The second day of Christmas is the Feast of St. Stephen, the First
Deacon, "a man full of faith, and of the Holy Ghost," whose story is
recounted in Acts 6-7. The Apostles laid hands on him and ordained him
with six others, and Stephen, "full of grace and fortitude, did great
wonders and signs among the people," and went to preach among the Jews,
some of whom "were not able to resist the wisdom and the spirit that
spoke" Other Jews, though, "suborned men to say, they had heard him
speak words of blasphemy against Moses and against God. And they
stirred up the people, and the ancients, and the scribes; and running
together, they took him, and brought him to the council. And they set
up false witnesses, who said: This man ceaseth not to speak words
against the holy place and the law."
In his disputation with the Jews, he spoke of Moses and the Prophets,
...hearing these things, they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed
with their teeth at him. But he [Stephen], being full of the Holy
Ghost, looking up steadfastly to heaven, saw the glory of God and Jesus
standing on the right hand of God. And he said: Behold, I see the
heavens opened and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God.
And they, crying out with a loud voice, stopped their ears and with one
accord ran violently upon him. And casting him forth without the city.
they stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet
of a young man, whose name was Saul. And they stoned Stephen, invoking
and saying: Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. And falling on his knees, he
cried with a loud voice, saying: Lord, lay not his sin to their charge:
And when he had said this, he fell asleep in the Lord. And Saul was
consenting to his death.
He was the very
first martyr of the Church Age, stoned to death by the Jews, including
Saul -- the future St. Paul. St Fulgentius of Ruspe gives us a
beautiful reflection on St. Stephen and on St. Paul, who murdered him
when he was still known as Saul:
by the power of his love, [Stephen] overcame the raging cruelty of Saul
and won his persecutor on earth as his companion in Heaven. In his holy
and tireless love he longed to gain by prayer those whom he could not
convert by admonition. Now at last, Paul rejoices with Stephen, with
Stephen he delights in the glory of Christ, with Stephen he exults,
with Stephen he reigns. Stephen went first, slain by the stones thrown
by Paul, but Paul followed after, helped by the prayer of Stephen.
This, surely, is the true life, my brothers, a life in which Paul feels
no shame because of Stephen's death, and Stephen delights in Paul's
companionship, for love fills them both with joy. It was Stephen's love
that prevailed over the cruelty of the mob, and it was Paul's love that
covered the multitude of his sins; it was love that won for both of
them the kingdom of Heaven.
Reading at today's Mass will be the Book of Acts 6:8-10; 7:54-59, and
the Gospel reading, Matthew 23:34-39, continues the theme of
persecution and the killing of prophets.
St. Stephen was the first Deacon, and because one of the Deacons' role
in the Church is to care for the poor, St. Stephen's Day is often the
day for giving food, money, and other items to servants, sevice
workers, and the needy (it is known as "Boxing Day" in some
English-speaking parts of the world, the word "box" used to refer to
alms boxes at churches, and to little boxes filled with foods, money,
and other gifts for the needy).
Fittingly, then, St. Wenceslaus came to be associated with
Stephen's Feast. The Christmas carol "Good King Wenceslaus," which uses
an old medieval melody -- that of a 13th century song about
springtime, "Tempus adest floridum" (click
here to hear melody in mp3 format) -- mentions this Feast as it
tells a tale of
charity. St. Wenceslaus was a Bohemian prince born ca. A.D. 903 during
a pagan backlash. He was persecuted by his mother, Drahomira, and his
brother because of their hatred for his Christianity, and was
eventually killed by his brother in front of the doors of the Church of
SS. Cosmas and Damian in A.D. 938. Many miracles have been attributed
to his intercession, and he is now the patron of Czechoslovakia (his
Feast is on 28 September). The lyrics to the carol are:
Wenceslaus looked out on the Feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even.
Brightly shone the moon that night, though the frost was cruel,
When a poor man came in sight, gathering winter fuel.
“Hither, page, and stand by me, if you know it, telling,
Yonder peasant, who is he? Where and what his dwelling?”
“Sire, he lives a good league hence, underneath the mountain,
Right against the forest fence, by Saint Agnes’ fountain.”
“Bring me food and bring me wine, bring me pine logs hither,
You and I will see him dine, when we bear them thither.”
Page and monarch, forth they went, forth they went together,
Through the cold wind’s wild lament and the bitter weather.
“Sire, the night is darker now, and the wind blows stronger,
Fails my heart, I know not how; I can go no longer.”
“Mark my footsteps, my good page, tread now in them boldly,
You shall find the winter’s rage freeze your blood less coldly.”
In his master’s steps he trod, where the snow lay dinted;
Heat was in the very sod which the saint had printed.
Therefore, Christian men, be sure, wealth or rank possessing,
You who now will bless the poor shall yourselves find blessing.
children the story of "Good King Wenceslaus," and remind them to think
of him when they see footprints in the snow...
