Yesterday, we finished the Octave of the Birth of Jesus; today, we shall finish the Octave of St. Stephen; but this, without losing sight, one moment, of the Divine Babe, whose Court is formed by Stephen, John the Beloved Disciple, the Holy Innocents, and St. Thomas of Canterbury. In five days, we shall see the Magi prostrate before the Crib of the newborn King; they are already on the way, and the Star is advancing towards Bethlehem. Let us spend the interval in reconsidering how great is the glory of our Emmanuel in his having lavished such extraordinary favors on these Saints whom he has chosen to be near him at his first coming into the world. Let us begin with Stephen, for this is the last day of the Octave dedicated to him by the Church. We must take leave of him now till the month of August, when we shall again meet him on the Feast of The Finding of his Relics.
In a Sermon, which was for a long time thought to have been written by St. Augustine, we find it mentioned that St. Stephen was in the flower of his youth when he was called, by the Apostles, to receive the sacred character of Deaconship. Six others were ordained Deacons with him; and these Seven, those office was to minister at the Altar here below, represented the Seven Angels whom St. John saw standing near the Altar in heaven. Stephen was appointed as the head of the Seven, and St. Irenæus, who lived in the second century, calls him the Arch-Deacon.
The characteristic virtue of a Deacon is fidelity. Hence, he is entrusted with the care of the treasures of the Church, treasures which consist not merely in the alms destined for the poor, but in that which is the most precious thing in heaven and earth—the Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, of which the Deacon is the minister, in virtue of his Order. For this reason, the Apostle St. Paul, in his first Epistle to Timothy, bids the Deacons hold the Mystery of Faith in a pure conscience.
It was therefore more than an appropriate coincidence that the First of all the Martyrs was a Deacon, for Martyrdom is the great proof of fidelity, and fidelity is the official virtue of the Deaconate. This same truth is still more strongly impressed upon us by the fact that the three, who stand preeminent amongst the Martyrs of Christ, are vested in the holy Dalmatic—the three glorious Deacons: Stephen, the glory of Jerusalem; Laurence, the pride of Rome; and Vincent, of whom Spain so justly boasts. The present holy season gives us Stephen, who has been gladdening us with his festal presence ever since Christmas Day, and Vincent, whose Feast falls on January 22nd. Laurence will come to us, with his rich waving Palm, in the sunny month of August; and Stephen, in the same month, will visit us a second time in the Feast of the Finding of his Relics.
With the intention of paying respect to the Holy Order of Deaconship in the person of its first representative, it is a custom in the great many churches on the Feast of St. Stephen that Deacons should fulfil every office which is not beyond their order. For example, the Chanter yields his staff of office to a Deacon; the Choristers, who assist the Chanter, are also Deacons, vested in Dalmatics; and the Epistle of the Mass is sung by a Deacon, because it is the passage from the Acts of the Apostles which relates the history of the holy Martyr’s death.
The institution of St. Stephen’s Feast, and its being fixed on the day immediately following that of our Lord’s Birth, are so ancient that it is impossible to assign their date. The Apostolic Constitutions, which were compiled, at the latest, towards the close of the 3rd century, mention this Feast as already established, and that too on the morrow of Christmas Day. St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Asterius of Amasea, both of them earlier than the miraculous discovery of the Holy Deacon’s Relics, have left us Homilies for the Feast of St. Stephen, in which they lay stress on the circumstance of its having the honor to be kept the very day after the solemnity of Christmas. With regard to its Octave, the institution is less ancient, though the date cannot be defined. Amalarius, who wrote in the 9th century, speaks of this Octave as already established, and Notker’s Martyrology, compiled in the 10th century, makes express mention of it.
But how comes it that the Feast of a mere Deacon has been thus honored, while almost all those of the Apostles have no Octave? The rule followed by the Church, in her Liturgy, is to give more or less solemnity to the Feasts of the Saints, according to the importance of the services they rendered to mankind. Thus it is that the honor she pays to St. Jerome, for example, who was only a Priest, is more marked than that she gives to a great number of holy Popes. It is her gratitude which guides her in assigning to the Saints their respective rank in her Calendar, and the devotion of the Faithful to the saintly benefactors whom she now venerates as members of the Church Triumphant, is thus regulated by a safe standard. St. Stephen led the way to Martyrdom; his example inaugurated that sublime witnessing by the shedding one’s own blood, which is the very strength of the Church, ratifies the truths she teaches to the world and confirms the hopes of eternal reward promised by those truths. Glory, then, and honor to the Prince of Martyrs! As long as time shall last, so long shall the Church on earth celebrate the name of Stephen, who was the first to shed his blood for the God who died on Calvary!
We have already noticed St. Stephen’s imitating Jesus, by praying for and forgiving his enemies; it is the circumstance which the Church continually alludes to in her Office of his Feast. But there is another very important incident in the martyrdom of our Saint which we must, for a moment, dwell upon. One of the accomplices in the murder, which was being committed under the walls of Jerusalem, was a young man of the name of Saul. He made himself exceedingly active, for he was of an ardent temperament, and as the Fathers observe, he helped every man who stoned the holy Deacon, because he took care of the murderers’ garments while they committed the crime. Not long after, this same Saul, while travelling to Damascus, was converted into an Apostle of that Jesus whom he had heard Stephen confess as the Son of God. The blood of Stephen cried to heaven for mercy—and heaven sent to the Gentiles the Apostle who would bring them to the knowledge and love of Jesus. “What an admirable scene!” cries out St. Augustine. “Here is Stephen being stoned, and Saul taking care of the garments of them that stone him. But this Saul is now Paul, the Apostle of Jesus Christ, and Stephen is the servant of Jesus Christ … O Saul! thou hast been prostrated, and raised up again: prostrated a Persecutor, raised up a Preacher. Everywhere are thy Epistles read; everywhere art thou bringing to Christ them that are his enemies; everywhere art thou the good Shepherd, surrounded by a numerous flock. Thou art now reigning with Christ, in company with him thou didst once stone. Both of you are looking upon us; both of you now hear what I am saying; do both of you pray, also, for us. He who crowned you both, will hear both. Stephen was a lamb; Saul was a wolf; now, both are lambs, and both will acknowledge us as of the flock of Christ, and will pray for us that the Church of their Master may be blessed with a peaceful and tranquil life.” Stephen and Paul both visit us during this grand season of Christmas, for we shall keep the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul on the 25th of January; and thus, Stephen leads his spiritual conquest to the Crib of their common Lord and Master.
Catholic piety has chosen St. Stephen as one of the Patrons of a Happy Death. This choice was suggested by the death of the holy Martyr—a death so tranquil that the Scripture calls it a Sleep, in spite of the cruel torture to which his executioners put him. Let us therefore beg the intercession of St. Stephen for that awful hour of our death, when we must return to our Creator these Souls of ours; nay, let us ask him to pray that we may be habitually in such a disposition of mind as to be ever ready to make the total sacrifice of the life which God has given to us: it was a sacred deposit he entrusted to our keeping, and which we were to hold in readiness for him, whensoever he might demand it at our hands.