Skip to comments.[Catholic Caucus] Saint Stephen, the First Martyr (Gueranger)
Posted on 12/26/2017 9:15:48 AM PST by CMRosary
ST. PETER DAMIAN thus begins his Sermon for this Feast:
“We are holding in our arms the Son of the Virgin, and are honoring, with our caresses, this our Infant God. The holy Virgin has led us to the dear Crib. The most beautiful of the Daughters of men has brought us to the most beautiful among the Sons of men, and the Blessed among women to Him that is Blessed above all. She tells us … that now the veils of prophecy are drawn aside, and the counsel of God is accomplished … Is there anything capable of distracting us from this sweet Birth? On what else shall we fix our eyes? … Lo! while Jesus is permitting us thus to caress him; while he is overwhelming us with the greatness of these mysteries, and our hearts are riveted in admiration—there comes before us Stephen, full of grace and fortitude, doing great wonders and signs among the people. Is it right that we turn from our King to look on Stephen, his soldier? No—unless the King himself bid us do so. This our King, who is Son of the King, rises … to assist at the glorious combat of his servant … Let us go with him and contemplate this standard-bearer of the Martyrs.”
The Church gives us, in today’s Office, this opening of a Sermon of St. Fulgentius for the Feast of St. Stephen: “Yesterday, we celebrated the temporal Birth of our eternal King: today, we celebrate the triumphant passion of his Soldier. Yesterday, our King, having put on the garb of our flesh, came from the sanctuary of his Mother’s virginal womb, and mercifully visited the earth: today, his Soldier, quitting his earthly tabernacle, entered triumphantly into heaven. Jesus, while still continuing to be the eternal God, assumed to himself the lowly raiment of flesh, and entered the battlefield of this world: Stephen, laying aside the perishable garment of the body, ascended to the palace of heaven, there to reign forever. Jesus descended veiled in our flesh: Stephen ascended to heaven amidst the shower of stones, because Jesus had descended on earth midst the singing of Angels. Yesterday, the holy Angels exultingly sang, Glory be to God in the highest; today, they joyously received Stephen into their company … Yesterday was Jesus wrapped, for our sakes, in swaddling clothes: today was Stephen clothed with the robe of immortal glory. Yesterday a narrow crib contained the Infant Jesus: today the immensity of the heavenly court received the triumphant Stephen.”
Thus does the sacred Liturgy blend the joy of our Lord’s Nativity with the gladness she feels at the triumph of the first of her Martyrs. Nor will Stephen be the only one admitted to share the honors of this glorious Octave. After him, we shall have John, the Beloved Disciple; the Innocents of Bethlehem; Thomas, the Martyr of the Liberties of the Church; and Sylvester, the Pontiff of Peace. But the place of honor amidst all who stand round the Crib of the newborn King belongs to Stephen, the Proto-Martyr, who, as the Church sings of him, was “the first to pay back the Savior, the Death suffered by the Savior.” It was just that this honor should be shown to Martyrdom; for Martyrdom is the Creatures testimony, and return to his Creator for all the favors bestowed on him: it is Man’s testifying, even by shedding his blood, to the truths which God has revealed to the world.
In order to understand this, let us consider what is the plan of God, in the salvation he has given to man. The Son of God is sent to instruct mankind; he sows the seed of his divine word; and his works give testimony to his divinity. But after his sacrifice on the cross, he again ascends to the right hand of his Father; so that his own testimony of himself has need of a second testimony, in order to its being received by them that have neither seen nor heard Jesus himself. Now, it is the Martyrs who are to provide this second testimony; and this they will do, not only by confessing Jesus with their lips, but by shedding their blood for him. The Church, then, is to be founded by the Word and the Blood of Jesus, the Son of God; but she will be upheld, she will continue throughout all ages, she will triumph over all obstacles, by the blood of her Martyrs, the members of Christ: this their blood will mingle with that of their Divine Head, and their sacrifice be united to his.
