‘Good King Wenceslas looked out,’ we sing in the popular carol, ‘on the feast of Stephen’. Today is the feast of Stephen, perhaps the most under-observed feast in the calendar. Its proximity to the feast of the Nativity is intended to honour Stephen, the first person to suffer death for their faith in Jesus of Nazareth — but in practice this proximity means that most people, even seasoned churchgoers, are taking the day off.
Stephen, though, deserves more than a passing commemoration.
Stephen was a Greek-speaking Jew, described as ‘full of faith and the Holy Spirit’. In the earliest period of the development of the Church, when it had become too large for the Twelve to manage by themselves, he was chosen as one of seven men to look especially after the Greek speakers in the Church, and particularly to ensure that the widows received their share of daily bread.
The initial description of the role of Stephen and his six fellows is a servant ministry, and although not described as such, they are accounted as the first deacons.
But Stephen and the others were not limited to ensuring that the widows received their daily bread. Stephen did great wonders and signs, and disputed with other members of the synagogue. And so he was brought before the Council, and stoned to death.
In the Acts of the Apostles the author tells us two more things about Stephen. First, Stephen is given a lengthy speech in which he describes the great sweep of Jewish history, from Abraham onwards, all pointing towards the birth of Jesus, and in which he criticizes the leaders of the Jews for resisting the Holy Spirit, persecuting the prophets, and not keeping God’s law.
Secondly, the description of Stephen parallels that of Jesus in many ways: being filled with the Holy Spirit; seeing the Son of Man at the right hand of God, as Jesus promised he would be; commending his spirit to Jesus, as Jesus commended his to the Father; kneeling as Jesus did in Gethsemane and asking forgiveness for his persecutors.
Witnessing to Jesus by acting like Jesus in every way is thus seen by the author of Acts to be essential to the Christian life.