Friday, December 26, 2014

Saint of the Month: St. Stephen

Paulo Uccello, The Stoning of Saint Stephen, c. 1435.

St. Stephen

AKA: St. Stephen the Martyr, Stephen the Deacon, the Protomartyr.
Not to be Confused With: St. Stephen I, St. Stephen Bellesini, St. Stephen du Bourg, St. Stephen of Apt, St. Stephen of Catania, St. Stephen of Corbie, St. Stephen of Corvey, St. Stephen of Grandmont, St. Stephen of Hungary, St. Stephen of Lyons, St. Stephen of Muret, St. Stephen of New Ross, St. Stephen of Obazine, St. Stephen of Reggio, St. Stephen of Rieti, St. Stephen of Sweden, St. Stephen the Younger, St. Stefan Wincenty Frelichowski.
Feast Day: December 26.

Really Existed? He is discussed as some length in the Book of Acts.
Timeframe: Contemporary of Jesus Christ.
Place: Jerusalem.

Credentials: Recognized by tradition.
Martyrdom: Stoned to death.

Patron Saint of: brickmakers, stonemasons, casket makers, deacons, headaches, horses, .
Symbolism: Rocks.

Good King Wenceslas famously looked out on the Feast of Stephen, and that means December 26th if he was looking out according to the Western Church calendar, or the 27th if the Eastern. But who is this Saint Stephen of whom we speak? Not the first king of Hungary, although he has a holiday connection too: he is said to have been crowned on Christmas Day in the year 1000. But we're talking here about a much earlier Saint Stephen.

This Saint Stephen is the "protomartyr," the first person on record as having been killed for his profession of Christianity. Does that make him the first saint? It does not. "Who was the first saint?" turns out to be a surprisingly sticky wicket, because the rules of what constitutes a saint are so shot through with exceptions. For instance, if you started to define a saint as "A person who..." you would already have run afoul of a few non-persons, such as St. Michael the Archangel. But suffice to say that Saint Stephen is indeed the first of one important type of saint, the holy person who is martyred for his or her faith.

We find Saint Stephen in Chapters 6 and 7 of the Book of Acts, the Biblical account of the extremely early Christian church. He is one of the new religion's most successful representatives in Jerusalem.  Competing religious leaders, jealous of his popularity, frame him on a blasphemy charge and have him hauled in before the Sanhedrin, or rabbinical court. He delivers a rather folksy overview of Jewish history that ends suddenly in a rebuke to people who don't recognize that Jesus is the Messiah, and then claims to have a vision of Jesus and God standing together in heaven. This either outrages the crowd or gives them the pretext they've been looking for, and they grab him, drag him outside the city walls, and throw rocks at him until he dies.

I bet you thought it was going to be Romans doing the persecuting. Indeed, only the Roman administration had the legal authority to execute a death sentence, for what that's worth. But the Romans aren't mentioned at all; it seems to be rank and file Judeans throwing the rocks in what you might call an ad hoc extrajudicial proceeding.

Like many unspeakably cruel practices, stoning a guy to death is kind of hard work, and it seems it's something you take off your outer layer for. The Biblical account says the crowd "laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul." Saul will eventually become the very important evangelist renamed Paul, but in the moment he approves of the stoning and jumps right in to take part in the abuse of Jerusalem's Christians that flares up after Stephen's death. This pogrom is hard on the nascent Church, but as converts flee persecution, "those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went." Indirectly, then, the death of Saint Stephen sets off the first spread of Christianity outside its original hometown.  This, along with his status as the first martyr and his story being right there in the New Testament, make him a major saint throughout all Christian traditions that venerate saints.

Rembrandt's treatment, painted 190 years after Uccello's, is more dynamic, dimensional, detailed, and expressive,
and utilizes a much broader range of light and dark for dramatic effect.  Yet, it also shows us that these things
do not in themselves automatically make for a more interesting painting, and that Rembrandt didn't
make a masterpiece every time he picked up a brush.

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