The Martyrs shall bear the closest resemblance to their Lord and King. They shall be, as he said, like lambs among wolves. The world shall be strong, and they shall be weak and defenseless: so much the grander will be the victory of the Martyrs, and the greater the glory of God who gives them to conquer. The Apostle tells us that Christ crucified is the power and the wisdom of God;—the Martyrs, immolated, and yet conquerors of the world, will prove, and with a testimony which even the world itself will understand, that the Christ whom they confessed, and who gave them constancy and victory, is in very deed the power and the wisdom of God. We repeat, then—it is just that the Martyrs should share in all the triumphs of the Man-God, and that the liturgical Cycle should glorify them as does the Church herself, who puts their sacred Relics in her altar stones; for thus the Sacrifice of their glorified Lord and Head is never celebrated without they themselves being offered together with him in the unity of his mystical Body.
Now, the glorious Martyr-band of Christ is headed by St. Stephen. His name signifies the Crowned;—a conqueror like him could not be better named. He marshals, in the name of Christ, the white-robed enemy, as the Church calls the Martyrs; for he was the first, even before the Apostles themselves, to receive the summons, and right nobly did he answer it. Stephen courageously bore witness, in the presence of the Jewish Synagogue, to the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth; by thus proclaiming the Truth, he offended the ears of the unbelievers; the enemies of God became the enemies of Stephen and, rushing upon him, they stone him to death. Amidst the pelting of the blood-drawing missives, he, like a true soldier, flinches not, but stands (as St. Gregory of Nyssa so beautifully describes it) as thou snowflakes were falling on him, or roses were covering him with the shower of their kisses. Through the cloud of stones, he sees the glory of God—Jesus, for whom he was laying down his life, showed himself to his Martyr, and the Martyr again rendered testimony to the divinity of our Emmanuel, but with all the energy of a last act of love. Then, to make his sacrifice complete, he imitates his divine Master, and prays for his executioners: falling on his knees, he begs that this sin be not laid to their charge. Thus, all is consummated—the glorious type of Martyrdom is created and shown to the world, that it may be imitated by every generation to the end of time, until the number of the Martyrs of Christ shall be filled up. Stephen sleeps in the Lord, and is buried in peace—in pace—until his sacred Tomb shall be discovered, and his glory be celebrated a second time in the whole Church by that anticipated Resurrection of the miraculous Invention of his Relics.
Stephen, then, deserves to stand near the Crib of his King, as leader of those brave champions, the Martyrs, who died for the Divinity of that Babe, whom we adore. Let us join the Church in praying to our Saint, that he help us to come to our Sovereign Lord, now lying on his humble throne in Bethlehem. Let us ask him to initiate us into the mystery of that divine Infancy, which we are all bound to know and imitate. It was from the simplicity he had learned form that Mystery, that he heeded not the number of the enemies he had to fight against, nor trembled at their angry passion, nor winced under their blows, nor hid from them the Truth and their crimes, nor forgot to pardon them and pray for them. What a faithful imitator of the Babe of Bethlehem! Our Jesus did not send his Angels to chastise those unhappy Bethlehemites, who refused a shelter to the Virgin Mother, who in a few hours was to give birth to Him, the Son of David. He stays not the fury of Herod, who plots his Death—but meekly flees into Egypt, like some helpless bondsman, escaping the threats of a tyrant lordling. But it is under such apparent weakness as this that he will show his Divinity to men, and He the Infant-God prove himself the Strong God. Herod will pass away, so will his tyranny; Jesus will live, greater in his Crib, where he makes a King tremble, than is, under his borrowed majesty, this prince-tributary of Rome; nay, than Cæsar Augustus himself, whose world-wide empire has no other destiny than this—to serve as handmaid to the Church, which is to be founded by this Babe, whose name stands humbly written in the official registry of Bethlehem.
