On the Feast of St. Stephen

Happy Feast of St. Stephen, sisters! And, to those of you in the UK or countries historically connected to it, happy Boxing Day!

Wait a second, you might be thinking to yourself. What does one of these things have to do with the other? What could the first Christian martyr have to do with a British bank holiday? How would the patron Saint of deacons and altar servers have anything to do with boxes?

Or maybe you’re wondering why you’ve now got that weird Christmas carol, “Good King Wenceslas” going through your head.

Fear not, sister. I’m here to tie it all together for you today. Sound good? Let’s go.

Who Was St. Stephen?

St. Stephen was, like I said, the first martyr of the early Christian Church. But let’s rewind a bit. Who was he and how did he get there?

After Jesus’ Ascension into Heaven, the fledgling Church was being led and formed by the Apostles. Signs and wonders were being performed. Peter and friends were repeatedly brought before the Sanhedrin and being set free again. Disciples were selling their property in order to build the Church and communities were being formed.

In the midst of all this, the Greek-speaking members of the community came to the Apostles and said that their widows were not being well looked after. So, in order that they be able to continue the work that they needed to do, the Apostles decided to appoint helpers, as it were. They chose seven men, of whom Stephen was the first.  They laid hands upon them and blessed them, thus making them the first ordained deacons of the Church.

Stephen the Deacon

Stephen was “a man filled with faith and the Holy Spirit” (Acts 6:5). As the archdeacon (or lead deacon), he was “filled with grace and power, was working great wonders and signs among the people” (Acts 6:8).

People from all backgrounds came to discuss and debate with Stephen, but none could stand against his powerful, God-given wisdom and spirit. Ultimately, this led them to going to the Sanhedrin and falsely accusing Stephen of blasphemy.

Stephen the Martyr

The trial and death of St. Stephen is remarkable not only in that his is the death of the first Christian martyr, but in how closely related it is to that of Christ’s.

Stephen is brought before the Sanhedrin on charges of blasphemy, like Jesus was.  When he was asked if the charges against him were true, like Jesus, he did not answer them directly. Instead, he went on to give the longest continuous speech in the entire Bible (Acts 7:2-53).

When he was finished, Stephen was blessed with a vision of Jesus standing at the right hand of God in Heaven and told the crowd what he saw. Those who were against him would have none of it, though, and cried out in loud voices and began to stone him to death.

At the very end, and in an echo of the Savior whom he loved, he asked the Lord to receive his spirit. Then he said, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” and died (Acts 7:59-60).

St. Stephen is the patron Saint of altar servers, bricklayers, casket makers and, of course, deacons.

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The Boxing Day Connection

I’m going to attempt to combine St. Stephen, Good King Wenceslas, and Boxing Day. Wish me luck.

“Good King Wenceslas looked out on the feast of Stephen.” Well, King W was actually a Bohemian duke who lived in the 10th century. He was, however, a good and benevolent man and, according to the Christmas carol, when he went out that day it was to give alms to the poor.

Boxing Day is a tradition that started in the 800s. While now it is looked at merely as a day off of work after Christmas, it actually began as the day when the alms boxes (or poor boxes) in parishes were opened and the alms distributed to the poor.

St. Stephen’s ministry came to be because widows needed help. And who were the widows in the cultural history of the early church? Usually the poorest and least able to care for themselves.

So… St. Stephen helped the poor, so did King Wenceslas, and so do the alms boxes at Church. Ta-da!

How can we celebrate St. Stephen AND Boxing Day?

Here are just a few suggestions for your celebration:

  • Send a Christmas card (or gift box?) to your deacons at church to thank them for their faithful service to those in need.
  • Box up any extra non-perishable food items you may have and deliver them to your local food pantry.
  • Make a donation to the poor box at your parish (or to another worthy cause).
  • Thank an altar server after Mass with a box of Christmas cookies.

Merry Christmas, sisters! In honor of St. Stephen, may we always remember those who have less than we do by our actions and in our prayers. And may we be so filled with the Holy Spirit that we, too, someday see Jesus standing at the right hand of God.

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Beth Williby is a regular contributor to the BIS blog. She is a mom of four pretty amazing humans and has been married to her college sweetheart for twenty years. She does her best praying through singing and feeding the people she loves. Having grown up in the Midwest, she now calls Northeast Florida home. You can find out more about her here.

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