Who was Saint Stephen?
Saint Stephen was a religious figure recognized as the first martyr of Christianity. According to the Acts of the Apostles, he was one of the deacons in the early church at Jerusalem; he had been appointed by the Apostles to offer charitable aid to the poor. According to Orthodox belief, he was the oldest among the seven deacons and was therefore called "archdeacon". Saint Stephen, who considered Jesus to be the restorer of Mosaic religion, was condemned for committing blasphemy against a Jewish temple. He prepared a long sermon denouncing the Jewish authorities sitting in judgment on him and was eventually stoned to death in 34 AD, at the young age of 29. His final words, a heart-felt prayer of pardon for his attackers, echo those of Jesus Christ’s. Following Saint Stephen’s death, various miracles were experienced at places where his relics were kept. A part of his right arm has been enshrined at Russia’s Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius. Presently, a number of days mark the commemoration of Saint Stephen, including Saint Stephen's Day that is celebrated on December 26 in western Christianity.
Background & Appointment As a Deacon
It is assumed that Stephen was born Jewish. However, the Acts of the Apostles 6 presents him as a Hellenist aka a foreign-born Jew who spoke Greek.
According to Orthodox belief, he became a Christian while living in Jerusalem.
He was appointed as one of the seven deacons by the Apostles to aid in the daily distribution of food to the poor of the community in the early church. The reason for the appointment was attributed to the dissatisfaction among the Hellenistic Jews who complained of the partial behavior toward their elderly widows.
Best known among the seven deacons, Stephen was acknowledged to be a man with special gifts. He is stated to have performed miracles to help the people.
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Accusation of Blasphemy
Saint Stephen aroused the opposition of the Alexandrians, the Cyrenians, and the "Synagogue of the Freedmen" who challenged his teachings.
As Stephen managed to beat them in debate, the members of these synagogues felt humiliated and suborned false testimony against Stephen accusing him of blasphemy against the Mosaic Law and the Jewish temple in Jerusalem.
He faced the accusations that he had stated that Jesus changed the customs of Moses. Stephen appealed to the Jewish to prove that the laws of Moses were being fulfilled by Jesus instead of been subverted.
Speech to Sanhedrin
Saint Stephen presented a long sermon in front of the Sanhedrin in which he pointed out the temple and stated that God does not dwell only in one specific building.
He recounted the stories of the patriarchs and went in more detail when it came to Moses. He claimed that Israelites disobeyed God.
He denounced the audience as "stiff-necked" people who resisted the Holy Spirit just like their ancestors. Stephen stated "Was there ever a prophet your ancestors did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him”.
The Stoning of Saint Stephen
Saint Stephen angered the authorities and was eventually stoned to death. While he was being stoned, he experienced a vision of heaven and Jesus standing on the right side of God. He also prayed for pardon for his killers, sank to his knees and breathed his last.
Tomb & Relics of Saint Stephen
In 415 AD, a priest named Lucian revealed the location of Saint Stephen's remains at Beit Jimal in Israel. Later, on 26 December 415, his relics were taken to the Church of Hagia Sion in Jerusalem.
In 439, the relics of the protomartyr were taken to a new church north of the Damascus Gate. The church was destroyed and a new French Catholic church was built in its place in the 20th century. Also, the Greek Orthodox Church of St. Stephen was constructed outside the city’s eastern gate.
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The relics of the protomartyr were later moved to Rome by Pope Pelagius II and were kept alongside the relics of Saint Lawrence. According to the Golden Legend, a miracle occurred when the relics of Saint Lawrence moved and made enough room for those of Saint Stephen.
The Holy Roman Empire’s ‘The Imperial Regalia’ includes a St. Stephen's Purse, a relic that is believed to contain soil soaked with the blood of Stephen.
Augustine of Hippo has described the miracles that occurred when Saint Stephen’s relics were brought to Africa in his book ‘The City of God’.
Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius in Russia enshrines a part of his right arm.
Saint Stephen's Day
Saint Stephen's Day, celebrated on December 26, marks the commemoration of the saint. It is a public holiday that is widely celebrated in various countries, including Croatia, Italy, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Austria, Germany, Norway, Italy, Sweden, Denmark, and Finland.
In Australia, Canada, UK, and New Zealand, the day is celebrated as "Boxing Day".
The Eastern Orthodox Churches and the Oriental Orthodox Churches celebrate 27 December as Saint Stephen's feast day. As the day marks the third day of the Christmas season, it is also referred to as the "Third Day of the Nativity".
In western Christianity, the feast is celebrated for the Liturgy of the Hours. It is restricted to the hours of the day followed by an evening prayer in celebration of the Octave of Christmas.
In the Armenian Catholic and Armenian Apostolic Churches, Saint Stephen's Day is celebrated on 25 December, the day that marks the feast of the Nativity of Jesus (Christmas in other churches).
The two most notable churches that commemorate Saint Stephen are the Salesian monastery of Beit Jimal where his remains were miraculously found, and San Lorenzo fuori le Mura in Rome where his remains are buried.
Other important churches dedicated to Saint Stephen around the globe include St. Stephen's Green, Dublin, Ireland; St. Stephen's Cathedral in Austria; St. Stephen's Church, Kombuthurai, India; San Lorenzo fuori le Mura, Italy; St. Stephen's Basilica, Jerusalem; and St Stephen's Church, Bristol, UK.