“Where the Bishop is, there let the multitude of believers be; even as where Jesus is, there is the Catholic Church”
‘Ignatius of Antioch, 1st c. A.D
Martyrdom of St. Stephen – by Bernardo Daddi, A.D. 1324
The second day of Christmas is the Feast of St. Stephen, the First Deacon, “a man full of faith, and of the Holy Ghost,” whose story is recounted in Acts 6-7. The Apostles laid hands on him and ordained him with six others, and Stephen, “full of grace and fortitude, did great wonders and signs among the people,” and went to preach among the Jews, some of whom “were not able to resist the wisdom and the spirit that spoke” Other Jews, though, “suborned men to say, they had heard him speak words of blasphemy against Moses and against God. And they stirred up the people, and the ancients, and the scribes; and running together, they took him, and brought him to the council. And they set up false witnesses, who said: This man ceaseth not to speak words against the holy place and the law.”
In his disputation with the Jews, he spoke of Moses and the Prophets, challenging them.
…hearing these things, they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed with their teeth at him. But he [Stephen], being full of the Holy Ghost, looking up steadfastly to heaven, saw the glory of God and Jesus standing on the right hand of God. And he said: Behold, I see the heavens opened and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God. And they, crying out with a loud voice, stopped their ears and with one accord ran violently upon him. And casting him forth without the city. they stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man, whose name was Saul. And they stoned Stephen, invoking and saying: Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. And falling on his knees, he cried with a loud voice, saying: Lord, lay not his sin to their charge: And when he had said this, he fell asleep in the Lord. And Saul was consenting to his death.
He was the very first martyr of the Church Age, stoned to death by the Jews, including Saul — the future St. Paul. St Fulgentius of Ruspe gives us a beautiful reflection on St. Stephen and on St. Paul, who murdered him when he was still known as Saul:
…Strengthened by the power of his love, [Stephen] overcame the raging cruelty of Saul and won his persecutor on earth as his companion in Heaven. In his holy and tireless love he longed to gain by prayer those whom he could not convert by admonition. Now at last, Paul rejoices with Stephen, with Stephen he delights in the glory of Christ, with Stephen he exults, with Stephen he reigns. Stephen went first, slain by the stones thrown by Paul, but Paul followed after, helped by the prayer of Stephen. This, surely, is the true life, my brothers, a life in which Paul feels no shame because of Stephen’s death, and Stephen delights in Paul’s companionship, for love fills them both with joy. It was Stephen’s love that prevailed over the cruelty of the mob, and it was Paul’s love that covered the multitude of his sins; it was love that won for both of them the kingdom of Heaven.
The Epistle Reading at today’s Mass will be the Book of Acts 6:8-10; 7:54-59, and the Gospel reading, Matthew 23:34-39, continues the theme of persecution and the killing of prophets.
St. WenceslausBecause St. Stephen was the first Deacon, and because one of the Deacons’ role in the Church is to care for the poor, St. Stephen’s Day is often the day for giving food, money, and other items to servants, sevice workers, and the needy (it is known as “Boxing Day” in some English-speaking parts of the world).
Fittingly, then, St. Wenceslaus (right) came to be associated with Stephen’s Feast. The Christmas carol “Good King Wenceslaus,” which uses an old medieval melody — that of the 13th century song about springtime, “Tempus adest floridum” (click here to hear melody) mentions this Feast as it tells a tale of charity. St. Wenceslaus was a Bohemian prince born ca. A.D. 903 during a pagan backlash. He was persecuted by his mother, Drahomira, and his brother because of their hatred for his Christianity, and was eventually killed by his brother in front of the doors of the Church of SS. Cosmas and Damian in A.D. 938. Many miracles have been attributed to his intercession, and he is now the patron of Czechoslovakia (his Feast is on 28 September). The lyrics to the carol are:
Good King Wenceslaus looked out on the Feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even.
Brightly shone the moon that night, though the frost was cruel,
When a poor man came in sight, gathering winter fuel.
“Hither, page, and stand by me, if you know it, telling,
Yonder peasant, who is he? Where and what his dwelling?”
“Sire, he lives a good league hence, underneath the mountain,
Right against the forest fence, by Saint Agnes’ fountain.”
“Bring me food and bring me wine, bring me pine logs hither,
You and I will see him dine, when we bear them thither.”
Page and monarch, forth they went, forth they went together,
Through the cold wind’s wild lament and the bitter weather.
“Sire, the night is darker now, and the wind blows stronger,
Fails my heart, I know not how; I can go no longer.”
“Mark my footsteps, my good page, tread now in them boldly,
You shall find the winter’s rage freeze your blood less coldly.”
In his master’s steps he trod, where the snow lay dinted;
Heat was in the very sod which the saint had printed.
Therefore, Christian men, be sure, wealth or rank possessing,
You who now will bless the poor shall yourselves find blessing.
