Witnesses of the Word: St. Stephen the Protomartyr
In striving to be Modern Martyrs, there’s a lot to learn from the saints who have gone before us. What is it we can take from the lives of the martyrs and confessors that we can apply to our everyday life on campus? Well, a good place to start is at the beginning. St. Stephen the Protomartyr (it means he was the first one) who is commemorated on December 27th has a few lessons to share with us. You can read his entire story in Acts 6-7.
His purity was striking. Right before Stephen gives his account before the high priest and his council, we are told, “And gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel.” And just a little before that, Stephen is described as “full of grace and power.” Stephen’s first and primary witness to the world was his inner peace and his pure heart. Even as the council is looking for ways to destroy him, they can’t help but notice God’s grace radiating through him. This should be our first and primary goal in bearing witness to Christ: that we, too, shine from within with Christ’s love, grace, and power.
His authority was scriptural and ecclesial. When Stephen proceeds to speak on behalf of Christ, he doesn’t do so on his own authority, but instead, places his own experience and the gospel message into the context of the entire history of salvation, starting from God calling Abraham out of Ur. On the one hand, his authority relies on the evidence of Scripture, on the many stories he must have known from childhood that told of God’s work among the people of Israel. On the other hand, the way in which he frames that history is ecclesial, or community-oriented, in the sense that he places himself and his contemporaries and the events of their own day into that same scriptural history. He sees a unity in God’s works that stretches from the past and into the present. Likewise, when we are called upon to speak for Christ, we should know and rely on Scripture to give context to our own experience, and we should speak from the perspective not of ourselves, but of the Church, the community of saints beginning with Abraham and coming down to our own time. This is an inheritance we can claim as Orthodox that gives our witness a full authority–our own experience is confirmed and supported by the witness of Scripture and the great cloud of witnesses of the whole Body of Christ throughout history.
His response to abuse was forgiveness. As the stones started flying toward him, Stephen did more than just bear suffering with strength and fortitude. He kept his eyes on heaven and asked Christ for mercy upon his persecutors. Like Christ on the cross who asked the Father to forgive the ignorance of those who crucified Him, Stephen allowed himself to suffer innocently and did not hold the sin of his murderers against them. When we face rejection for our faith, abuse for our attempts at purity, or suffering when we bear witness to Christ, St. Stephen again is our model. We bear all things for the sake of Christ and do not hold sin against others. We do not pick up a stone and throw it back, either with real violence or with our words. Instead, we humbly ask God for His mercy upon those who defame Him (Him, not us) and assume the best of intentions of those who dismiss and reject us.
Holy Protomartyr and Saint Stephen, pray to God for us.