Today is the Feast of St. Stephen, who was among the first deacons and the first recorded Christian martyr of the New Testament. On his Feast Day, I want to share with you a selection from a sermon preached in the sixth century by Fulgentius, Bishop of Ruspe in Northern Africa.
Before the excerpt, I recommend reading two passages of Scripture that help set the scene. The first is from 2 Chronicles 24:17-22 and tells of the martyrdom of Zecheriah. The second is from Acts 7:51-8:3, which portrays the martyrdom of Stephen under the approval of Saul.
May these readings and the words of St. Fulgentius encourage us all as we continue to celebrate and be changed by the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ.
A Sermon by St. Fulgentius on the Feast of St. Stephen
Yesterday we celebrated the birth in time of our eternal King. Today we celebrate the triumphant suffering of his soldier.Yesterday our king, clothed in his robe of flesh, left his place in the virgin’s womb and graciously visited the world. Today his soldier leaves the tabernacle of his body and goes triumphantly to heaven.Our king, despite his exalted majesty, came in humility for our sake; yet he did not come empty-handed. He brought his soldiers a great gift that not only enriched them but also made them unconquerable in battle, for it was the gift of love, which was to bring men to share in his divinity. He gave of his bounty, yet without any loss to himself. In a marvellous way he changed into wealth the poverty of his faithful followers while remaining in full possession of his own inexhaustible riches.And so the love that brought Christ from heaven to earth raised Stephen from earth to heaven; shown first in the king, it later shone forth in his soldier. Love was Stephen’s weapon by which he gained every battle, and so won the crown signified by his name. His love of God kept him from yielding to the ferocious mob; his love for his neighbour made him pray for those who were stoning him. Love inspired him to reprove those who erred, to make them amend; love led him to pray for those who stoned him, to save them from punishment. Strengthened by the power of his love, he overcame the raging cruelty of Saul and won his persecutor on earth as his companion in heaven. In his holy and tireless love he longed to gain by prayer those whom he could not convert by admonition.Now at last, Paul rejoices with Stephen, with Stephen he delights in the glory of Christ, with Stephen he exults, with Stephen he reigns. Stephen went first, slain by the stones thrown by Paul, but Paul followed after, helped by the prayer of Stephen. This, surely, is the true life, my brothers, a life in which Paul feels no shame because of Stephen’s death, and Stephen delights in Paul’s companionship, for love fills them both with joy. It was Stephen’s love that prevailed over the cruelty of the mob, and it was Paul’s love that covered the multitude of his sins; it was love that won for both of them the kingdom of heaven.Love, indeed, is the source of all good things; it is an impregnable defense, and the way that leads to heaven. He who walks in love can neither go astray nor be afraid: love guides him, protects him, and brings him to his journey’s end.