MASS.—The Introit is composed of the words of the holy Martyr, who, in the language of the Royal Psalmist, tells us of the plot formed against him by the wicked, and of his own humble confidence in God, whereby he triumphed over their persecutions. From the murder of the innocent Abel to the future Martyrs, who are to shed their blood in the days of Antichrist—the Church is always under persecution; in some one country, she is ever shedding her blood; but her strength lies in her fidelity to Jesus her Spouse, and in the simplicity which the Babe of Bethlehem is come to teach her by his own example.
In the Collect, the Church asks, for both herself and her children, that divine vigor which makes the holy Martyrs forgive their persecutors, and perfects not only their testimony to the truth, but also their imitation of Jesus Christ. It speaks the praise of St. Stephen, who was the first to follow our Savior’s example.
Thus, O glorious Prince of Martyrs! thou wast led outside the gates of the City for thy sacrifice, and thy punishment was that of blasphemers, as described by the Epistle. The Disciple was to be like to his Master in all things. But neither the ignominy of such a death, nor its cruelty, could daunt thy great soul; thou didst carry Jesus in thy heart and, with Him, thou wast stronger than all thy enemies. And what was thy joy when thou sawest the heavens open and this same Jesus in his glorified Humanity standing at the right hand of God and looking upon thee with love! A God looking complacently on the creature that is going to die for him, and the creature permitted to behold the God for whom he is dying—truly this was more than enough to encourage thee! Let thine enemies cast their stones against thee, and bruise and tear thy flesh as they please: nothing can distract thee from this sight of the Eternal King, who raised himself from his throne to applaud thee, and deck thee with the Crown, which he had prepared for thee from all eternity! Now that thou art reigning in the kingdom of heaven, pray for us, that we also may be faithful, and faithful even unto death, to this same Jesus who not only left his throne, but even came down among us as a Little Child.
The Martyrs are given to the world that they may continue the ministry of Christ on the earth, by bearing testimony to his word, and by confirming this testimony by their blood. The world has despised them; like their divine Master, they have shone in the darkness, and darkness has not understood their light, as our Lord charges in the Gospel. Nevertheless, many have received their testimony, and the seed of the Martyrs’ blood has brought forth in them the rich fruit of Faith. The Synagogue was cast off by God for its having shed the blood of Stephen, after having imbrued its hands in that of Jesus. Unhappy they who cannot appreciate the Martyrs! Let us, who are Christians, take in the sublime lessons taught us by their generous sacrifice; and let our respect and love for them testify that we are grateful for the noble ministry they have fulfilled in the Church, and are still fulfilling. The Church is never without Martyrs, just as she is never without Miracles: it is the twofold testimony that she will give to the end of time, and by which she evidences the divine life she has received from her almighty Founder.
During the Offertory, the Church once more proclaims the merits and the glorious death of Stephen; and by this she teaches us that the sacrifice of the holy Deacon is united with that of Jesus himself.
United by Holy Communion to her divine Spouse, the Church too sees the heavens opened, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. She sends up to this Incarnate Word the yearnings of her intense love, and derives from the heavenly Food she has received that meekness which makes her bear with the injuries and insults put upon her by her enemies, in order that she may win them all to the faith and love of Jesus Christ. It was by partaking of this same heavenly Food that Stephen got the superhuman strength whereby he won his victory and Crown.
With these praises (of Vespers), which the venerable ages of old offered to thee, O Prince and First of Martyrs! we presume to unite ours. Fervently do we congratulate thee, that thou hast had assigned thee, by the Church, the place of honor at the Crib of our Jesus. How glorious the confession thou didst make of his Divinity, while thy executioners were stoning thee! How rich and bright the scarlet thou art clad in, for thy victory! How honorable the wounds thou didst receive for Christ! How immense, and yet how choice, that army of Martyrs, which follows thee as its leader, and to which fresh recruits will forever be added, to the end of time!