Tell your children the story of “Good King Wenceslaus,” and remind them to think of him when they see footprints in the snow…
Winter Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes), the only wren found in EuropeAn Irish custom on this day concerns the wren’s association with treachery, and, more specifically, the ancient Irish folk tale of the wren betraying St. Stephen by chattering and revealing his location as the Saint hid in a bush. Not too long ago, sadly, the wren was hunted by boys on this day — not for food, but for “revenge.” The boys — called “Wren Boys” or “Mummers” — would blacken their faces or dress in straw masks, hunt the tiny, loud bird (click here to hear him chatter), tie its body to a pole decorated with holly and ribbons, and go door to door with the it, collecting money at each house, which money which was later used to host a dance for the entire town. Now this “Going on the Wren” hunting custom is gone (thankfully), but a live, caged wren or a wren figurine serves the purpose, most often in parades. Songs, of course, are sung, too. One version of a Wren Song:
The wren, the wren, the king of all birds
St. Stephen’s Day was caught in the firs
Although he was little, his honor was great
Jump up me lads and give us a treat.
We followed the wren three miles or more
Three miles of more, three miles or more
Through hedges and ditches and heaps of snow
At six o’clock in the morning.
Rolley, Rolley, where is your nest?
It’s in the bush that I love best
It’s in the bush, the holly tree
Where all the boys do follow me.
As I went out to hunt and all
I met a wren upon the wall
Up with me wattle and gave him a fall
And brought him here to show you all.
I have a little box under me arm
A tuppence or penny will do it no harm
For we are the boys who came your way
To bring in the wren on St. Stephen’s Day.
St. Stephen is the patron of stone masons, those with headaches, and, curiously, horses. The reason for this last is unknown, but this patronage is very ancient, and in rural cultures and olden times, horses are/were blessed, adorned, and taken out sleighing, and foods for horses were blessed to be fed to them in times of sickness. St. Stephen is most often represented in art at in deacon’s vestments at his martyrdom, with a pile of rocks, with a wounded head, etc.
A note about this day and the next and the next: each of the first three days following the Feast of the Nativity commemorates a different type of martyrdom, and by remembering each type of martyrdom that was endured, you can remember the order of these Feasts:
The Feast of Stephen on the 26th recalls the highest class of martyrdom — that offered by both deed and the will — or “martyr by will, love, and blood.”
The Feast of St. John the Evangelist on the 27th recalls the second highest class of martyrdom, a sort of dry martyrdom — the martyrdom offered by those we call “confessors,” i.e., people who suffered for the Faith, would die for the Faith, but, in fact, didn’t have to. He was a martyr by “will and love.”
The Feast of the Holy Innocents on the 28th recalls the sort of martyrdom in deed, but not of the will as they were too young to form such a desire. They were martyrs by blood alone, but it is said that “that God supplied the defects of their will by his own acceptance of the sacrifice.”
Note, though, that the term “martyr” is almost always used exclusively for those who’ve actually died for the Faith, not for confessors.
On an historical note, the Feast of Stephen was once offered in honor of all deacons, and the Feast of St. John was offered for all priests, while the Feast of the Holy Innocents was offered for all choirboys and students. Because older practices of the same time period were associated with revelry and pranks, these clerical feasts came to be associated with the same, and so many abuses crept in that these feasts were known as the “Feasts of Fools.” There came to be a “Feast of the Ass,” too, held in honor of the donkey that is so important to the Christmas story and the Flight into Egypt. These were all finally squelched (after many years of trying!).
By St. Fulgentius of Ruspe (b. 468)
Yesterday we celebrated the birth in time of our eternal King. Today we celebrate the triumphant suffering of His soldier. Yesterday our King, clothed in His robe of flesh, left His place in the Virgin’s womb and graciously visited the world. Today His soldier leaves the tabernacle of his body and goes triumphantly to heaven.
Our King, despite His exalted majesty, came in humility for our sake; yet He did not come empty-handed. He gave of His bounty, yet without any loss to Himself. In a marvelous way He changed into wealth the poverty of His faithful followers while remaining in full possession of His own inexhaustible riches. And so the love that brought Christ from heaven to earth raised Stephen from earth ot heaven; shown first in the King, it later shone forth in His soldier. His love of God kept him from yielding to the ferocious mob; his love for his neighbor made him pray for those who were stoning him. Love inspired him to reprove those who erred, to make them amend; love led him to pray for those who stoned him, to save them from punishment.
Love, indeed, is the source of all good things; it is an impregnable defense, and the way that leads to heaven. He who walks in love can neither go astray nor be afraid: love guides him, protects him, and brings him to his journey’s end.
My brothers, Christ made love the stairway that would enable all Christians to climb to heaven. Hold fast to it, therefore, in all sincerity, give one another practical proof of it, and by your progress in it, make your ascent together.