|St. Stephen the Protomartyr (Feast Day - December 27)|
By Protopresbyter Fr. George Papavarnavas
Saint Stephen belonged to the chorus of the Seven Deacons, who were commissioned by the Apostles to serve at "Agape" meals. Because the number of Christians in the early Church were constantly increasing, complaints were made by the Hellenists to the Jews because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution of food. The Apostles did not want to abandon the preaching of the Gospel to serve tables and for this reason they told the Christians to choose seven men, who were "full of the Holy Spirit", and they were appointed as deacons and ministered in that area.
The Protomartyr Stephen was distinguished among the deacons for his zeal and love for Christ, for the sake of which he was made worthy to be the first to spill his blood. Apart from ministering at the tables, he also engaged in preaching the Gospel, and by the Grace of God he did many and great miracles. Arrested by fanatical Jews, he was asked to give an answer before them, having been slandered for blaspheming Moses and God. His defense before the Sanhedrin of the Jews was a harsh criticism of their unbelief and crime committed in crucifying Christ. During his speech, while full of divine zeal and the Grace of the Holy Spirit, he was made worthy to see the glory of God. After his public confession that he saw the heavens opened and Christ standing at the right hand of God the Father, the Jews not only did not believe him, but they became even more enraged. They pounced on him like hungry wolves against their prey, and they stoned him with fury. Saint Stephen, in imitation of Christ on the Cross, was calm and peaceful, and he supplicated to Him that He not count this sin against his executioners. And while praying, he delivered his soul into the hands of God.
At this point it should be emphasized that his imitation of the life of Christ was not external, which is achieved by artificial methods and human resources, but it was the fruit of communion with God.
In his Apolytikion, the entire life and deeds of Saint Stephen are outlined:
For the struggles you endured for Christ God, a royal diadem crowns your head, O First Champion of Martyrs. For you refuted the folly of the Jews and beheld your Savior on the right of the Father. Ever beseech Him, therefore, for our souls.
We will try to analyze briefly two points of this wonderful hymn.
1. "For the struggles you endured for Christ God, a royal diadem crowns your head, O First Champion of Martyrs."
The Protomartyr Stephen faced in his life many difficulties, endured various temptations and underwent great sacrifices for the love of Christ and the spread of the word of His truth. He undertook the sacred service of the Gospel that he was commissioned with and exercised great responsibility, having previously purified his soul of the passions and richly accepted the Grace of the All-Holy Spirit. This last point is very important and shows the character of Orthodox missions, which must be preceded by a personal mission, namely the personal struggle for purification and sanctification, and then afterwards extend to a mission towards others. The blessed Elder Paisios "rejoiced when someone told him they wanted to be a missionary and he taught them how to be a correct missionary. He expressed the genuine Orthodox conception of mission, considering it necessary to begin the mission with themselves. They ought to first sanctify themselves, then sanctify others. Our self is the foundation of our missionary work. If it collapses, the entire work is in danger. Therefore, the challenge is for a person to receive Grace, to be sanctified. From that moment their essential mission begins" (Hieromonk Isaac, Life of Elder Paisios the Athonite, pp. 658-659 [Greek]).
2. "For you ... beheld your Savior on the right of the Father."
The unerring mouth of Christ said those sweetest words: "Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God." This has been verified constantly throughout the ages, because there always existed and always will exist until the Second Coming of Christ people like Saint Stephen.
Saint Stephen the Protomartyr, while speaking to the Jews of the Sanhedrin, saw the glory of God and therefore could theologize unerringly, as well as endure without complaint and peacefully his martyrdom, because both are identified with the empirical knowledge of God and organic communion with Him. "Nobody can endure martyrdom with only their own strength, no matter how strong a character they possess, because the testimony and martyrdom for Christ is a fruit of the vision of God" (Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos).
Of course, spiritual progress cannot be achieved from one day to another. Nobody can reach the higher stages of the spiritual life and taste the sweetness and joy of the living presence of God, unless they have previously been tested "as gold in a furnace" and endured "the heat of day and the frost of night" for the love of Christ, for "without pain, or praxis or theoria the soul cannot be corrected" (Great Canon). Praxis is the practical life, the struggle and effort to live the divine commandments and the purification of the passions, and theoria is the vision of the glory of God.
"Patience without self-pity and complaint, coupled with glorification and thanksgiving" is spiritual maturity and puts an individual within prospect of sanctification and salvation.
Source: Ekklesiastiki Paremvasi, "ΠΡΩΤΟΜΑΡΤΥΣ ΚΑΙ ΑΡΧΙΔΙΑΚΟΝΟΣ ΣΤΕΦΑΝΟΣ", January 2005. Translated by John Sanidopoulos.