Sunday, August 3, 2014

Invention of Saint Stephen, Protomartyr

Urged by the approach of Laurence’s triumph, Stephen rises to assist at his combat; it is a meeting full of beauty and strength, revealing the work of Eternal Wisdom in the arrangement of the sacred cycle. But the present feast has other teachings also to offer us.

The first resurrection, of which we spoke above, continues for the Saints. After Nazarius and Celsus, and all the martyrs whom the victory of Christ has shown to be partakers of his gory according to the divine promise, the standard-bearer of the white-robed army himself rises glorious from his tomb to lead the way for new triumphs. The fierce auxiliaries of God’s anger against idolatrous Rome, after reducing the false gods to powder, must in their turn be subjugated; and this second victory will be the work of the martyrs aiding the Church by their miracles, as the first was that of their faith despising death and tortures. The received method of writing history in our days ignores such considerations; that is no reason why we should follow the fashion: the exactitude of its data, on which the science of this age plumes itself, is but one more proof that falsehood is as easily nurtured by omissions as by positive misstatements. Now the more profound the present silence on the question, the more certain it is that the very years which beheld the barbarians invading and overturning the empire, were signalized by an effusion of virtue from on high, comparable in more than one respect to that which marked the times of the Apostolic preaching. Nothing less was required to reassure the faithful on the one hand, and on the other to inspire with respect for the Church these brutal invaders, who knew no right but might, and felt nothing but disdain for the race they had conquered.

The divine intention in surrounding the fall of Rome in 410 with discoveries of Saints’ bodies, was clearly manifested in the most important of these inventions (discoveries; Latin inventio), the one we celebrate today. The year 415 had opened. Italy, Gaul, and Spain were being invaded, Africa was about to share their fate. Amidst the universal ruin, the Christians, in whom alone resided the hope of the world, put up their petitions at every sanctuary to obtain at least, according to the expression of the Spanish priest Avitus, “that the Lord would inspire with gentleness those whom he suffered to prevail.” It was then that took place that marvelous revelation which the severe critic Tillemont, convinced by the testimony of all the chronicles, histories, letters, and discourses at the time (by Marcellinus, Sozomen, Augustine, et. al.), allows to be “one of the most celebrated events of the fifth century.” Through the intermediary of the priest Lucian, John, Bishop of Jerusalem, received from St. Stephen the first Martyr and his companions in the tomb, a message couched in these terms: “Make haste to open our sepulchre, that by our means God may open to the world the door of his clemency, and may take pity on his people in the universal tribulation.” The discovery, accomplished in the midst of prodigies, was published to the whole world as the sign of salvation. St. Stephen’s relics, scattered everywhere in token of security and peace, wrought astonishing conversions; innumerable miracles, “like those of ancient times,” bore witness to the same faith of Christ which the martyr had confessed by his death four centuries earlier.

Such was the extraordinary character of this manifestation, so astonishing was the number of resurrections of the dead, that St. Augustine, addressing his people, deemed it prudent to lift their thoughts from Stephen the servant to Christ his Master. “Though dead,” said he in his 319th Sermon, “he raises the dead to life, because in reality he is not dead. But as heretofore in his mortal life, so now, too, he acts solely in the name of Christ; all that ye see now done by the memory of Stephen is done in that name alone, that Christ may be exalted, Christ may be adored, Christ may be expected as Judge of the living and the dead.”

Let us conclude with this praise addressed to Stephen a few years later by Basil of Seleucis in his 41st Oratio, which gives so well in a few words the reason of the feast: “There is no place, no territory, no nation, no far-off land, that has not obtained the help of thy benefits. There is no one, stranger or citizen, barbarian or Scythian, that does not experience, through thy intercession, the greatness of heavenly realities.”

The following Legend epitomizes and completes the history given by the priest Lucian:

Sanctorum corpora Stephani Protomartyris, Gamalielis, Nicodemi et Abibonis, quæ diu in obscuro ac sordido loco jacuerant, Honorio imperatore, Luciano presbytero divinitus admonito, inventa sunt prope Jerosolymam. Cui Gamaliel cum in somnis apparuisset, gravi quadam et præclara senis specie, locum jacentium corporum commonstravit, imperans, ut Joannem Jerosolymitanum antistitem adiret, ageretque cum eo, ut honestius illa corpora sepelirentur.

