, remarkable for its unction and simplicity of style, is to be found in most of the ancient Roman-French Breviaries.
O holy Protomartyr Stephen, most dear to God! In the virtue of charity, wherewith thou wast armed on every side, thou didst beseech the Lord to have mercy on thine enemies. Thou art the Standard- bearer of heaven’s martyr host; the herald of truth; the first witness of Christian grace; the living foundation-stone, and groundwork of martyrdom. Stones were the instrument of thy martyrdom, not the sword. The sharp-edged stones, like knives of a second circumcision, tore thine innocent flesh; but, tinged in thy blood, they were made rubies for thy Crown. Thou wast the first to tread the stony rugged path that leads to heaven; thou wast the first to breast that sword, which had slain our Lord and lost its keen edge by piercing Him; thou wast the earliest winnowed wheat that graced the granaries of Christ. To thee were heaven’s gates first opened, showing thee Jesus in his power, for whom thou didst so bravely fight: He, standing at the right hand of his Father’s majesty, is with thee incessantly. Pray now for this thy devout people, that our Lord, through thy prayers, may mercifully forgive us our sins, and grant us fellowship with the citizens of heaven. Glory and honour to the God who gave thee thy Crown of roses and thy throne above the stars. May he free us from the sting of death, and save us sinners. Amen.
We will close our selection with a Sequence, composed by Notker; we find it in the collection of Saint-Gall.
Let us solemnize this Feast in the union of fraternal charity, Instructed by the sweet example of its Saint, Who prayed for his guilty persecutors. Hear us, O Stephen, thou standard-bearer of the infinitely merciful King, Who heard the prayers thou didst offer him for thine enemies. By thy prayers, O Stephen, that very Paul, who once persecuted thee, was converted to believe in Jesus, Who prayed for his guilty persecutors. Hear us, O Stephen, thou standard-bearer of the infinitely merciful King, Who heard the prayers thou didst offer him for thine enemies. By thy prayers, O Stephen, that very Paul, who once persecuted thee, was converted to believe in Jesus, and now exults with thee in that Kingdom, nigh which no persecutors come. Then, we who humbly cry to thee for pity, and besiege thee with our prayers, we, surely, shall be reconciled to our God by thy most holy prayers. Peter ordained thee as a minister of Christ: and thou to the faithful Peter didst affirm and show this truth, that He, whom the mad populace crucified, is at the right hand of the Father. Christ chose thee, O Stephen! As the example whereby he would give courage to his faithful ones, for he showed himself to thee amidst the shower of stones, and sweetly consoled thee. Now amidst the red-robed army of the Martyrs thou shinest as The Crowned Prince. We return thee our grateful thanks, O glorious Stephen! For the help thou hast given us in this great Feast of Christmas. It is thy yearly office to initiate us into the sublime mystery of the Birth of Jesus. Thy Feast ever brings us into the company of this Divine Child, and the Church trusts to thy revealing him to the hearts of her children, as thou heretofore didst to the Jews. Thou hast done thy work, dear Saint! And here is our faith: we adore this Babe of Bethlehem as the Word of God; we hail him as our King; we offer ourselves to him, to serve him as thou didst; we acknowledge his absolute right over us, and our obligation of serving him even to the last drop of our blood, should he put our loyalty to that great test. Stephen, the Faithful Deacon! Pray for us, that we may have the grace to give our whole heart to Jesus, from this time for ward; that we may use our best efforts to please him; and that we may conform our lives and affections to his blessed will. Doing this, we shall have the grace to fight his Fight, if not before tyrants and persecutors, at least before the base passions of our own hearts. We are the descendants of the Martyrs, and the Martyrs conquered the world; for Jesus, the Babe of Bethlehem, had conquered it before them: shall we, then, be cowards, and re-enslave ourselves to our eternal enemy? Obtain for us, also, that fraternal charity, which pardons every injury, and prays for them that hate us, and converts sinners and heretics when all means else have failed. O valiant Martyr of Jesus! Watch over us at the hour of our death; assist us in our agony; show us that Jesus, whom thou hast shown us so often as the dear Babe of Bethlehem; show us him then as the glorified, the triumphant, but, above all, as the merciful Jesus, holding in his divine hands the Crown he has pre pared for us; and may our last words be those which thou didst utter when going to thy God: Lord Jesus! Receive my Spirit.
Ven. Dom Prosper Guéranger – The Liturgical Year