The name Stephen is derived from the Greek Stephanos meaning crown.
Here is Saint Stephen, depicted by Carlo Crivelli in 1476 with three stones and the martyrs’ palm.
He is shown with the clerical tonsure, vested in a dalmatic and holding a Gospel Book in his right hand.
Some time after Jesus’ resurrection there was a complaint to the Apostles from the Hellenistic Jews, that their widows were not being taken care of as well as others of the faith. The Apostles decided that these responsibilities might be taken on by others in the community, so that their own time would be free for their spiritual tasks. They asked the Hellenists to choose seven from among them who would be prepared to take care of the task of assistance to the widows. Stephen was one of those chosen.
His work was marked by diligence and caring from the beginning and he soon made time to engage in more that the distribution of food and aid to the widows. He became engrossed in the ministry of Christ’s word and Stephen is recorded in Acts chapters six and seven as being outstanding in his faith and wisdom. Stephen preached the gospel according to the Apostles’ word and is recorded as also “working miracles”. However his work was not universally seen as good. It was not looked upon so well by the Hellenistic synagogue and he was taken before the Sanhedrin as a blasphemer.
Stephen replied to the charges by quoting the history of Israel and he verbally attacked the Jews for continuing the practices of their fathers. He continued his defense with the accusation that the Jews were responsible for death of the Messiah; his theme being that God’s presence cannot be localized. Christians were not just a sect of the old Israel but a new free people of God rejected by the Jews. Acts chapter six, verses fifteen through chapter seven, verse fifty three is fascinating reading.
His oratory did nothing for his defense, instead it offended the twenty three judges of the Sanhedrin and angered the Hellenistic Jews in attendance so much that he was seized and stoned. He died, praying, as our Saviour did, for his persecutor’s forgiveness. In so doing he became the first martyr of the church.
It is still questioned by the theologians as well as judicial intellectuals whether his death was legal execution or a vigilante mob killing. The Sanhedrin at the time had power over civil and criminal justice only up to a point. Where capital punishment was considered as a sentence, the case was given to the Roman procurator to decide. His decision was usually in accordance with the demands of the Sanhedrin, which in Jewish law had power of life and death. In Stephen’s case, it seems that the procurator, Pontius Pilate, whose residence was in Caesarea, was not aware of the crime and punishment or turned a blind eye to it.
One of the consequences of Stephen’s death was that it was a major factor in bringing Saul of Tarsus into the Church. However it was his defense speech to the Sanhedrin that was of greatest significance in that it was the beginning of a theological revolution in our early Church. The principles of the universal mission were clearly stated for the first time by Stephen. It is perhaps because of these philosophies that his name was chosen to grace our parish.