Friday, December 23, 2022

On the Feast of Stephen

Icon of the The Stoning of St. Stephen

It might seem odd to celebrate Saints’ days within the Octave of the Nativity, but the timing is deliberate. Immediately following Christmas Day are the feasts of several holy men known as the comites Christi, “the comrades of Christ.” As the name implies, these saints are somehow close to their Master and are thus distinguished by a certain nobility: the title of “count” is actually derived from the word comes. It was in function of this noble closeness that the Eastern churches once honored the Princes of the Apostles, Peter and Paul, on December 28.

During this same week the Western Church, on the other hand, honors St. Stephen (December 26), the first martyr in both act and desire and hence the first to be honored after Christmas; St. John the Evangelist (December 27), the disciple closest to Christ during the Last Supper; the Holy Innocents (December 28), close to the infant Jesus by their martyrdom; St. Thomas Becket (December 29), whose death at the hands of a Christian king on that day in 1170 so shocked Christendom that his feast day was given the privilege of being allowed to remain within the Christmas octave; and St. Sylvester (December 31), the Pope who lived to see the civic peace that ended the Roman persecutions and whose feast thus aptly gives voice to our prayers for the new civic year.

In this essay, let us turn our attention to the first count, Stephen.
A Model of Charity
St. Stephen, one of the first seven men ordained a deacon by the guidance of the Holy Spirit, is called the “Proto-Martyr,” for in being stoned to death by order of the Sanhedrin, he was the first disciple to voluntarily shed his blood for the Faith. (Acts 6, 5 - 7, 59) He is a model of that divinely-infused love known in the Christian tradition as agape or caritas, that gift of God which in English we call “charity.” Charity’s divine origin cannot be overemphasized, for it is by no human love that someone can follow the example of our Savior and forgive the men murdering him. Yet as St. Luke tells us, as Stephen was dying, he fell to his knees and cried out in a loud voice: “‘Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.’” (Acts 7, 59)
St. Stephen’s charity is not only a powerful example for us all but a cause for hope in obtaining his intercession. When St. Thomas More was responding to the newfangled heresies of Luther and Tyndale, which claimed the saints in Heaven did not want our prayers, he remarked:
We see that the nearer that folk draw [to Heaven], the more well disposed they are toward people here. And thus Saint Stephen, when he saw Heaven open for him... began to pray for them that maliciously killed him. And do we think, then, that being in Heaven he will not vouchsafe to pray for them that devoutly honor him, but has less love and charity being there than he had when going there? [1]
Further, as our Pope Emeritus makes clear in his encyclical Deus caritas est, true Christian charity bubbles over into good works for others. This is evident in Stephen’s life not only with his final act of forgiveness, but through his duties as a deacon, a holy order instituted by the Apostles for the service of the poor. (see Acts 6, 2)
St Stephen, by Carlo Crivelli, 1476
In the traditional Roman Rite prior to 1955, the feast of Saint Stephen the Protomartyr had a proper Mass on December 26 and on the octave day of January 2. In the Breviary, the feast featured psalm antiphons for Lauds that told the story of his martyrdom as well as proper antiphons for the Benedictus and Magnificat and a proper Collect. His cult was also recapitulated on August 3, the anniversary of the discovery of his relics.
St. Stephen was a servant (a diakonos) who served the poor, and so it is appropriate that his feast day became the occasion for generosity to one’s subordinates and to the less fortunate. In England and the British Commonwealth, December 26 is known as Boxing Day--either because of a custom of giving one’s servants Christmas boxes for their journey home on their day off or because the poor boxes in the church were opened on this day and their contents given to the poor. [2] Even today it remains the customary occasion for giving gifts to one’s servants, paperboy, mailman, and so on.
Because of his vocation, Stephen is the patron saint of deacons, and because of his martyrdom, he is the patron saint of occupations involving stones or stone-like substances such as stonemason, bricklayers, and builders.
But not all of Stephen’s patronages point so clearly to his life. The holy deacon is considered the patron saint of horses, despite the fact that he has no Scriptural connection to the equine. Some speculate that this association may have something to do with the relief from work that domestic animals, at the behest of St. Francis of Assisi, enjoyed during the twelve days of Christmas, but no one is certain.
