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Saint Stephen in Glory (detail) (1601)
by Giacomo Cavedone
Saint Stephen in Glory (detail) (1601)
by Giacomo Cavedone
Saint Stephen (Koine Greek: Στέφανος, Stephanos; sometimes spelled "Stephan"), the protomartyr of Christianity, was a deacon in the early church at Jerusalem who was stoned to death by a mob following a dispute with members of a synagogue. His martyrdom was witnessed by Saul of Tarsus (later renamed Paul), a Pharisee who would later convert to Christianity and become an apostle.
Stephen is venerated as a saint in the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Oriental Orthodox and Eastern Orthodox Churches. Stephen's name is derived from the Greek language Stephanos, meaning "crown". Traditionally, Stephen is invested with a crown of martyrdom; he is often depicted in art with three stones and the martyrs' palm. In Eastern Christian iconography, he is shown as a young, beardless man with a tonsure, wearing a deacon's vestments, and often holding a miniature church building or a censer. Rembrandt depicted his martyrdom in his work The Stoning of Saint Stephen.
In Chapter 6 of The Acts of the Apostles, Stephen was among seven men of the early church at Jerusalem appointed to serve as deacon. However, after a dispute with the members of a synagogue, he is denounced for blasphemy against God and Moses (Acts 6:11) and speaking against the Temple and the Law. Stephen is tried before the Sanhedrin. His defense is presented as accusing the Jews of persecuting the prophets who had spoken out against the sins of the nation:
He is condemned and stoned to death by an infuriated mob, which is encouraged by Saul of Tarsus, later to be known as the Paul the Apostle. After his own conversion to Christianity, Paul makes reference to witnessing Stephen's martyrdom in his writings.
Saint Stephen's hagiography is included in Jacobus de Voragine's Golden Legend. De Voragine's version of the legend begins with an etymology from Isidore of Seville's Etymologies: Stephen (from Greek stephanos, "crown") also comes from the Hebrew word for "pattern" [Hebrew "tabniyth"?] since he was the first martyr of the New Testament, he set the pattern for suffering in Christ. He adds etymologies from other sources: Or his name comes from strenue fans, "speaking strongly," because of his manner of speaking and his religious doctrines. Or it comes from strenue stans, "laudably standing" or fans anibus, "instructing and ruling over old women." Thus, according to de Voragine, "Stephen is a crown because he is first in martyrdom, a norm by his example in suffering and his way of life, a zealous speaker in his praiseworthy teaching of the widows."
The version in the Golden Legend proceeds to depict Stephen, in keeping with the Biblical account, as one of seven deacons appointed by the Apostles to appease the widows among the Greek-speaking Christians of the Church in Jerusalem. It goes on to tell how, jealous of Stephen's success in his ministry to his fellow Jews, the Jewish authorities conspire to bring him down. First, they attempt to defeat him by way of argument, but are unsuccessful since the Holy Spirit enlightens Stephen with divine wisdom. Next, they bring false witnesses, who accuse him of blaspheming against God, Moses, the Law and the Temple. Aided by an angel, Stephen refutes every point, a refutation recounted in some detail. Finally, they try torture; still, Stephen attempts to convert them by inciting shame and fear in them, and, showing his love for them, he prays for his opponents as they stone him to death.
The miraculous revelation of the whereabouts of the tomb of Stephen in AD 415 was embodied in a Revelatio Sancti Stephani written in the first person, that was translated into Latin and prefaced by a letter from Avitus, a literary priest of Braga. Lucian of Kfargamla wrote to the churches of East and West announcing the discovery of the tomb of St Stephen, together with that of Nicodemus (see John 3) and the Rabbi Gamaliel, member of the Sanhedrin and uncle of Nicodemus (Acts 5:34-39), and of one of his two sons, Abibos.