Holy Martyr! help us, by thy prayers, to enter into the spirit of the mystery of the Word made Flesh, now that we are celebrating the Birth of our Savior. Thou art the faithful guardsman of his Crib:—who could better lead us to the Divine Babe, that lies there? Thou didst bear testimony to his Divinity and Humanity; thou didst preach this Man-God before the blaspheming Synagogue. In vain did the Jews stop their ears; they could not stifle thy voice, which charged them with deicide, in that they had put to death Him, who is at once the Son of Mary and the Son of God. Show this Redeemer to us also, not, indeed, standing in glory at the right hand of his Father, but the sweet and humble Babe, as he now manifests himself to the world, into which he has just been born, wrapped in swaddling-clothes, and laid in a manger. We, too, wish to bear witness to him, and to tell how his Birth is one of love and mercy; we wish to show, by our lives, that he has been born in our hearts. Obtain for us that devotedness to the Divine Infant, which gave thee such courage on the day of trial: we shall have devotedness, if, like thee, we are simple-hearted and fearless in our love of Jesus; for love is stronger than death. May we never forget, that every Christian ought to be ready for martyrdom, simply because he is a Christian. May the life of Christ, which has again begun within us, so grow within us, by our fidelity and our conduct, that we may come, as the Apostle expresses it, to the fulness of Christ.
But, be mindful, O glorious Martyr! be mindful of the Holy Church in those countries, where it is the will of God that she resist even unto blood. May the number of thy fellow martyrs be thus filled up, and let not one of the combatants grow faint-hearted. May every age and sex be staunch; that so, the testimony may be perfect, and the Church, even in her old age, win immortal laurels and crowns, as in the freshness of her infancy, when she had such a champion as thyself. But, pray, too, that the blood of these Martyrs may be fruitful, as it was in times past; pray that it be not wasted, but become the seed of abundant harvests. May infidelity lose ground, and heresy cease to canker those noble hearts, who, once in the Truth, would be the glory and consolation of the Church. Our own dear Land has had her Martyrs, who, in the hope that God would avenge their blood by restoring her to the Faith, gladly suffered and died—oh! Prince of Martyrs! pray, that this their hope may be speedily fulfilled.
WE MUST NOT END this second day of the Christmas Octave without visiting the Stable of Bethlehem, and adoring the divine Son of Mary. Two days have scarce elapsed, since his Blessed Mother placed him in this humble Crib; but these two days are of more value, for the salvation of the world, than the four thousand years which preceded the Birth of this Babe. The work of our Redemption has made a great step; the cries and tears of the New-Born Child have begun the atonement of our sins. On this the Feast of the First Martyr, let us consider how the cheeks of the Infant Jesus are moistened with Tears, and how these tears are the first expression of his sufferings. “Jesus weeps,” says St. Bernard, “but not like other children, certainly not for the same cause as other children. … They weep from passion; He, from compassion. They weep because they are galled by the yoke, that sits heavily on all the children of Adam; Jesus weeps, because he sees the sins of the children of Adam.” Oh! how dear to us ought to be these Tears of a God, who has made himself our Brother! Had we not sinned, God would not have wept. Ought not we, too, to weep over sin, which thus saddens, by the sufferings it causes to our sweet Infant Jesus, the heavenly joy of his Birth among us?
Mary, also, sees these Tears, and her maternal heart is pained. She feels that her Child is to be the Man of Sorrows; and, before many days are over, the same awful truth will be told her in prophecy. With the consolation she offers to her Babe, let us unite ours, by giving him our love. It is the one thing he seeks by all the humiliations he has taken upon himself. It is to gain our love that he has come down from heaven, and been born among us in the midst of the mysteries we are now celebrating. Let us love him, therefore, with all our love, and ask our Lady to present him our humble offering. The Psalmist has said: The Lord is great, and exceedingly to be praised: let us add, with St. Bernard: The Lord is a Little Babe, and exceedingly to be loved.
We will honor the Birth of our Jesus, today, by this venerable Sequence of St. Gall’s Monatery, written by the Blessed Notker. It recounts the combat of our Emmanuel against Satan, and his victory. This victory is the source of those won by Stephen and all the Martyrs.
And now, turning towards his Blessed Mother, we will offer her the tribute of this beautiful Sequence, taken from the Cluny Missal, of 1523.