Glen A. Kirk
The Second Day of Christmas | St. Stephen, Deacon & Protomartyr
St. Stephen, Deacon & Protomartyr | December 26
by Glen A. Kirk | December 22, 2021
Known only from the sixth and seventh chapters of the Acts of the Apostles, St. Stephen’s fiery speech before the Sanhedrin of Jerusalem led to his martyrdom (c. 36 CE) at the hands of an angry mob. Stephen was one of seven deacons appointed by the apostles to take charge of caring for the poor in the days of the early church. In a speech that is recounted in Acts 7, Stephen describes the history of Israel from his perspective and recounts the stories of the Jewish patriarchs back to Abraham while establishing the themes of his accusations that a) God cannot be contained in a single space (i.e., The Temple), and b) Israel’s disobedience to God in their rejection of Jesus, the foretold Messiah. Quoting the Hebrew bible, he explains that Jesus does not subvert Jewish law but rather fulfills the promises made by God through the prophets of old. He is accused and quickly convicted of declaring that Jesus would destroy the Temple and changing the customs of Moses. Almost immediately, Stephen is dragged in to the streets and stoned to death by the crowd, becoming the first (proto) martyr of the Christian church after Jesus’ death and resurrection.
The narrative of St. Stephen’s martyrdom also introduces Saul of Tarsus (pre-conversion Paul) in front of whom the angry mob lay their coats so that they might stone the accused. Stephen's response only serves to fuel the fever-pitched crowd as he proclaims "Look! I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing on the right hand of God!" As he suffers at the hands of his accusers, Stephen echoes the words of Jesus on the the cross by asking God to receive his spirit and to forgive those who, in that moment, were taking his life. Saul’s approval of Stephen’s murder ultimately leads the disciples to flee Jerusalem for distant lands and preach the gospel to many.
St. Stephen’s Day is an official public holiday in much of Eastern & Western Europe, the British Isles, Scandinavia and Newfoundland. The date is also a public holiday in those countries that celebrate “Boxing Day” (or Second Christmas) on the day in addition to or instead of Saint Stephen's Day, such as Australia, Canada, South Africa and the United Kingdom.
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