Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Saint Stephen, The First Christian Martyr (26th of December)

The Christmas Carol goes:

"Good King Wenceslas looked out, on the feast of Ste-phen,
Where the snow lay round about, deep, and crisp and e-ven:
Brightly shone the moon that night, though the frost was cru--el."

According to the Acts of the Apostles, Stephen was a devout follower of Jesus. His Apostles and disciples had chosen him to preach and debate among the learned Freedmen of Jerusalem (Jews from Cyrene, Syria and Asia Minor). Stephen possessed unquestioned intellectual brilliance and an unshakeable belief in Jesus and in all of his teachings. We can therefore conclude that he may have personally known Jesus as a child or that members of his family had listened to the sermons and parables of Yeshua the Nazarene. Most probably he was gifted with what the ancient Greeks called charisma. Originally it meant the power to speak many tongues and to be understood by all ethnicities.

The New Testament does not specify just how much time had passed since the Crucifixion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus. I would venture to say not much. All the Apostles still appeared to be alive and well and actively proselytizing, though not necessarily in Judea or Galilee. It also informs us that Judas Iscariot the Betrayer had been replaced with the Apostle Matthias.

The first followers of Jesus lived in constant fear for their lives. Why? The obvious answer is because they were persecuted. In Jerusalem they were ordered by the High Priest of Jerusalem to attire themselves in yellow and/or to wear the symbols of Jesus such as the cross, lamb and fish painted in yellow. The Roman Governor did not oppose this. He had no reason in the world to do so. After all the Romans had upheld the condemnation of Yeshua by the Sanhedrim. The man was dangerous to King Herod, the Pharisees, Sadducees and other members of a secretive and closed elite. The Roman rulers wanted stability among their conquered and occupied peoples. So Yeshua the Nazarene had to be eliminated. Period. He had been duly crucified in the traditional Roman way of executing criminals or enemies of the State. Does the color yellow worn by the proto-Christians sound familiar?

The Jews herded into ghettoes during the National Socialist Occupation of Eastern and Central Europe in WWII had the yellow star sewn onto their clothes. If any of you have ever wondered why the SS chose the color yellow, this might be one of them. Reinhard Heydrich had been a devoted and diligent altar boy in his adolescence. His family was Catholic musicians and intellectuals. Indeed, Bruno Heydrich, Reinhard’s father was a fine Wagnerian baritone and composer. Both Wolfram and Winifred Wagner admired Bruno’s operas. They might have told Reinhard, the child prodigy about the manner in which the early followers of Jesus were forced to attire themselves in yellow. More likely it was because the NSDAP - National Socialist- Nazi Party as well as a large segment of the German Population equated yellow with the gold which some Jewish speculators had amassed during the Weimar Republic. I would like to point out that more Christians abused their own fellow Christians than Jews during the Weimar Republic. Propaganda is a powerful weapon and those in power wield it continuously, stridently, venomously and effectively.

By tradition the Church holds that Stephen was a young man. That means that he was in his late teens to early twenties. In debates held outside the Temple of Jerusalem Stephen angered certain Jewish scholars.

Doubtless Young Stephen had received clear warnings from zealots to stop engaging the scholars in debates. Particularly since his Logos and quick mind made mincemeat of the arguments of his adversaries. One day, they pounced. Stephen was accused of mocking the teachings of Moses. He was accused of inciting hatred against the Jews, his own people! This is eerily familiar to us today as well. Has anything really changed? I am afraid not.

He was brought into the Sanhedrim and formally charged with the heinous crimes against Judaic Law. I presume that he was already roughed up quite a bit. Meanwhile, rabble-rousers outside the Temple incited a mob. I find that throughout history mobs of any religious belief and philosophy, mobs egged on by heavy taxation, plague and hunger, mobs under the flags of Justice and so-called freedom, do not think. They are devoid of any feeling except satisfying the heavy scent of blood that blindly follow in the name of whatever happens to be the catchword of the moment.

The learned elders were still hearing and evaluating the case. The mob broke inside the Court and stomped towards Stephen. No one lifted a finger to stop them. How many of us have the courage to stop a furious mob hell bent on blood lust?

Stephen’s hair served as a means to drag him a very long way. Soon, he had lost all his hair and most parts of his scalp. They resorted to grabbing an arm, then that broke away from its socket, then onto the next arm and leg, until he resembled a twisted and broken puppet.

“Die! Die! Die! You Profanator of Moses,” the mob kicked him endlessly and never stopped yelling.

They reached the outer limits of the city of Jerusalem. “ Dump him here. We are outside the walls of our sacred city,” shouted someone.

A mob, any mob, thinks as one, that is a given. In a few seconds, stones began to rain upon Stephen’s brutalized young body. Those who had participated in stoning other humans to death aimed for the head. There was always a perverse pleasure in watching a fellow human’s grey and cream-colored brains pelt and splatter and stain a wall. This was done slowly because the stoned scum had to die slowly. Stoning is a “take your time death.” Otherwise where was the satisfaction for the mob? Others concentrated the stones in their crazed hands against his chest. The rib cage, which protects the heart, makes a strange sound as it is pounded into mush. The heart and lungs are exposed. Usually a frenzied mob likes to watch a still beating heart even if by this time fibrillation has set in and the much tested heart is beating very fast and very erratically. The outer extremities of the body such as the arms and legs are turned into mashed flesh. Before he died or lost consciousness Stephen murmured’ Jesus come and receive me.”

It is worth noting that the Acts of the Apostles mention a man who was with the mob as ‘’The Witness.” He is nameless. He did not bloody himself, he only watched, observed and witnessed.

To whom did he report the death by stoning of Stephen? Most probably to the groups that opposed the teachings of Jesus. To those Jews who dared to convert and follow the Apostles and disciples? Catholic tradition ascribes this witness and probable Power behind the stoning of the first Christian martyr as Rabbi Saul of Tarsus. He would become one of the Christendom’s greatest saints – Paul, Apostle of the Gentiles and Martyr for Jesus in Rome. It was Paul’s dynamic and tireless energy, together with his ability to speak Aramaic, Hebrew, Greek and Latin and other languages (Paul was a Roman citizen) that spread the word of Jesus throughout the Greek and Roman world – the Roman Empire.

That is why the Popes traditionally give their famous Urbi et Orbi, Christmas Message for the World on the 26th of December at twelve o’clock noon in the Piazza of Saint Peter’s Basilica. In remembrance of Saint Stephen, the first martyr who died for Jesus.

1 comment:

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Isabel Van Fechtmann

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