The letter begins thus: "Lucian... priest of the church of God in Kfargamla, in the territory of Jerusalem, to the holy church and to all the saints who are in Christ Jesus in the whole world, greetings in the Lord." Lucian continues: on 3 December 415, while he was sleeping in the baptistery of his church, he had a vision of a man, tall, dressed in priestly vestments and a mantle covered with jewels and with the sign of the cross, who said to him: 'Go to the city of Elia (i.e. Jerusalem) and say to the bishop John: "How long are we to remain closed up? When are you going to open us up?" It is absolutely necessary that during your service as bishop you bring to light our mortal remains, which lie abandoned and forgotten. I am not so much worried about myself, as about those who are buried with me, who are saints and worthy of honour.' Upon being asked who he was, the personage replied: 'I am Gamaliel, teacher of Paul, Apostle of Christ, and I used to teach the Law at Jerusalem. Next to me lies Stephen, who for his faith in Christ was stoned to death by the Jews and by the priests of Jerusalem, outside the Northern Gate from which a path leads to the valley of Kedron. There the body of Stephen, by order of the wicked leaders of the city, was left exposed day and night without being buried, that it might be devoured by animals. Nevertheless, by the will of God, no animal touched it, no ferocious animal, no bird, no dog. I, Gamaliel, who admired Stephen greatly and wanted to join him in his faith, sent my servants in secret to carry the body of Stephen on my cart to my property at Kfargamla, which means "property of Gamaliel", 20 miles [about 30 km] from the city. I told them that he should be buried in my tomb and that they should buy whatever was necessary for the burial, at my expense.' Gamaliel went on to explain that the one buried next to Stephen was his nephew Nicodemus who was baptized by Peter and John (whom he later defended) and who had therefore to suffer persecutions by the Jews. Finally he spoke of his son Abibos who together with him had embraced Christianity, while the other son and his wife remained Hebrews and were buried in the native place of his wife.
Gamaliel appeared twice more to Lucian, because Lucian wanted to be sure that the vision had come from God and that he was not being deceived. In the third apparition, Lucian was severely rebuked for his incredulity. He then decided to search for the tomb, and found it not far from the church near which he was living. The remains of the four persons, Stephen, Nicodemus, Gamaliel and his son Abibos, were carried to Jerusalem on orders of Bishop John and deposited in the Mother Church of Hagia Maria Sion Abbey (or Dormition Abbey on Mount Sion), the church of the Cenacle. Lucian had to be satisfied with some relics, conserved in a monument of mausoleum, which Bishop John constructed to console him for his loss.
In 1916, the Salesians of Don Bosco at Beit Jimal Monastery (Bet Gemal) discovered a mosaic floor during excavations for a small construction. Fr Maurizio Gisler, a Swiss Benedictine monk of the Dormition Abbey on Mount Sion, Jerusalem, gave his opinion that the mosaics belonged to a Byzantine Church of the 5th century.
In 614 the Persians under Khosrau II destroyed all the churches of Palestine, except the Church of the Nativity at Bethlehem, because of the representations of the three Magi, dressed as Persians, on the facade. The church at Kfargamla was also destroyed and, as happened to many other historical or biblical sites of the Old and New Testaments, it was soon forgotten, its memory vanished.
The Salesians and Fr Gisler, in 1916, knowing the letter of Lucian, immediately made the connection between Kfargamla and Bet Gemal, with the word 'Bet' (house) in place of 'Kfar' (village, settlement). The distance, 30 km, corresponded to that indicated by Lucian. Convinced of having found the tombo of St Stephen, the Salesians built a church over the mosaics in 1930, of the same dimensions as the Byzantine church, and called it the "Church of St Stephen." Not all, however, accepted this identification of Kfar Gamla with Bet Gemal. The greatest opposition came from the Dominicans (Fr Lagrange, Fr Abel, etc.) of the École Biblique of Jerusalem, who were supporting another locality, Jammal, 30 km north of Jerusalem.
In 1999, Fr Andrzej Strus, a Salesian from Poland, professor at the Salesian Pontifical University (UPS), Rome, began archaeological excavations at a site called Jiljil, also itself on the Salesian property at Bet Gemal, about 300 metres from the new Church of Stephen. He found the remains of a circular structure, which had last served as a winepress. However, its original use appeared to be different, because the structure was very well built, with precise Byzantine measures. Fr Strus proposed that it was a funeral monument, a mausoleum, built in honour of an important person or a saint. He believed that this circular structure (Stephen means 'crown' in Greek) was the monument that John, Bishop of Jerusalem, had constructed at Kfargamla, to house the relics of St Stephen, when the body was carried back to Jerusalem. Strus supplies arguments for the transformation of Kfar gamla into Bet Gemal. Strus concludes: "If the identification of Bet Gemal with Kaphar Gamla is correct, Kh. El-Jiljil could be the most probable place where one needs to search for the tomb of St Stephen and for the remnants of his first memorial."
