During the post-festal time of Christmas we celebrate St Stephen, whom we officially call “The Holy Apostle, Protomartyr, and Archdeacon Stephen” in our liturgy. Protomartyr means, of course, the first martyr. In our tradition, “apostle” has wider application that just the Twelve, for it applies to the Seventy as well, and to a few others, like the first deacons. Then we have some who are called “Equal to the Apostles,” like St Mary Magdalen, who was an apostle to the Apostles after the Resurrection. Finally, St Stephen was the most illustrious of the first seven deacons ordained by the apostles.
The protomartyr is, in my opinion, one of the more attractive figures of the New Testament. He gets a great write-up in the Acts of the Apostles. He was “a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit,” “full of grace and power,” and he “did great wonders and signs among the people,” and his opponents “could not withstand the wisdom and the spirit with which he spoke.” And when he was brought to trial, “his face was like the face of an angel” (Acts 6:5, 8, 10, 15).
He gave a rather long-winded speech to the hostile Council. Finally, he came to his dramatic and pointed conclusion: “You stiff-necked people… you always resist the Holy Spirit… Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.” Needless to say, he did not exactly ingratiate himself with the Council members, who by now were grinding their teeth in rage against him.
Stephen sealed his fate by having a mystical experience on the spot. The Lord knew, even if Stephen was not yet quite sure of it, that this deacon was about to become the protomartyr, and so He opened the gates of Heaven to him. “Behold,” cried the witness to Christ, “I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” To Stephen it was ecstasy, but to the corrupt judges it was blasphemy. So they dragged him out to stone him to death.
His martyrdom is highly significant, and not merely because it was the first. His dying words showed him not only to be a Christ-figure, but also a witness to the divinity of Christ, and to the whole new direction the believing Church was to take. First, his imitation of (or rather, communion with) Christ in his death. When Jesus was dying He said: “Father, forgive them…” When St Stephen was dying, he said: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” Jesus’ dying words were: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” St Stephen’s dying words were: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” This is the first time that anyone publicly prayed to Jesus. The apostles had proclaimed his Lordship and worked miracles in his name, but as far as I know, Stephen was the first to pray directly to Him, to entrust his immortal soul to Him. This puts Christ on a par with the Father, and places Jesus squarely in the center of the life of the brand new Church. Jesus was now the Lord, a term hitherto used only for God. Jesus commended his spirit to the Father. Henceforth all believers will commend their spirits to Jesus, and through Him to the Father.
There was someone standing by, who heard St Stephen utter those words. His name was Saul, and it wouldn’t be long before he too would be praying to Jesus and spreading his Church everywhere. And he too would become a martyr for the Lord, joining a long and triumphant procession of witnesses to Him who became man out of love for us, humbled Himself unto death on the Cross, and was glorified at the right hand of the Father. Who knows if we will someday join this procession? But martyr or not, we can still witness with our words and deeds, with our love and fidelity. No price is too high to “be in that number” of the faithful followers of Christ. Lord Jesus, receive our spirits…