Feast of Saint Stephen
26 December A.D. 2010
At that time Jesus spoke to the Scribes and Pharisees: “Therefore behold I send to you prophets, and wise men, and scribes: and some of them you will put to death and crucify, and some you will scourge in your synagogues, and persecute from city to city:  That upon you may come all the just blood that hath been shed upon the earth, from the blood of Abel the just, even unto the blood of Zacharias the son of Barachias, whom you killed between the temple and the altar.  Amen I say to you, all these things shall come upon this generation.  Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them that are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered together thy children, as the hen doth gather her chickens under her wings, and thou wouldest not?  Behold, your house shall be left to you, desolate.  For I say to you, you shall not see me henceforth till you say: Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord.”
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“Therefore behold I send to you prophets, and wise men, and scribes: and some of them you will put to death and crucify, and some you will scourge in your synagogues, and persecute from city to city.”
Today, as part of the Christmas octave the Church has us celebrate the feast of Her first martyr, Saint Stephen. In fact, during this octave, or eight day long celebration of Christmas, the Church celebrates three feasts in honor of Her martyrs—and we will see that in spite of their common bond of martyrdom, the three feasts are quite different.
You may recall that Stephen was one of the first deacons, ordained by the Apostles to conduct the charitable works of the Church. We learn from the Acts of the Apostles that the deacons also preached and baptized—Stephen was apparently preaching in addition to working great signs and wonders, and the deacon Philip is seen to baptize a Eunuch from Ethiopia and to preach in chapter 8. (Deacons are also empowered to distribute Holy Communion when there are not enough priests, and to officiate at marriages.) The reading today omits the sermon Stephen delivered before the Sanhedrin, which certainly got him killed for telling the truth about the Jewish rejection of the Prophets and of Jesus Christ. If you have a minute or two, you might want to read chapter 7 for yourselves when you go home.
Stephen was one of those martyred for preaching the truth of Jesus Christ, and refusing to back down when threatened about it. Notably, he displayed the same characteristic of mercy for his murderers that our Lord displayed as He died on the cross. This is almost always a characteristic of martyrdom—for, after all, the martyr's preaching was intended to direct his listeners to salvation—it would be unreasonable for him to wish damnation on those whom he was unable to convince.
I read a little bit more than what is in the missal, so that you would understand that Stephen was accused before the Sanhedrin by false witnesses—people willing to perjure themselves and lie about what he had done in order to convict him. Again, he was treated as Jesus was treated. And this is another frequent characteristic of martyrdom—the word “martyr” means “witness”—and since the martyr is bearing witness to the truth, it very often requires falsehoods to convict him of wrongdoing.
Saint Stephen is considered the first martyr, and it is noteworthy that the Sanhedrin is getting bolder and more blood-thirsty since the murder of Jesus Christ. In murdering Saint Stephen they were acting in defiance of the Roman authorities, who claimed sole jurisdiction over capital crimes and capital punishment. And in the very next chapter we will see that Saul, who did no more than hold the cloaks of those who stoned Stephen, was going from house to house to arrest Christians. And then in the next chapter after that, we will see Saul going from city to city to arrest Christians. And, here we see another frequent characteristic of martyrdom—once the crowd gets a taste of blood its thirst for blood continues to grow.
On the 28th, the Church will celebrate the feast of the Holy Innocents—quite different in their martyrdom from Saint Stephen. The Innocents were those boy children under two years old whom Herod put to death in an attempt to kill the infant Jesus. Herod was a madman, who even put his own children to death for other reasons. “Shortly before his death, Herod decided against his sons Aristobulus and Antipater, who were executed in 7 and 4 BC, causing the emperor Augustus to joke that it was preferable to be Herod's pig [hus] than to be his son [huios]....” Some will suggest that the Innocents were not truly martyrs because they did not witness to anything concerning the Christ, but, on some level, their number gave a measure of cover to Mary and Joseph as they fled with the infant Savior to Egypt. But the Church has always recognized them as martyrs—and perhaps that recognition makes it reasonable to hope that other innocents murdered by immoral men will also enjoy the beatific vision of God in heaven, along with the Holy Innocents—I am thinking of those who are put to death in the womb, or those murdered by Moslems for the “crime” of offering the Holy Sacrifice or just being present at It.
The third martyr whose feast is celebrated this week is Saint Thomas Becket, on the 29th. He was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral on that day in 1170. Becket was the Archbishop of Canterbury back when that see was still Catholic. He had been a close friend and chancellor to King Henry II, and Henry had gotten him appointed Archbishop with the intention of manipulating the Church for his own purposes. Becket might be considered a “martyr to duty,” for as soon as he was consecrated he began to oppose the King. As Archbishop, Becket recognized that his duty was to the Church, and no longer to the Crown.
Henry set out to weaken the power of the Church in England and its relationship with the Pope, while strengthening the royal control over churchmen and church property. He wanted to take away the right of the clergy to be tried in the Church's own courts, and place them under the jurisdiction of the civil courts. Becket refused to agree to the King's terms and was sent into exile in Europe. Six year later, when the Pope threatened to excommunicate King Henry, Becket was allowed to return to England.
On the night of his death, the Archbishop was just about to begin Vespers in the Cathedral when four Knights demanded that he accompany him to trial at Winchester. Becket refused, but the knights returned armed and cut him down as he entered the stairs to the choir. In the end, King Henry did penance for the murder as did the four knights, Becket was canonized, and the points of the law that were contradictory to canon law were removed. Saint Thomas Becket did not have the chance to forgive his assailants for they split his skull—but he did stop any of the worshipers in the cathedral from protecting him, so that as little blood would be spilled as possible.
Saint Stephan, the Holy Innocents, and Saint Thomas Becket—not to mention our Lord Jesus Christ—may they prepare all of us to be strong in our Faith—to profess It openly even in the face of opposition; political or religious—to stand up for the rights of the Church against those who would secularize It—to live in the state of grace in order to be prepared for innocent and unexpected martyrdom—to prepare to be lied about by those who despise the true Faith—to bless, and not to curse, those who might persecute us.