26 December: Feast of Saint Stephen. On the second day in the octave of Christmas, we celebrate the Feast of St. Stephen, an early Church deacon and the first Christian martyr. The Book of Acts 6-7 tells us about Stephen. He came from a family of Hellenists, Jews who had emigrated from Palestine to the Greek-speaking provinces of the Roman Empire. Tension arose between the Greek Jewish converts to Christianity and the Palestinian Jewish converts. The Greeks thought their needy were being neglected in favor of the Hebrew’s poor. To resolve the problem, the apostles ordained seven men as deacons to serve the poor and preach the Faith. The first name on this list of seven is Stephen. Stephen was renowned for his care of the poor and was held in high esteem by the Apostles. In his zeal for the Faith, he also debated with members of four Greek synagogues. When Stephen’s eloquent speeches got the better of the Hellenist Jews, angry opponents dragged him to the Sanhedrin. False witnesses charged him with blasphemy and reviling the Law of Moses. In answer, Stephen gave a lengthy speech that traced the sacred history of the Jews and concluded with a denunciation of his accusers. Then, suddenly filled with the Holy Spirit, he looked up to heaven and cried, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” This was too much blasphemy for the angry mob of Jews. (The man later to become St. Paul was part of the mob.) They rushed upon Stephen, dragged him outside the city walls and stoned him to death. As the stones struck, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then, when down on his knees and near death, Stephen prayed again, “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.” After the mob had dispersed, Christians took his body away for burial.
The Church draws a comparison between St. Stephen and Christ: Stephen’s arrest and trial with false accusations parallels our Savior’s trial; he was stoned outside the city wall; he died echoing the words of Jesus on the cross (praying for his executioners). Saint Stephen is the patron of deacons, altar servers, bricklayers, stonemasons and horses.
Ideas for celebrating this feast day at home:
- A traditional St. Stephen’s meal is mincemeat pie. Here is an old time recipe. OR, try a new twist on mincemeat pie using leftover holiday turkey or ham: click here.
- Bake “St. Stephen’s Horns” called Podkovy: In honor of his patronage over horses, special sweet breads are baked in the form of horseshoes. These “horns” are much like coffeecake. Recipe here.
- St. Stephen was stoned to death while praying for his enemies. Today, pray for your enemies and for the persecuted Church throughout the world.
- Boxing Day: St. Stephen was one of the first ‘social workers’ in the Church; it was his task to feed the poor. In remembrance of his work, Britains used to collect money during the year in little clay boxes. On the feast of St. Stephen or ‘Boxing day’ as it is called in Britain, these boxes were broken and the money distributed to the poor. Perhaps you can revive this old tradition in your home!
- Another idea: In some homes a box is labeled and set beside the Christmas tree. Family members, in gratitude for their Christmas blessings, choose one of their gifts for the “St. Stephen’s Box” and then donate the gifts to the poor.
- Read the story of Good King Wenceslaus, also a Catholic martyr, who “looked out on the Feast of Stephen” and shared his meal with a poor family.
“If you know what witness means, you understand why God brings St. Stephen, St. John, and the Holy Innocents to the crib in the cave as soon as Christ is born liturgically. To be a witness is to be a martyr. Holy Mother Church wishes us to realize that we were born in baptism to become Christ — He who was the world’s outstanding Martyr.” — Love Does Such Things, by Rev. M. Raymond, O.C.S.O.