Who was Saint Stephen?
St. Stephen was the first martyr in the Church and is the patron saint of deacons.
Dissatisfaction concerning the distribution of alms from the community's fund having arisen in the Church, seven men were selected and specially ordained by the Apostles to take care of the temporal relief of the poorer members. Of these first seven deacons, St. Stephen is the first mentioned and the best known through the ages.
St. Stephen's life, previous to this appointment, remains almost entirely a mystery. His name is Greek and suggests he was a Hellenist – one of those Jews who had been born in some foreign land and whose native tongue was Greek. However, according to a fifth century tradition, the name Stephanos was only a Greek equivalent for the Aramaic Kelil, which may be the holy proto-martyr's original name and was inscribed on a slab found in his tomb.
We do not know when and in what circumstances he became a Christian; although there is the statement of St. Epiphanius numbering Stephen among the seventy disciples. His ministry as deacon appears to have been mostly among the Hellenist converts with whom the Apostles were at first less familiar. St. Stephen was preeminently fitted for the work amongst the Hellenist Jews – his abilities and character, which St. Luke (in Acts) dwells upon so fervently, are the best indication. The Church had, by selecting him for a deacon, publicly acknowledged him as a man “of good reputation, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom” (Acts 6:3). Great as was the efficacy of “the wisdom and the spirit that spoke” (verse 10), still it could not bend the minds of the unwilling – to these the forceful preacher fatally was soon to become an enemy.
The acts of the Apostles – the only first hand source of information on the life and death of St. Stephen – tells the story of St. Stephen’s martyrdom:
Stephen was tried for blasphemy against Moses and God, and speaking against the Jewish Law. The accusations against Stephen came from Libertines, Cyrenians, and Alexandrians, who had challenged Stephen to a dispute and came out completely discomfited (verses 9, 10). Their wounded pride so inflamed their hatred that they bore false witness to testify against him. This was enough to stir an angry mob. The anger of the ancients and the scribes had been already kindled from the first reports of the preaching of the Apostles and Stephen was arrested.
Stephen's answer to the accusations was a long recital of the mercies of God towards Israel during its long history and of the ungratefulness by which, throughout, Israel repaid these mercies. When Stephen “looking up steadfastly to heaven, saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God,” and said: “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God” (verse 55), they ran violently upon him (verse 56) and cast him out of the city to stone him to death. Stephen's stoning does not appear in the narrative of the Acts as a deed of mob violence – it must have been looked upon by those who took part in it as the carrying out of the law.
The praying martyr was thrown down and while the witnesses were thrusting upon him “a stone as much as two men could carry,” he was heard to utter this supreme prayer: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (verse 58). Little did all the people present, casting stones upon him, realize that the blood they shed was the first seed of a harvest that was to cover the whole world.
Saint Stephen in Architecture
One of the most well known churches dedicated to St. Stephen is the Stephenskirche in Vienna. The original Romanesque structure was built in the 12th century but burned in 1258. The west facade is all that remains of the original structure. A gothic nave and tower were added in the 14th century during the reconstruction.
The church was bombed and burned into ruin during the 1945 Battle of Vienna. Fortunately, the church was rebuilt by 1952.
One of the most distinguishing features of the church is the tile roof that almost makes the church look like a giant Lego set.
Saint Stephen in Music
Probably the most popular mention of St. Stephen is in the Christmas song Good King Wenseslaus, who went out to do Christmas charity “on the feast of Stephen.” The connection is significant because St. Stephen, as a deacon was responsible for helping the poor members of the early Church.
There is also a song called Staffansiva from Scandanavia that is sung at Christmas. Notice St. Lucy at the front with her candle crown.