In those days, Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people. Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called) and of the Cyrenians, and of the Alexandrians, and of those from Cilicia and Asia; arose and disputed with Stephen. But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke. Then they secretly instigated men, who said, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.” And they stirred up the people and the elders and the scribes, and they came upon him and seized him and brought him before the council, and set up false witnesses who said, “This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law; for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place, and will change the customs which Moses delivered to us.” And gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel. And the high priest said, “Is this so?” And Stephen said: “Brethren and fathers, hear me. The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham, when he was in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran, and said to him, ‘Depart from your land and from your kindred and go into the land which I will show you.’ Then he departed from the land of the Chaldeans, and lived in Haran. And after his father died, God removed him from there into this land in which you are now living; yet He gave him no inheritance in it, not even a foot’s length, but promised to give it to him in possession and to his posterity after him, though he had no child. But it was Solomon who built a house for him. Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made with hands; as the prophet says, ‘Heaven is My throne, and earth my footstool. What house will you build for Me, says the Lord, or what is the place of my rest? Did not My hand make all these things?’ You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your father did, so do you. Which of the prophets did not your fathers persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels did not keep it.” Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth against him. But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God; and he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together upon him. Then they case him out of the city and stoned him; and the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. And as they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And he knelt down and cried with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.
Acts 6: 8-15; 7: 1-5, 47-60 (Epistle from Feast of St. Stephen)
Christ is Born! Glorify Him!
On December 27, we celebrate the Feast of St. Stephen, who has the dual title of “Archdeacon” and “Proto-Martyr.” Stephen was the first of seven men chosen to serve as a deacon. The disciples were increasing in number, so we read in Acts 6. We also read that the work of the early church consisted of only two things—preaching the Word of God and serving tables, something called the daily distribution, giving food to widows, orphans and those who were poor. Because there was such a need to teach the ever-growing group of Christians, the original disciples were not able to keep up with teaching and serving and asked that some people be appointed to assist them in this task. Seven men were chosen, and the first of them was Stephen. The disciples “prayed and laid their hands on them” (Acts 6:6) in what was the precursor to today’s ordination of clergy. These men who were “assistants” to the disciples, instituted an order of clergy that today is known as the “diaconate”. The primary work of the deacon is “service” or “Diakonia.” Whether we are ordained or not, whether we serve the church as a full time vocation or as a volunteer, we are all called to “Diakonia”, we are all called to serve Christ and others in some way. For St. Stephen, he helped feed the poor. There are, of course, a myriad of ways to serve God by serving others. “Diakonia” is a necessary part of Christianity. Because to be a Christian is to be a person of action, and a person of service. We are not Christians so that we can be served. Nor are we Christians so that we can just be present. We are called to be active and to serve.
Saint Stephen is called “Proto-Martyr”, meaning he is the first person to give his life for Christ. (Now one might debate that St. John the Baptist was the first Martyr. He was killed directly because of his relation to Christ. However, Stephen is the first post-Resurrection martyr). When “martyr” is given as a title to a saint, it means that they were killed because of their faith. There are many, many saints who have been killed for their faith and who bear the title, “martyr.”
However, the word “martyr” means much more than to be killed for the faith. The word “martyr” comes from the Greek word “martyria” which also means “witness.” A martyr is a witness for the faith. A witness (think courtroom) is someone who gives testimony to something they have heard or seen. This is usually done verbally, like testifying before a jury. A “martyr” gives witness for Christ, what they’ve heard and experienced about Him. This might be done verbally, as St. Stephen did when he talked in front of the High Priest. But more specifically, it is done by example, simply by how we live. We need to live lives that give witness to Christ. What does that mean? Christ told us to love one another, so we should live lives that reflect love for others. Love includes serving others, being patient, being humble and many other things. Our witness should be one of love to all people, and in loving others, we show our love for God, we bear witness to Him.
In some parts of the world, there are indeed people who are martyred for their faith. There are people who continue to die for their faith to this day. There are areas in the world today that if you publicly profess faith in Jesus Christ, you risk being martyred. Even in a “free country” like America, we risk something to witness for Christ. While it probably won’t get you killed, at least not yet, a powerful witness for Christ is sure to garner some degree of consternation, whether it is someone who questions whether your faith is genuine, someone who challenges the truth of the Gospel, someone who rejects Christ and punishes people who accept Him, or just scorn from those who don’t make room for Christ in their lives and are resentful or jealous of those that do. Choosing church over baseball on a Sunday is a strong witness, and also a witness that may bring consternation, ridicule or backlash. So is choosing to refrain from unchristian behaviors when “everyone” seems to be doing them.
If we think about it, there are opportunities for Diakonia and martyria every day. These two concepts need to be on the mind of Christians at all times because they are the backbone of faith. The core/heart of faith is faith itself. But faith without works, without witness, is a dead faith. Faith comes alive through service and witness.
On a personal note: St. Stephen is the patron saint of the summer camp for the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Atlanta, which I have been privileged to co-direct for many years. Many people on the prayer team are campers, former campers, staff members, former staff members, or parents of campers. We all know the hymn below, as we sing it multiple times a day at camp. On this feast of St. Stephen, I wish all of our St. Stephen’s Camp Family “Chronia Polla,” many years. Many years of health to you and many years of health to this dynamic program we are part of. A special thanks to His Eminence Metropolitan Alexios for his vision in growing our program and for his continued blessing to be part of it. May God, through the intercessions of St. Stephen, continue to bless and guide our camping program and all those who are affiliated with it.
O Stephen, a crown of royalty was laid on your head. For contests you courageously endured for Christ our God, as first among Martyr saints. You stood in accusation of the raging Judeans; and you saw your Savior at the right hand of the Father. We pray that you will ever entreat Him to save our souls. (Apolytikion, St. Stephen, Trans. by Fr. Seraphim Dedes)
Be a servant (diakonos) and a witness (martyr) for Christ today!