The Martyrdom of St. Stephen
It is the end of a year, the twilight of December and these few days in the Church’s calendar could be called the Days of the Innocents. Starting on December the twenty-seventh, our Holy Orthodox Church commemorates a series of feast days remembering the blood of martyrs shed for Christ. The first day, we commemorate the Protomartyr Stephen. The Deacon Stephen is remembered in the Church as the first Christian martyr, which is technically correct in that he was stoned to death after Pentecost (Acts 6 & 7). St. Stephen spoke to the people of Israel summarising the fulfilment of the promise of God in the person of Jesus, who had been crucified. Stephen was forthright and pronounced Jesus “the Righteous One of Israel”, identifying Him as the Messiah. The enraged the crowd attacked Stephen and stoned him. With his eloquence, St. Stephen used Jewish history to confirm Jesus as the Anointed One. It is declaration of faith and his sacrifice, which we commemorate some two thousand years later.
Lost in the celebration of Saint Stephen are two martyrs of the Iconoclastic Controversy. Sts. Theodore and Theophanes Graptoi, who first suffered branding on their faces with a poem ridiculing their support for icons. They knew that Christ had lived as truly God and truly Man here on earth. They endured because they affirmed Christ’s Incarnation by their support of the Holy Icons. Imprisoned with St. Methodios the Confessor, the brothers died because of the belief in Christ Born for humanity.
The calendar then calls to our attention, the “Twenty-Thousand Holy Martyrs of Nicomedia.” In 302 A.D. these devout Christians celebrating the Feast of the Nativity According to the Flesh of Our Lord, God and Saviour Jesus Christ were burned to death within their church. Can you imagine, twenty-thousand willing to die at one time for their faith. For us the number is mind boggling, yet we have experienced greater numbers of martyrs in the last decades; we have witnessed unknown Christian martyrs in the gulags and Communist prisons across Eastern Europe. Last week, we saw His All Holiness, Bartholomew 1 and his dwindling flock in Constantinople, revealed as living confessors for the faith. Nonetheless, twenty-thousand martyrs at one time still evokes wonder and awe in our hearts.
There is no more poignant feeling in the hearts of humanity than the thought of children suffering. Each of us have been touched by the vision of one child in pain or one child needlessly afflicted. Just a few days ago, we celebrated the birth of one Holy Child for whom the world had waited for generations. This little child born, in a cave, is born for the world’s salvation. With His coming, the world has discovered Light, but darkness is stubborn; and does not retreat willingly. The blood of fourteen-thousand innocent children in and around Bethlehem is testimony to this darkness. These babes, martyrs for Christ, were a glimpse into Christian history. The Church is watered by the blood of innocence. Only a short time from the joy of His Birth, we are faced with bitter weeping of so many deaths. This dichotomy has been repeated all to many times in history. The lives lost for the Saviour are beyond counting. In each age men, women and innocent children have followed His footsteps, taken up their cross and obeyed His commandment of love. “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” ( John 15, 13) Additionally, we celebrate the commemoration of all the Christians who have died of starvation, of thirst, of cold, by the sword and by every other kind of violent death. The memory of these Christians, who died from hunger, thirst, by sword and freezing is remembered even though, we don’t have record of their names; God knows these martyrs . Their synaxis is served in the temple of the Theotokos in Chalcopratiya (in Constantinople) where the holy ark with the sash of the Most Holy Theotokos was placed. As we see across the ages, millions of Christians have looked to the heavens and uttered the prayer of St. Stephen: “Lord Jesus, receive my Spirit.” (Acts 7, 59)
So as we begin a new year, we do so with the examples of the martyrs to give us courage so that we can face the unknown. Yet, this unknown will not have darkness, because the Light of the world has been born in a cave and banished darkness for all time! Christ is Born! Glorify Him!!
The Slaughter of the Innocents