In the carol “Good King Wenceslas“, we sing that the good king went out to serve a peasant gathering firewood “on the feast of Stephen”. The feast of Stephen is the day after Christmas in the Western calendar [two days after Christmas on the Eastern calendar] and celebrates St. Stephen, the first martyr for Christ. In Acts, chapters 6 and 7, we read that Stephen was chosen to be a special servant of the Church in Jerusalem because he was full of faith and of the Holy Spirit. It was in the context of his role as a servant that he was enabled to do miracles among the people, and this drew attention to him both among those open to the Truth of Christ and among those opposed to it. The enemies of the Church soon had Stephen arraigned before a hostile court that threw him out of the city and put to death by stoning.
The proximity of the feast of St. Stephen to Christmas reminds us that the coming of the Prince of Peace is no guarantee of an untroubled life for his followers. Just the opposite in fact: Jesus promised his followers that they would have struggles, that they would have to pick up and carry crosses, just like him. St. Stephen’s example shows us that the way of martyrdom is the prototypical way of the Christian. And his love and grace for his persecutors reminds us of Christ’s own words on the Cross: “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.” Even before he was martyred in deed, Stephen was a martyr in his own will, giving himself over entirely to the service of the Church, making himself a true deacon (diakonos), which means servant. Full of the Holy Spirit, Stephen already had the martyr spirit; so should all those who follow Christ and have the Holy Spirit.
So in fact, Good King Wenceslas was truly honoring the example of St. Stephen on his feast day. There are other songs that honor St. Stephen in both his work as a deacon and his glorious martyrdom. Many of these songs make reference to the “crown of life” (1 Cor 9:24-27; Jame 1:12; Rev 2:10) — promised to all those who persevere to the end, especially martyrs — because of Stephen’s name (Στέφανος in Greek) which providentially means crown, honor, reward. These songs also often describe how the very grisly means of Stephen’s martyrdom are transformed into holy things, just like Christ transformed his brutish instrument of death into the Holy and Life-giving Cross.
O Captain of the Martyr Host (O qui tuo Dux martyrum)
O Captain of the Martyr Host!
O peerless in renown!
Not from the fading flowers of earth
Weave we for thee a crown.
The stones that smote thee, in thy blood
Made beauteous and divine,
All in a halo heavenly bright
About thy temples shine.
The scars upon thy sacred brow
Throw beams of glory round;
The splendours of thy bruised face
The very sun confound.
Oh, earliest Victim sacrificed
To thy dear Victim Lord!
Oh, earliest witness to the Faith
Of thy Incarnate God!
Thou to the heavenly Canaan first
Through the Red Sea didst go,
And to the Martyrs’ countless host,
Their path of glory show.
Erewhile a servant of the poor,
Now at the Lamb’s high Feast,
In blood-empurpled robe array’d,
A welcome nuptial guest!
To Jesus, born of Virgin bright,
Praise with the Father be;
Praise to the Spirit Paraclete,
Through all eternity.
Yesterday With Exultation
Yesterday, with exultation,
Join’d the world in celebration
Of her promised Saviour’s birth;
Yesterday the Angel-nation
Pour’d the strains of jubilation
O’er the Monarch born on earth;
But today o’er death victorious,
By his faith and actions glorious,
by his miracles renown’d,
See the Deacon triumph gaining,
‘Midst the faithless faith sustaining,
First of holy Martyrs found.
Onward, champion, falter never,
Sure of sure reward for ever,
Holy Stephen, persevere;
Perjured witnesses confounding,
Satan’s synagogue astounding
By thy doctrine true and clear.
Thine own Witness is in Heaven,
True and faithful, to thee given,
Witness of thy blamelessness:
By thy name a crown implying,
Meet it is thou shouldst be dying
For the crown of righteousness.
For the crown that fadeth never
Bear the torturer’s brief endeavour;
Victory waits to end the strife:
Death shall be thy life’s beginning,
And life’s losing be the winning
Of the true and better life.
Fill’d with God’s most Holy Spirit,
See the Heav’n thou shalt inherit,
Stephen, gaze into the skies:
There God’s glory steadfast viewing,
Thence thy victor-strength renewing,
Pant for thy eternal prize.
See, as worldly foes invade thee,
See how Jesus stands to aid thee,
Stands at God’s right hand on high:
Tell how open’d Heav’n is shown thee,
Tell how Jesus waits to own thee,
Tell it with thy latest cry.
As the dying martyr kneeleth,
For his murderers he appealeth,
For their madness griefing sore;
Then in Christ he sleepeth sweetly,
And with Christ he reigneth meetly,
Martyr first-fruits, evermore.
The most appropriate way to celebrate and honor the example of St. Stephen is to be charitable to everyone around you, seeking out ways you could serve people. Take a cue from Good King Wenceslas and keep your eyes open to notice anyone who needs help, and then be prepared to sacrifice you time, money, and will to go the extra mile in helping them. Sacrificing our wills makes us martyrs already. And if troubles, sufferings, or even persecution arises from those acts of charity, be ready to deal with them with grace, patience, and trust in God. Pray for us St. Stephen!
“Grant O Lord that in all our sufferings here upon earth for the testimony of thy Truth, we may steadfastly look up to heaven and by faith behold the glory that shall be revealed; and being filled with the Holy Spirit may learn to love and bless our persecutors by the example of thy first Martyr Saint Stephen; who prayed for his murderers to thee, O blessed Jesus, who standest at the right hand of God to succor all those that suffer for thee, our only Mediator and Advocate. Amen.” -Collect of the Feast of St. Stephen