In any case, the association stuck, especially in rural areas. Horse parades, horse races, and a “St. Stephen’s ride” in a sleigh or wagon were common, as was decorating one’s horse and riding it to the church for a blessing. Horse food (hay or oats) would also be blessed on this day, and so would salt and water in case the horse got sick. But this is not to say that horses enjoyed every aspect of the feast. In the same work quoted above, Thomas More’s interlocutor mentions that “on Saint Stephen’s feast day we must let all our horses’ blood with a knife, because Saint Stephen was killed with stones”! [3] Happily, the equestrian motif survives in less violent ways today. In several Catholic nations it is customary to bake special breads in the form of horseshoes to honor St. Stephen. [4]
Another animal to get the short end of the stick on St. Stephen's Day was the wren. In the British Isles, the Druids sacrificed wrens around the time of the winter solstice. The bloody custom somehow evolved during the age of Christendom into groups of “Wren Boys” going from house to house carrying a dead wren on a brightly decorated branch: the boys would sing a song and receive a treat in return. The dead wren was then “stoned” in memory of St. Stephen--as if the poor bird had not suffered enough already.
Christmastide would not be the same without its carols and hymns, nor would St. Stephen’s. There is an old Latin hymn used in the Divine Office of several medieval communities called Sancte Dei pretiose and a simple hymn in honor of the great deacon by Fr. C. Meyer, S.J., entitled, “Holy Stephen, Christ’s Dear Martyr.” 
But the most famous hymn associated with St. Stephen’s Day is “Good King Wenceslas.” John Mason Neale was a talented English hymn writer and Anglican priest. As a member of the Oxford Movement, he was interested in reincorporating Catholic elements into the Church of England. In 1849 he published a book recounting the lives of holy men and women, including St. Wenceslaus I (d. 935), the Duke of Bohemia and patron of the Czech Republic, who was martyred by his wicked brother Boleslaw the Bad and whose feast day is September 28. Around 1853 Neale was given a rare copy of a Finnish song book from 1582 that contained a lively springtime carol from the thirteenth century. Set in doubled trochaic meter, it was called “Tempus Adest Floridum” or “Eastertime is Here.” Neale loved the tune, and in 1853 wrote his own lyrics based on the life of, you guessed it, good King Wenceslaus.
There is more than a passing connection between the saintly monarch and the great proto-martyr. “Good King Wenceslas” tells of how the king saw a poor peasant from his window in the dead of night and, in keeping with the theme of St. Stephen’s Day, immediately chased after him with food, drink, and firewood. When the king’s page complains that he cannot walk through the deep snow drifts any longer, the king tells him to follow in his footsteps. Hence the last verse:
In his master’s steps he trod
Where the snow lay dinted.
Heat was in the very sod
Which the Saint had printed.
Therefore, Christian men, be sure,
Wealth or rank possessing,
Ye who now will bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing.
While the story is probably fictitious, it artfully combines what we do know about St. Wenceslas, such as his great charity for the poor and his custom of carrying firewood to them on his own back at night. But two of the verses in the last stanza are particularly telling. How could heat “be in the very sod/ Which the Saint had printed?” According to the Roman Breviary, one of the ways Wenceslas mortified his flesh was by walking barefoot in the snow until “his bloodstained footprints warmed the ground.”[6]
The footprints are heated, then, by the blood of the saint, whose sacrifices enables others to follow him. What a striking but beautiful image of self-giving for St. Stephen’s Day: a medieval king honoring an early saint with his mastery over the flesh and his love for the poor. And how inspiring this story is for us, the latest heirs of the Faith, to go and do likewise.
For more information on the Christmas season, see Michael Foley's latest book, Why We Kiss under the Mistletoe: Christmas Traditions Explained (Regnery, 2022). An earlier version of this article also appeared as “The Counts of Jesu Christo” in The Latin Mass magazine 17:5 (Advent/Christmas 2008), pp. 44-47. Many thanks to its editors for allowing its inclusion here.
[1] A Dialogue concerning Heresies, ed. Mary Gottschalk (New York: Scepter Publishers, 2006), p. 244.
[2] This, at least, is one of the theories about the origin of the name.
[3] p. 261. How prevalent this was is difficult to say, since the speaker is trying to bring up arguments against Catholic devotion and may therefore be exaggerating. But assuming that the custom existed, it probably tied into the medieval medical practice of leeching that was once believed to be beneficial to health.
[4] A recipe for one such treat, the Polish podkovy, is in Evelyn Vitz’s A Continual Feast (Ignatius Press, 1985), p. 156.
[5] The link for the hymn is: From the homepage (http:/ it can be found by clicking on the link “Blessed Virgin and other hymns.”
[6] From the office of Matins; translation mine. 

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