St Stephen’s Day

St. Stephen’s Day, or the Feast of St. Stephen, is a Christian saint’s day to commemorate Saint Stephen. It is celebrated annually on 26 December in the Western Church and 27 December in the Eastern Church. Many Eastern Orthodox churches adhere to the Julian calendar and mark St. Stephen’s Day on 27 December according to that calendar, which places it on 9 January of the Gregorian calendar.

Stephen (Greek: Στέφανος Stéphanos, meaning “wreath, crown” and by extension “reward, honor”, often given as a title rather than as a name, Hebrew: סטפנוס הקדוש‎), was born c. AD 5 – and is traditionally venerated as the protomartyr or first martyr of Christianity. He was according to the Acts of the Apostles a deacon in the early church at Jerusalem who aroused the enmity of members of various synagogues by his teachings. Accused of blasphemy, at his trial, he made a long speech denouncing the Jewish authorities who were sitting in judgment on him and was then stoned to death. His martyrdom was witnessed by Saul of Tarsus, a Pharisee who would later become a follower of Jesus and known as Paul the Apostle.

The only primary source for information about Stephen is the New Testament book of the Acts of the Apostles. Stephen is mentioned in Acts 6 as one of the Greek-speaking Hellenistic Jews selected to participate in a fairer distribution of welfare to the Greek-speaking widows. The Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Oriental Orthodox, Eastern Orthodox Churches, and the Church of the East venerate Stephen as a saint. Traditionally, Stephen is invested with a crown of martyrdom; artistic representations often depict him with three stones and the martyr’s palm frond. Eastern Christian iconography shows him as a young, beardless man with a tonsure, wearing a deacon’s vestments, and often holding a miniature church building or a censer.

Saint Stephen is first mentioned in Acts of the Apostles as one of seven deacons appointed by the Apostles to distribute food and charitable aid to poorer members of the community in the early church. According to Orthodox belief, he was the eldest and is therefore called “archdeacon”. As another deacon, Nicholas of Antioch, is specifically stated to have been a convert to Judaism, it may be assumed that Stephen was born Jewish, but nothing more is known about his previous life. The reason for the appointment of the deacons is stated to have been dissatisfaction among Hellenistic (that is, Greek-influenced and Greek-speaking) Jews that their widows were being slighted in preference to Hebraic ones in the daily distribution of food. Since the name “Stephanos” is Greek, it has been assumed that he was one of these Hellenistic Jews.

Stephen is said to have been full of faith and the Holy Spirit and to have performed miracles teachings and “signs and wonders” among the people and at the synagogues of Hellenistic Jews where he aroused the opposition of the “Synagogue of the Freedmen”, and “of the Cyrenians, and of the Alexandrians, and of them that were of Cilicia and Asia”.[Acts 6:9] Members of these synagogues had challenged Stephen’s teachings, but Stephen had bested them in debate. Furious at this humiliation, they suborned false testimony that Stephen had preached blasphemy against Moses and God. They dragged him to appear before the Sanhedrin, the supreme legal court of Jewish elders, accusing him of preaching against the Temple and the Mosaic Law.[Acts 6:9–14] Stephen is said to have been unperturbed, his face looking like “that of an angel”

Stephen spoke to the Sanhedrin and presented his view of the history of Israel. The God of glory, he says, appeared to Abraham in Mesopotamia, thus establishing at the beginning of the speech one of its major themes, that God does not dwell only in one particular building (meaning the Temple). Stephen recounts the stories of the patriarchs in some depth, and goes into even more detail in the case of Moses. God appeared to Moses in the burning bush[Acts 7:30–32], and inspired Moses to lead his people out of Egypt. Nevertheless, the Israelites turned to other gods.[Acts 7:39–43]. Stephen then spoke of Israel’s disobedience to God. Stephen faced two accusations: that he had declared that Jesus would destroy the Temple in Jerusalem and that he had changed the customs of Moses. Benedict XVI stated that St. Stephen appealed to the Jewish scriptures to prove how the laws of Moses were not subverted by Jesus but, instead, were being fulfilled. Stephen denounces his listener as “stiff-necked” people who, just as their ancestors had done, resist the Holy Spirit. “Was there ever a prophet your ancestors did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him.

This angered the crowd and the “Jews shouted and covered their ears, and rushed at him. They dragged him out of the city and stoned him, but the holy martyr prayed for his murderers.” The people from the crowd, who threw the first stones, laid their coats down so as to be able to do this, at the feet of a “young man named Saul”. However, according to the “Aramaic Bible in Plain English” and the “Weymouth New Testament” Acts 22:20, St. Paul, earlier known as Saul admits he was not only standing by, he was holding the garments of those stoning St. Stephen. This has significance. The possible reason for this may be that many of the members of the Sanhedrin were wealthy. (See Luke 18:9-14) Some, who may have been wearing expensive garments may have been hesitant to throw or place them on the ground. Saul’s willingness to hold the garments of those stoning Stephen might signify that he considered it an honor to do so at the time. Having held the garments, rather than just watching over them, would have made Saul much more of an accomplice. This could have added greatly to St. Paul’s sense of guilt later on and illuminate why he considered himself to be the worst sinner of all. Approving of, and assisting in, the killing of a disciple that Christ himself had chosen, was an unforgettable act, which St. Paul regretted for the rest of his life. Stephen prayed that the Lord would receive his spirit and his killers be forgiven, sank to his knees, and “fell asleep” [Acts 7:58–60]. Saul, a witness to the stoning, “] In the aftermath of Stephen’s death, the remaining disciples fled to distant lands, many to Antioch.

Saint Stephen’s Day is an official public holiday in Alsace, Austria, Balearic Islands, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Catalonia, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Macedonia, Montenegro, Moselle, Norway, Philippines, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia and Sweden. The date is also a public holiday in those countries that celebrate Boxing Day on the day instead/as well, such as Canada and England.

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