Wednesday, December 26, 2007

December 26: Saint Stephen, Deacon and Martyr

The Second Day of Christmas is also known as "Boxing Day" in the U.K. and Canada, but, more importantly, it is the feast day of Saint Stephen. I didn't get up early enough this morning to make it to Victoria Chapel to celebrate St. Stephen's Day with the Anglicans, but the kids and I will have a short prayer service by the light of all the Advent candles tonight after dinner.

All we know about this saint is taken right from the Acts of the Apostles, written by Saint Luke. In the sixth chapter of Acts, Stephen is named as one of the deacons, "men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom" (v. 3) to make sure that all of the widows were adequately cared for. In the eighth verse, we read: "And Stephen, full of faith and power, did great wonders and miracles among the peoples," for which reason Stephen was arrested, falsely accused of blasphemy. As Stephen heard the false charges laid upon him, "all that sat in the council, looking steadfastly on him, saw his face as it had been the face of an angel" (v. 15). At that point, Stephen speaks before the council, relating the history of Israel from Abraham to Jacob to Moses to Solomon, and he finished his "defense" with these words: "Ye stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye always did resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do ye" (v. 51). Their response can be read in the Epistle written below.

The Collect, from the 1928 Book of Common Prayer:

Grant, O Lord, that, in all our sufferings here upon earth for the testimony of thy truth, we may steadfastly look up to heaven, and by faith behold the glory that shall be revealed; and, being filled with the Holy Ghost, may learn to love and bless our persecutors by the example of thy first Martyr, Saint Stephen, who prayed for his murderers to thee, O blessed Jesus, who standest at the right hand of God to succour all those who suffer for thee, our only Mediator and Advocate. Amen.

The Epistle for Saint Stephen's Day comes, naturally, from the seventh chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, starting in the 55th verse:

Stephen, being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up steadfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God, and said, Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God. Then they cried out with a loud voice, and stopped their ears, and ran upon him with one accord, and cast him out of the city, and stoned him: and the witnesses laid down their clothes at a young man's feet, whose name was Saul [who later became the Apostle Saint Paul]. And they stoned Stephen, calling upon God, and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. And he kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge. And when he had said this, he fell asleep [died].

The Gospel for Saint Stephen's Day is written in the twenty-third chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Matthew, starting at the 34th verse:

[Jesus said:] Behold, I send unto you prophets, and wise men, and scribes: and some of them ye shall kill and crucify; and some of them shall ye scourge in your synagogues, and persecute them from city to city: that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed upon the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel unto the blood of Zecharias son of Barachias, whom ye slew between the temple and the altar. Verily I say unto you, All these things shall come unto this generation. O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not! Behold, your house is left unto you desolate. For I say unto you, Ye shall not see me henceforth, till ye shall say, Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord.

Saint Stephen was the first martyr of the Church, and his feast day, falling on the Second Day of Christmas, reminds us that in the midst of the joys of Christmastide is also the cross, borne by Christ and His devoted followers.

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