Saint Stephen, First Martyr

On this first day in the Octave of Christmas we celebrate the heavenly birth of the Church’s first martyr, St. Stephen.  It is a reminder to us that as powerfully hopeful and joyful as Christmas is, there is division and hatred that come with it.  We could ask St. Stephen for the grace to always react well when we find ourselves on one side of a division.  It can be tempting to want to be right, or the one who is in the right, but it isn’t what Christ needs most from us.  In these divisive moments, even when extreme violence is employed, we can open our hearts to see Jesus and allow Him to be the judge.  Resisting the temptation to judgement, even of those who are “clearly” in the wrong, can make space in our hearts for what our Christian calling is about: loving and forgiving our enemies.  May St. Stephen grant us simplicity and grace when we are persecuted so our prayer for our enemies might be filled with the Holy Spirit and love.


The Lord too, who “chose” us “out of the world” for his heavenly kingdom and glory, suffered outside the gate, like Stephen, who, as though he were a stranger to the world, was stoned outside the city. For he had no permanent city here, but with his whole heart he sought the city to come. And, in accordance with the vicissitudes of events, the martyr directed the gaze of his pure heart to heaven, while the stiff-necked persecutor stretched out his hands toward the stones.1


The savage men lay down their garments at the feet of Saul, what the Hebrew calls hell. Both sides now decide to declare what they deserve from this [martyrdom] when the martyr seeks heaven, the executioners “hell.” The first circumstance [of martyrdom] reveals and makes as an example what flows from this fountain to one engaged in such a struggle; thus Tartarus quickly comes upon those who commit murder, while heaven lies open for the dying.2


O martyr, embark on struggles which will cause happy deaths, where punishment is glory and to fall is a rising, and by slaughter is born immortality embracing the rewards of everlasting life. Lo, to have merited thus to die was the beginning of a blessed life without end.3


To be sure, we heard in that reading, “But when they deliver you up, do not be anxious how or what you are to speak … for it is not you who are speaking but the Spirit of your Father who speaks through you.” And he says in another place: “Behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the world.” Does this mean that the people who heard those words of the Lord would be here until the end of the world? The Lord was referring, rather, not only to those about to depart from this life but also to the others, including us and those who would come after us in this life. He saw everyone in his single body, and the words he spoke, “I am with you even to the end of the world,” were heard by them and by us too. And if we did not hear them then in our knowledge, we heard them in his foreknowledge. Therefore, safe as sheep among the wolves, let us keep the commandments of him who directs us. And let us be “innocent as doves but cautious as snakes.”8 Innocent as doves that we may not harm anyone; cautious as snakes that we may be careful of letting anyone harm us.4


  1. COMMENTARY ON THE ACTS OF THE APOSTLES 7.58. Martin, F., & Smith, E. (Eds.). (2006). Acts (p. 87). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
  2. ON THE ACTS OF THE APOSTLES 1. Martin, F., & Smith, E. (Eds.). (2006). Acts (p. 87). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
  3. ON THE ACTS OF THE APOSTLES 1. Martin, F., & Smith, E. (Eds.). (2006). Acts (p. 87). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
  4. SERMON 64A.2. Simonetti, M. (Ed.). (2001). Matthew 1–13 (pp. 200–201). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
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