During the reign of the Emperor Honories, the bodies of St. Stephen, the Protomartyr, Gamaliel, Nicodemus, and Abibas were found near Jerusalem. They had long lain buried, unknown and neglected, when they were revealed by God to a priest named Lucian. While he was asleep, Gamaliel appeared to him as a venerable and majestic old man, and showed him the spot where the bodies lay, commanding him to go to Bishop John of Jerusalem, and persuade him to give these bodies more honorable burial.

Quibus auditis Jerosolymorum antistes, finitamarum urbium episcopis presbyterisque convocatis, ad locum pergit: defossos loculos invenit, unde suavissimus odor efflabatur. Cujus rei fama commota, magna hominum multitudo eo convenit, multique ex variis morbis ægroti ac debiles, sani et integri domum redierunt. Sacrum autem sancti Stephani corpus, quod summa tunc celebritate in sanctam ecclesiam Sion illatum est, sub Theodosio juniore Constantinopolim, inde Romam Pelagio Primo Summo Pontifice translatum, in agro Verano in sepulcro sancti Laurentii Martyris collacatum est.

On hearing this, the Bishop of Jerusalem assembled the neighboring Bishops and clergy, and went to the spot indicated. The tombs were found, and from them exhaled a most sweet odor. At the rumor at what had occurred, a great crowd came together, and many of them who were sick and weak from various ailments went away perfectly cured. The sacred body of St. Stephen was then carried with great honor to the holy church of Sion. Under Theodosius the younger it was carried to Constantinople, and from thence it was translated to Rome under Pope Pelagius I and placed in the tomb of St. Laurence the Martyr, in Agro Verano.

What a precious addition to thy history in the sacred Books is furnished us, O Protomartyr, by the story of thy invention! We now know who were those “God-fearing men, who buried Stephen and made great mourning over him.” Gamaliel, the master of the Doctor of the Gentiles, had been, before his disciple, conquered by our Lord; inspired by Jesus to whom in dying thou didst commend thy soul, he honored after they death the humble soldier of Christ with the same cares which had been lavished by Joseph of Arimathea, the noble counselor, on the Man-God, and laid thy body in the new tomb prepared for himself. Soon Nicodemus, Joseph’s companion in the pious work of the great Friday, hunted by the Jews in that persecution in which thou wert the first victim, found refuge near thy sacred relics, and dying a holy death was laid to rest beside thee. The respected name of Gamaliel prevailed over the angry synagogue; while the family of Annas and Caiphas kept in its hands the priestly power through the precarious favor of Rome, the grandson of Hillel left to his descendants pre-eminence in knowledge, and his eldest line remained for four centuries the depositories of the only moral authority then recognized by the dispersed Israelites. But more fortunate was he in having, by hearing the Apostles and thyself, O Stephen, passed from the science of shadows to the light of the realities, from the Law to the Gospel, from Moses to him whom Moses announced; more happy than the eldest born, was the beloved son Abibas, baptized with his father at the age of twenty, and who, passing away to God, filled the tomb next to thine with the sweet odor of heavenly purity. How touching was the last will of the illustrious father when, his hour being come, he ordered the grave of Abibas to be opened for himself, that father and son might be seen to be twin brothers born together to the only true light!

The munificence of our Lord had placed thee in death, O Stephen, in worthy company. We give thanks to the noble person who showed thee hospitality for thy last rest; and we are grateful to him for having, at the appointed time, himself broken the silence kept concerning him by the delicate reserve of the Scriptures. Here again we see how the Man-God wills to share his own honors with his chosen ones. Thy sepulcher, like his, was glorious; and when it was opened, the earth shook, the bystanders believed that heaven had come down; the world was delivered from a desolating drought, and amid a thousand evils hope sprang up once more. Now that our West possesses thy body and Gamaliel has yielded to Laurence the right of hospitality, rise up once more, O Stephen; and together with the great Roman deacon deliver us from the new barbarians, by converting them, or wiping them off the face of the earth given by God to his Christ.

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