Apart from the great feasts of our Lord, like Christmas, Easter, and the Ascension, the only feasts celebrated by the Church in the earliest times were the feasts of the martyrs-those who had given their lives preaching the Catholic Faith to others, or in refusing to give up the Faith in the face of persecution. Today we celebrate the feast of the very first of those martyrs, the deacon Saint Stephen, whose martyrdom is described in the Acts of the Apostles.
As you may know, the deacons were ordained by the Apostles shortly after the feast of Pentecost. Their primary function was to look after the charitable works of the Church, in order to leave the Apostles free for full time preaching. There were seven ordained initially, including Stephen and Philip, who also assisted the Apostles in preaching. Stephen met his demise shortly after ordination by preaching Jesus Christ in several of the synagogues of Jerusalem-he was a very good speaker, and those who disagreed with him were frustrated to the point of bribing false witnesses to say that Stephen had committed blasphemy.
When brought before the Sanhedrin for trial, Stephen presented a summary of Jewish history that went back to the time of Abraham, and demonstrating the continuity of God’s revelations through the great figures of Judaism, and ending with a complaint against the Jews for persecuting and putting God’s prophets to death-ending, at least by implication with the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
Although the Sanhedrin had no authority to put anyone to death-you will recall that it had to take the case of Jesus before the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate-those hearing Stephen’s case were moved to rage and killed him by stoning him to death, the method prescribed in the Mosaic Law for blasphemers. The young man, Saul of Tarsus, who would later become a notorious persecutor of Christians, and even later would become an Apostle, held the cloaks of those throwing the rocks. Stephen’s life ended very much like our Lord’s, with a plea to God asking mercy on those who killed him.
The death of Stephen touched off a severe persecution in Jerusalem, which later spread at least as far as modern day Syria. In a sense, the persecution lasted for several hundred years, being picked up by the Romans where the Jewish people left off-spreading throughout much of the Empire until Constantine legalized Christianity early in the fourth century.
Before Christianity became legal, many of the faithful gave up their lives rather than renounce their belief in Jesus Christ. Even after the Church became an important power in Western civilization, there have been times when persecution flared up again-sometimes by heretical Christians, sometimes by the Moslems, and, more recently, by modern governments that viewed Christianity as an obstacle to their totalitarian politics: the French revolution, various communist regimes, and the Axis powers of World War II. Even today we hear of Christians dying for their Faith in the Moslem countries.
The continuing possibility of persecution by modern governments is just one among many good reasons why Christians ought to be vocal about the right to practice the faith openly in our own country, and about the obligation of our government to bring pressure to bear on nations who persecute our brethren abroad.
Certainly, no rational person wants to die, not even to gain the palm of martyrdom. Yet, no one may abandon their Faith in Jesus Christ, or even make believe they have done so. We have the rather stern warning of our Lord Himself: “He that shall deny Me before men, I will also deny him before My Father who is in heaven.” Hopefully we will never be put in such a position, but if we are, we must remember that we are in the good company of countless martyrs for the catholic Faith who proceeded us into heaven. Our saint for the day, Saint Stephen, stands at the head of a long and glorious line of those who have professed Christ before men, and whom He has promised to confess before His Father in heaven. May they protect and guide us against all who would deprive us of this most precious gift, our Catholic Faith!