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St. Stephen, first Martyr

St. Stephen, first Martyr St. Stephen, Bernardo Daddi  (© Musei Vaticani)

And him I saw, who bow’d
Heavy with death unto the ground, yet made
His eyes, unfolded upward, gates to Heaven,    
Praying forgiveness of the Almighty Sire,            
Amidst that cruel conflict, on his foes,
With looks that win compassion to their aim.

In the Divine Comedy, Dante looks upon a touching scene: the death, by stoning, of a young man who, as he is dying, asks for forgiveness for his persecutors. The great Christian poet was struck by the meekness of St Stephen, whose martyrdom is related in all its glory in the Acts of the Apostles. As he was being stoned, St Stephen cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”

A young man filled with the Holy Spirit

Stephen was one of the first to follow the Apostles. It is believed that he was either Greek, or a Jew educated in Greek culture. What is certain is that he was greatly appreciated by the community in Jerusalem that his name appears first among the seven men chosen as deacons to assist the Apostles in their mission. A man “filled with faith and the Holy Spirit,” we worked wonders and miracles – but some members of the synagogue stirred up the people against him, with the elders and scribes saying he had blasphemed against Moses and against God. In the days following Pentecost, Stephen was hauled before the Sanhedrin, and accused by false witnesses of preaching that Jesus would “destroy this place and change the customs that Moses handed down to us.”

Martyrdom and prayer for his persecutors

Saint Stephen then gave a speech – the longest recorded in the Acts of the Apostles – in which he reviewed the history of salvation. God, he said, had prepared for the coming of Jesus, the Righteous One, but the leaders of the people had resisted the Holy Spirit, just as their fathers had persecuted the prophets. Stephen concluded his speech with the words, “Behold, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” This final proclamation cost him dearly. With a loud cry, those present cast him out of the city “and began to stone him.”

The Acts of the Apostles says that among those who approved of Stephen’s execution was Saul, who persecuted the Christians, but later became the Apostle of the Gentiles – St Paul. As he breathed his last, St Stephen, in imitation of Jesus, prayed that God might receive his spirit, and prayed for forgiveness for his murderers.

Devotion to St Stephen

The place of St Stephen’s martyrdom is traditionally identified as being close to the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem, where today there is a church dedicated to the martyred deacon. Christians immediately felt a great devotion to St Stephen, a devotion that only grew when his relics were re-discovered in the early part of the 5th century. His life and martyrdom are portrayed in countless works of art. Stephen is traditionally pictured with the palm of martyrdom, or with stones that show how he died.