An Irish custom on
this day concerns the wren's association with treachery, and, more
specifically, the ancient Irish folk tale of the wren betraying St.
Stephen by chattering and revealing his location as the Saint hid in a
bush. Not too long ago, sadly, the wren was hunted by boys on this day
-- not for food, but for "revenge." The boys -- called "Wren
Boys" or "Mummers" -- would blacken their faces or dress in straw
masks, hunt the tiny, loud bird, tie its body to a pole decorated with
holly and ribbons, and go door to door with the it, collecting money at
each house, which money which was later used to host a dance for the
entire town. Now this "Going on the Wren" hunting custom is
gone (thankfully), but a live, caged wren or a wren figurine serves the
purpose, most often in parades. Songs, of course, are sung, too. One
version of a Wren Song:
The wren, the
wren, the king of all birds
St. Stephen's Day was caught in the firs
Although he was little, his honor was great
Jump up me lads and give us a treat.
We followed the wren three miles or more
Three miles of more, three miles or more
Through hedges and ditches and heaps of snow
At six o'clock in the morning.
Rolley, Rolley, where is your nest?
It's in the bush that I love best
It's in the bush, the holly tree
Where all the boys do follow me.
As I went out to hunt and all
I met a wren upon the wall
Up with me wattle and gave him a fall
And brought him here to show you all.
I have a little box under me arm
A tuppence or penny will do it no harm
For we are the boys who came your way
To bring in the wren on St. Stephen's Day.
St. Stephen is
the patron of stone masons, those with headaches, and, curiously,
horses. The reason for this last is unknown, but this patronage is very
ancient, and in rural cultures and olden times, horses are/were
blessed, adorned, and taken out sleighing, and foods for horses were
blessed to be fed to them in times of sickness. St. Stephen is most
often represented in art at in deacon's vestments at his martyrdom,
with a pile of rocks, with a wounded head, etc.
A note about this day and the next and the next: each of the first
three days following the Feast of the Nativity commemorates a different
type of martyrdom, and by remembering each type of martyrdom that was
endured, you can remember the order of these Feasts:
- The Feast of
Stephen on the 26th recalls the highest class of martyrdom -- that
offered by both deed and the will -- or "martyr by will, love,
- The Feast of St.
John the Evangelist on the 27th recalls the second highest class of
martyrdom, a sort of dry martyrdom -- the martyrdom offered by those we
call "confessors," i.e., people who suffered for the Faith, would die
for the Faith, but, in fact, didn't have to. St. John was a martyr by
- The Feast of the
Holy Innocents on the 28th recalls the sort of martyrdom in deed, but
not of the will as they were too young to form such a desire. They were
martyrs by blood alone, but it is said that "that God supplied the
defects of their will by His own acceptance of the sacrifice."
that the term "martyr" is almost always used exclusively for those
who've actually died for the Faith, not for confessors .
On an historical note, the Feast of Stephen was once offered in honor
of all deacons, and the Feast of St. John was offered for all priests,
while the Feast of the Holy Innocents was offered for all choirboys and
students. Because older practices of the same time period were
associated with revelry and pranks, these clerical feasts came to be
associated with the same, and so many abuses crept in that these feasts
were known as the "Feasts of Fools." There came to be a "Feast of the
Ass," too, held in honor of the donkey that is so important to the
Christmas story and the Flight into Egypt. These were all finally
squelched (after many years of trying!).
Fulgentius of Ruspe (b. 468)
celebrated the birth in time of our eternal King. Today we celebrate
the triumphant suffering of His soldier. Yesterday our King, clothed in
His robe of flesh, left His place in the Virgin's womb and graciously
visited the world. Today His soldier leaves the tabernacle of his body
and goes triumphantly to heaven.
Our King, despite His exalted majesty, came in humility for our sake;
yet He did not come empty-handed. He gave of His bounty, yet without
any loss to Himself. In a marvelous way He changed into wealth the
poverty of His faithful followers while remaining in full possession of
His own inexhaustible riches. And so the love that brought Christ from
heaven to earth raised Stephen from earth ot heaven; shown first in the
King, it later shone forth in His soldier. His love of God kept him
from yielding to the ferocious mob; his love for his neighbor made him
pray for those who were stoning him. Love inspired him to reprove those
who erred, to make them amend; love led him to pray for those who
stoned him, to save them from punishment.
Love, indeed, is the source of all good things; it is an impregnable
defense, and the way that leads to heaven. He who walks in love can
neither go astray nor be afraid: love guides him, protects him, and
brings him to his journey's end.
My brothers, Christ made love the stairway that would enable all
Christians to climb to heaven. Hold fast to it, therefore, in all
sincerity, give one another practical proof of it, and by your progress
in it, make your ascent together.