First of martyrs, thou whose name
Doth thy golden crown proclaim
… First like him in dying hour
Witness to almighty power;
First to follow where he trod
Through the deep Red Sea of blood;
First, but in thy footsteps press
Saints and martyrs numberless.
~Stephen is recollected in every martyrology from the Hieronymian (5th cent.) to the Legenda Aurea of Jacobus de Voragine and Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, and is celebrated in hymns such as this 18th-cent. St. Stephen’s Day anthem (translated from Latin in 1861)
Saint Stephen is remembered as the first Christian martyr, but he is likewise known for his devotion to the poor and needy. His sermons reflected his heart of passion and he was renowned for the spiritual power that flowed from his singular devotion to Jesus. This was undoubtedly noted by the Apostle Paul who was present at Stephen’s death, fully supporting his murderers. How that image must have resonated in Paul’s memory.
The word ‘martyr’ means ‘witness’, and as we continue to see countless people give their lives for their devotion to Christ, it certainly forces the question:
How much does Jesus mean to me?
When they heard these things they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed at him with their teeth. But he, being full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and said, “Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” Then they cried out with a loud voice, stopped their ears, and ran at him with one accord; and they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul. And they stoned Stephen as he was calling on God and saying, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he knelt down and cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not charge them with this sin.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.
Art: The Sermon of St. Stephen by Fra Angelico (1449)