On the Feast of Stephen

The Breviary begins today with this invitatory: “Come let us worship the newborn Christ, who has given the glorious crown to St. Stephen.” In the book of Acts, where we read about Stephen’s martyrdom, nothing suggests a connection to the newborn Christ in particular, but the fact that his feast day has been right after Christmas since the liturgical year first took shape led to the tradition that the three days after Christmas bring three “companions of Christ” around the crib to adore the infant God.

The three companions, according to a medieval commentary, represent the three kinds of martyrs. First we have Stephen, who was willing to die for Christ and was in fact killed; tomorrow we have St. John, who was willing to die for Christ but was not in fact killed; and then we have the Holy Innocents, who were in fact killed for Christ but were too young to be willing. Today’s invitatory connects the newborn Christ to the first kind of martyr. Tomorrow’s invitatory turns to the default invitatory used for every Apostle, but the invitatory for the Holy Innocents sounds like today’s: “Come, let us worship the newborn Christ, who crowns with joy these children who died for him.”

Stephen’s long speech before his martyrdom in Acts 7 makes a beautiful point for today’s celebration. He tells the story of how Moses tried to save his people once but was rejected by them; then Moses came a second time to save his people, and those who rejected him died in the wilderness. He connects this to Jesus, who came to save his people and was crucified by them; now, Stephen urges, do not reject him when he comes a second time, or things will go badly for you.

What does he mean, when Jesus comes a second time? The end of Acts 7 makes it clear. As Stephen falls under the stones, he says, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit”—an echo of what Jesus says on the cross in Luke 23:46. Then as Stephen dies, he says, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them”—an echo of what Jesus says from the cross in 23:34. In fact, that saying of Jesus is only recorded in Luke, suggesting that Luke recorded in order to help us see the connection to Stephen. Jesus comes a second time in his church, and in her martyrs—he comes in Stephen!—and woe to those who reject him at his second coming.

Various carols have been composed for the day. One well-known carol, composed around the year 1400, weaves Stephen’s martyrdom together with a legend often applied to other saints, and re-sets the martyrdom in King Herod’s court! The whole thing plays on the fact that Stephen’s feast is the day after Christmas:

St. Stephen was a clerk
In king Herodes hall
And served him of bread and cloth
As ever king befalle.

Stephen out of kitchen came
With boar’s head in hande,
He saw a star was fair and bright,
Over Bethlem stonde.

He cast adown the boar’s head
And went into the halle;
“I forsake thee, king Herod,
And thy werkes alle.

“I forsake thee, king Herod,
And thine werkes alle,
There is a child in Bethlem borne,
Is better than we alle.”

“What aileth thee, Stephen,
What is thee befalle?
Lacketh thee either meat or drink,
In king Herod’s hall?”

“Lacket me neither meat nor drink
In King Herod’s hall,
There is a child in Bethlem born,
Is better than we all.”

“What aileth thee, Stephen,
Art thou wode, or thou ginnest to brede?
Lacketh thee either gold or fee,
Or any rich weede?”

“Lacketh me neither gold nor fee,
Nor none rich weede,
There is a child in Bethlem born
Shall help us at our need.”

“That is all so sooth, Stephen,
All so sooth, I wiss,
As this capon crow shall,
That lyeth here in my dish.”

That word was not so soon said,
That word in that hall,
The capon crew, Christus natus est,
Among the lordes all.

Riseth up my tormentors,
By two, and all by one,
And leadeth Stephen out of town,
And stoneth him with stone.

Token they Stephen,
And stoned him in the way,
And therefore is his even,
On Christes owen day.

In my house, of course, the big song of the day is “Good King Wenceslaus,” who “looked out on the feast of Stephen.” The connection between Wenceslaus and Stephen is that Stephen was the first martyr in the universal Church while Wenceslaus was the first martyr of the church in Bohemia. This is my kids’ favorite carol, so in fact I have been hearing it daily since the beginning of Advent, often in the tiny voice of Tina the five-year-old:

“Good King Wenceslaus lucked out, on the feast of Stephen!”

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Author: Dr. Holmes

Dr. Jeremy Holmes teaches Theology at Wyoming Catholic College. He lives in Wyoming with his wife, Jacinta, and their eight children.

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