We all know the opening stanza of the carol:
Good King Wenceslas
On the feast of Stephen
When the snow lay round about
Deep and crisp and even
Brightly shone the moon that night
Though the frost was cruel
When a poor man came in sight
Gath’ring winter fuel
The Good King sets out with his Page to find this poor man and give him alms to help him through the harsh winter. In this deed Wenceslas is following in the footsteps of today’s saint, Stephen.
Not all was going well during the early years of the church. Roman persecution was the norm, the Jewish leadership was angry and unsure (this Messiah business got in the way of their business). The Greek widows and orphans were complaining about not getting their share of the alms. The Apostles just didn’t have time to deal with all of this! Enter Stephen and the six other men the Apostles decide to entrust with the daily management of the almsgiving and care for the poor, the first deacons of the church, with Stephen first among them.
Our only knowledge of Stephen comes from the 6th and 7th chapters of the Acts of the Apostles where he is ordained a deacon, ministers to the Greek Jews, angers those in power, is tried and convicted in the Sanhedrin for blasphemy (by way of false witnesses) and subsequently stoned to death for his trouble. In Acts 6:5 and 6:8 he is described as “full of faith…the Holy Spirit…grace and fortitude.” I can only imagine that one must be full of all these things in order to endure what he knew was nothing more than a kangaroo court, not unlike that which Jesus endured not long before, and yet stand firm in that faith, Spirit, grace and fortitude to the point of forgiving those who were killing him. With his last breath he prayed: Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” Even Paul, who was there, later had to confess that “when the blood of Stephen thy witness was shed, I stood by and consented, and kept the garments of them that killed him”
It may seem odd in this joyous time of Christmastide, still basking in the warm glow of the birth of the Christ child, of hope, that we should step back into the cold of winter and remember the first of His martyrs, but as I was reminded this morning by a Facebook post by Fr. Tim Schenck, it is good to be reminded that the cold is still there. It means the work is never finished; that there is a price to be paid for warmth and hope and faith and fortitude.
Let us pray:
We give you thanks, O Lord of glory, for the example of the first martyr Stephen, who looked up to heaven and prayed for his persecutors to your Son Jesus Christ, who stands at your right hand; where he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.