In 2003, near this circular structure was found a stone architrave or lintel with a tabula ansata. A tabula ansata on a lintel indicates that there was something written or carved on this. The writing was, however, indecipherable. However, Fr Puech, expert in ancient writing from the Ecole Biblique, identified the writing and published an article in Revue Biblique. The writing ran: "DIAKONIKON STEPHANOU PROTOMARTYROS." Diakonikon means a place for conserving relics. This is therefore solid evidence for identifying Bet Gemal with the ancient Kfar Gamla, where St Stephen was buried.
|Deacon and Protomartyr|
|Feast||26 December (Western)|
27 December (Eastern)
|Attributes||stones, dalmatic, censer, miniature church, Gospel Book, martyr's palm, orarion|
|Patronage||casket makers; deacons; Altar Servers; headaches; horses; masons;Serbia|
In Western Christianity, 26 December is called "St. Stephen's Day", the "feast of Stephen" mentioned in the English Christmas carol "Good King Wenceslas". It is a public holiday in many nations that were historically Catholic, Anglican or Lutheran: Austria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Luxembourg, Slovakia, Poland, Italy, Germany, Finland. In Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United Kingdom, the day is celebrated as "Boxing Day". In Catalonia (though not elsewhere in Spain), it is rendered as Sant Esteve and is a bank holiday. In France, the day of Saint Étienne is a bank holiday in the Alsace-Moselle region, but not elsewhere. In the Philippines Islands, Ligao City, Albay and Tuguegarao City, Cagayan both celebrate a fiesta on this day in honor of St. Stephen Protomartyr, its patron saint. In the Republic of Ireland it is Wren's Day, when children carry a wren from house to house, asking for money.
The Republika Srpska claims Saint Stephen as its patron saint. The Republika was proclaimed on 9 January 1992 (December 27, Saint Stephen's Day, on the Julian calendar observed by Orthodox Christians), and that date is observed as a national holiday known as "Republic Day".
In the current norms for the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church, the feast is celebrated at the Eucharist, but, for the Liturgy of the Hours, is restricted to the Hours during the day, with Evening Prayer being reserved to the celebration of the Octave of Christmas.
The General Roman Calendar used to include a feast on 3 August of the Invention of the Relics of St Stephen — "Invention," (Latin: inventio), meaning "finding" or "discovery" — to commemorate the finding of St Stephen's relics during the reign of Emperor Honorius. In the Tridentine Calendar, this feast was celebrated as a "Semidouble", a rank that it lost in 1955, when Pope Pius XII reduced it to the rank of "Simple". It was one of the second feasts of a single saint removed from the calendar by Pope John XXIII in 1960, and, while it is celebrated by those traditionalist Catholics who observe earlier versions of the Roman calendar, it is not celebrated by those who, in accordance with Pope Benedict XVI's motu proprio, Summorum Pontificum, observe the 1962 calendar.
In the Eastern Orthodox Church and those Eastern Catholic Churches which follow the Byzantine Rite, Saint Stephen's feast day is celebrated on December 27. This day is also called the "Third Day of the Nativity". In the Oriental Orthodox Churches (eg. Syrian, Indian) the St.Stephen's Day is observed on January 8.
In India, the Feast of Saint Stephen is celebrated in the former Portuguese colony of Goa, where Santo Estêvão Island is named after him. Santo Estêvão Church on the island of Jua was built in 1759 (see image).
The Eastern Orthodox Church still celebrates the discovery of the saint's relics on 15 September and the translation of his relics on 2 August. The September feast celebrates the discovery of Stephen's relics in 415, after which they were solemnly transferred to a church built in his honor in Jerusalem. Later, during the reign of Theodosius the Younger, the relics were transported to Constantinople, the event commemorated in August. The 4 January marks the commemoration of the "Synaxis of the 70 Apostles". Since Stephen is included in these 70 Apostles mentioned in the "Acts of the Apostles", he is also remembered on that day.
Many churches are named in honor of Saint Stephen, but there was no official "Tomb of St Stephen" until 415. When Christian pilgrims were traveling in large numbers to Jerusalem, a priest named Lucian said he had learned by a vision that the tomb was in Caphar Gamala, some distance to the north of Jerusalem.
Gregory of Tours reported that the intercession of Stephen preserved an oratory dedicated to him at Metz, in present-day France. His relics were preserved when the oratory was left standing, after Huns burned the remainder of the city on Easter Eve, 451.
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