Good King Wenceslas looked out, on the Feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even;
Brightly shone the moon that night, tho’ the frost was cruel,
When a poor man came in sight, gath’ring winter fuel.
John Mason Neale’s 1853 carol “Good King Wenceslas” tells the story of a king who went out into the cold on the day after Christmas in order to present a gift to a peasant. Everyone who has heard this carol is, therefore, familiar with the Feast of St. Stephen. Many know that his feast is celebrated on December 26 in the Roman Catholic Church and on December 27 in the Eastern Catholic Church. Some knowledgeable souls may even know that St. Stephen was the first Christian martyr.
Image of Saint Stephen in the Monaco Cathedral
SOURCE: Image of Saint Stephen in the Monaco Cathedral (Monaco-Ville, Monaco); photographed by Stephen J. Danko on 03 August 2011.
Stephen was probably of Greek origin and was probably a Jew who had converted to Christianity. He was chosen by the apostles to be one of the first Deacons of the Church:
And they chose Stephen, a man filled with faith and with the Holy Spirit.
Stephen’s success in ministering to the early Christians attracted the wrath of certain of the Jews who proceeded to engage him in arguments. Stephen’s detractors could not win their arguments and, so, they accused him of blaspheming against Moses and God.
This man does not cease to speak words against the holy place and the law. For we have heard him saying that this Jesus the Nazarene will destroy this place and will change the traditions, which Moses handed down to us.
Stephen defended himself against his accusers, but his words only fanned the flames of their wrath. Encouraged by Saul of Tarsus (who would later convert to Christianity himself, eventually to become Saint Paul), the mob drove Stephen out beyond the city of Jerusalem and stoned him.
Then, having been brought to his knees, he cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep in the Lord. And Saul was consenting to his murder.
Stephen’s body was removed by Rabbi Gamaliel who buried it on his estate at Caphar Gamala, north of Jerusalem.
The biblical account of St. Stephen’s appointment as a deacon, his ministry, and his death may be read in Acts of the Apostles (6:1-8:2).
According to my Polish heritage, it is common to celebrate one’s “Name Day”, often in preference to celebrating one’s birthday. So, on this my name day, I invite you to celebrate the life of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr and the patron saint of deacons, headaches, horses, coffin makers, and masons.
Copyright © 2011 by Stephen J. Danko