How to Live, How to Die: A Sermon on the Feast of St. Stephen

In the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen
Christ is Born! Glorify Him!

Today, as we continue in the celebration of Nativity, looking ahead to the New Year and Holy Theophany – a season celebrating the light which is Christ, coming into the world and sanctifying it – we also have the great joy of celebrating the patron Saint of our community, St. Stephen the First Martyr.

In the Orthodox Church we do not name our temples, our communities after our location. We’re not Crawfordsville Orthodox Church or Whitlock Avenue Orthodox Church. We don’t name our temples and communities numerically – as in, First Orthodox Church. We also don’t name it whatever we feel like. We have a patron, or rather, we are given a patron.

A patron saint is something we should take seriously. A patron is quite different from, say, a mascot – we’re not “Team Stephen”. But what we are given with a patron is a person, a life that we should consider regularly, and that, as we grow in Christ, perhaps we will grow closer to – maybe in ways we don’t even know or can’t see. It should be our goal, as a community to begin to shine with the same character of our patron.

And so, to do this, we should learn about our patron, read the account of his life and martyrdom, get to know him. It is also helpful to look at how the Church has celebrated the memory of our patron, St. Stephen. And it is a rich history, both in the east and the west.

As we know, St. Stephens Feast is part of the 12 days of Christmas, meaning, the days after the Feast of Nativity, leading up to Theophany. Traditionally the Nativity Fast, or Advent, was the time given to prepare one’s heart for what God gives us at the Incarnation of Jesus Christ in the Flesh. The 12 days after Christmas then become focused on what we can do to share that Light that was given to us.

So St. Stephens feast became a day of giving, which makes sense because of Stephens calling as the first deacon, and the original vocation of the deacon was to make sure the widows and those in need were helped by the church. Deacons organized and distributed alms.

Does anyone know the song Good King Wenceslas? It was written in the 19th century, but is about a 10th century Saint, King and Martyr. The carol begins:

“Good King Wenceslas looked out, on the Feast of Stephen, When the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even; Brightly shone the moon that night, tho’ the frost was cruel, When a poor man came in sight, gath’ring winter fuel.”

So the “Feast of Stephen” was kept as a day of giving. It shows up in stories about this 10th century Duke of Bohemia – St. Wenceslas, whose story became well loved in Britain, where the story of his generosity to the poor was legendary. One account of his life describes him as “rising every night from his noble bed, with bare feet and only one chamberlain, he went around to God’s churches and gave alms generously to widows, orphans, those in prison and afflicted by every difficulty, so much so that he was considered, not a prince, but the father of all the wretched.”
Even the tradition of Boxing Day in England, the day after Christmas, which involves lots of traditions of boxing up meals, clothes, etc. to take to the poor has its origins on the keeping of St. Stephens Day when churches would put out metal boxes to collect alms for the poor.

So part of the character of Stephen, our patron, is rooted in his calling as a deacon, a servant to those in need. We could say that this part of Stephen’s legacy is connected with how he lived. We also know how Stephen lived by the fact that he was called first to the ministry of deacon, meaning that he fulfilled the prerequisites, as St. Paul tells us: “In the same way, deacons are to be worthy of respect, sincere, not indulging in much wine, and not pursuing dishonest gain. They must keep hold of the deep truths of the faith with a clear conscience.” St. Stephen could be counted on to do the work of distributing alms because he was a man of high character.

But the other thing that is central to the church’s remembrance of Stephen might seem a bit dark, but, simply put – he is also, perhaps even primarily remembered by how he died. It’s in the very name of our Church – St. Stephen the First Martyr. Not St. Stephen the Most Popular, not St. Stephen the Most Successful, but St. Stephen the First Martyr. And he was martyred in a brutal way – stoning is terrible – if you’ve read accounts in books like Half the Sky – it is hard to dwell on very long once you have that image in your mind – physically it’s a painful and brutal way to be killed.

The Church puts Stephen’s death right out there, St. Stephen the First Martyr, and does not shy away from it. But it’s important to note, though, that our church is not called St. Stephen the Murdered, or St. Stephen the Killed – but Martyred, because it is the way Stephen dies – much like our Lord – in fact imitating our Lord even to the point of forgiving his killers which reveals something profound. In the moment of his death, Stephen is revealed as a new kind of man, a man whose face shines like the sun, in glory, even at this moment which otherwise should be one of great horror. In our icons we sometimes depict a scene where a crowd is picking up stones to throw at Stephen, but we do not depict him bloodied, bruised, defeated. No, he is shown glorified, filled with life, victorious even, a witness to the Light that has come into the world.

Of course St. Stephen bears witness by his words. His eloquent speech to the Sanhedrin lays things out beautifully – he knows what he believes. But his greatest witness is less in what he says, what arguments he makes, but rather how he does it – who he is. It is in the way the light of Christ, the life of the Holy Spirit shows through him – even showing in his face. He is a different kind of man. He is not just a man who is able to eloquently argue. Not even just a man who has proclaimed the correct doctrine. He is a new man indeed, as St. Paul describes “who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him.”

So how St. Stephen lived – as one who served others – and how St. Stephen died – as a witness to the “new man” filled with the Holy Spirit – both of these are worthy of our continuing to grow towards – and are both part of the one in the same life in Christ.

What does this mean for us, who have St. Stephen as our patron, proclaimed on the sign that sits by the road, telling people in this community who we are? We know of course that we are called to be Christ in the midst of our community – our town – but if we think about it we are also called to be St. Stephen to this town, or rather, by being St. Stephen to our community, our town, we can bear witness to Christ, who Stephen imitated. It’s a high calling indeed, but it is a calling of life in the Holy Spirit, which is life abundant!

Our newly consecrated Bishop Paul, in his wonderful address on Friday night said this about what a bishop should be, and I think it connects to the call we all have as Christians, and maybe what it means to be Christ, be Stephen to our community. Bishop Paul spoke about the cross he was now called to bear – the ministry of serving a diocese. He said this:

“By the Grace of the Holy Spirit I need to carry this Cross with joy! People have enough burdens and difficulties to deal with in daily life. They need to see in the example of their Bishop one who sees the Cross not as a heavy burden that is carried with resentment, but as the light yoke for which Christ wants us to come to Him and give to us, so that we might find rest. In His ultimate voluntary act of self-surrender, the Cross, Christ was motivated by the joy set before Him: He offered Himself on behalf of everyone and everything to call us to repentance and to bring us into His Kingdom. That was His Joy!”

When St. Stephen died, even in that moment of facing the scorn and brutality of those who were against him, the joy of the Spirit shone in him. Each day each of us face a great deal of difficulties, just as everyone around us is facing their own struggles and difficulties. There is no greater Christian witness than to show, even in the midst of difficulties that we really do have a hope, a joy, and life that surpasses all understanding. To serve in joy, to speak in love, to live in repentance, which is really the act of turning towards God daily, constantly to receive life, is exactly what our patron, St. Stephen did, in the way he lived, and the way he died. Let us strive to imitate him who imitated Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.