The story of St Stephen’s martyrdom is found with the Acts of the Apostles. St Stephen was one of the Church’s first deacons and also, the first Christian to die for the faith. He helped to convert many new disciples, but his death also led to a great persecution of the Church.
The Book of Acts says that the apostles appointed seven men as their assistants, or ‘deacons’, to allow them to focus more on prayer and preaching. St Stephen, who was one of the chosen seven, is described as “a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit” (Acts 6:5). He worked many miracles and spoke so powerfully in public that nobody could argue with him.
His opponents in the synagogue had him brought before the Jewish Council, to answer false accusations that he had said blasphemous things about God and Moses. When asked about these allegations, St Stephen defended himself. He gave a long speech to the Council about how God had intervened throughout the history of Israel, from Abraham to King Solomon.
St Stephen also said that the coming of Christ had long been predicted by the prophets. He argued that just as the Jewish leaders had previously persecuted and killed the prophets, they had now repeated this crime in the murder of Jesus Christ. Then looking skyward, St Stephen said: “Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!”
This enraged his listeners, who considered this to be blasphemy. Shouting aloud, they rushed at him and dragged out of the city to be stoned to death. When they were stoning him he prayed: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then falling on his knees, he cried out with a loud voice: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell down dead.
Preaching about St Stephen, Pope Benedict XVI noted the importance of forgiveness in his story. He said: “Nailed to the cross, Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Likewise, Stephen “knelt down and cried with a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them’” (Acts 7:60). Stephen is therefore a martyr, which means witness, because he does as Jesus did. Indeed, true witnesses are those who act as He did: those who pray, who love, who give, but above all those who forgive, because forgiveness, as the word itself says, is the highest expression of giving.”
The pope went on: “We could ask, however, what good is it to forgive? Is it merely a good deed or does it bring results? We find an answer in the very martyrdom of Stephen. Among those for whom he implores forgiveness there is a young man named Saul; this man persecuted the Church and tried to destroy her (cf. Acts 8:3). Shortly thereafter Saul becomes Paul, the great saint, the apostle of the people. He has received Stephen’s forgiveness. We could say that Paul is born by the grace of God and by Stephen’s forgiveness.”
This magnificent stained glass window of St Stephen is found with St Mary’s the Mount, in Walsall. Dating to 1909, it pictures St Stephen’s final speech before his martyrdom. Reflecting his vocation, St Stephen is portrayed in the traditional vestments of a deacon. The window is part of a set that was produced by the local Hardmans firm.
St Stephen is flanked by six English martyrs from the time of King Henry VIII who also died for their faithfulness to Christ. Surrounding the saint we see St John Fisher, St Edmund Campion, St Cuthbert Mayne, St Thomas More, St Adrian Fortescue and an unidentified martyr. They represent Christians from all walks of life.
At the top of the window, angels hover with palm branches, which are symbols of victory (cf Revelation 7:9). Since he was a man “filled with the Holy Spirit” (7:55), we see the Spirit descending on St Stephen in the form of a dove. At the base, two more angels hold a scroll featuring the dying words of St Stephen, “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.” (7:59)
See the full image:
Detail of the Tudor martyrs:
Detail of the angels with the scroll:
Where to find this work of art
St Mary’s the Mount, Walsall
Read the relevant passage