The day after Christmas is the feast of St. Stephen, deacon and martyr, and an important day for us, as we have a boy named for him. Mass and Holy Communion are the perfect way to celebrate every day, but when this is not possible, the Mass prayers honoring a child’s saint are a beautiful addition to night prayers. We honor a saint’s child by lighting his baptismal candle at dinner and telling his saint’s story.
The story of St. Stephen and his martyrdom occurs in the Acts of the Apostles, chapters 6 and 7. After Pentecost, when the disciples had increased rapidly, there arose a dispute in which the Greek converts accused the Hebrew converts of being unfair to their widows and orphans. So the twelve Apostles called a council and agreed that it was not practical for them to stop preaching in order to “bestow care on tables” (one of the tasks of deacons was to serve meals as well as preach and baptize); and they therefore chose seven men full of the Holy Spirit “to put in charge of this business.” Among the seven was Stephen.
Now, Stephen was very holy and performed great miracles, defending the Faith brilliantly against learned Jews from all over, until finally they began to whisper against him, saying that he blasphemed of Moses and of God. These men stirred up the people and the elders and scribes until they waylaid Stephen and carried him bodily to the Sanhedrin to be tried, charging he said that Jesus of Nazareth had claimed He would destroy the Temple and alter the holy law of Moses. “And all those who sat there in the council fastened their eyes on him and saw his face looking like the face of an angel.”
Then the High Priest asked whether the charges were true, and to answer him, Stephen told the story of the Jews. This law of Moses they loved so much, he pointed out, was not always such a clear-cut issue nor so dearly loved by their fathers as they liked to imagine.
Abraham was the father to Isaac and Isaac to Jacob and Jacob to Joseph and his eleven brothers: the twelve patriarchs whom they called their “fathers.” Did not the eleven brothers sell Joseph into slavery in Egypt? Stephen implied it was not unlike their treatment of Christ. Even so, Joseph sent for them to take refuge in Egypt when their land was afflicted by famine.
There came a time when, long after, these Jews in Egypt and their families had multiplied, and under another ruler they were not treated so well. They were forced to leave their children to die of exposure, and it was then that Moses was discovered by Pharaoh’s daughter and taken to be raised as her son.
In his fortieth year, Moses had a longing to know his brethren dwelling in Egypt; so he went out. Seeing an Egyptian cruelly abusing a Jew, he killed him; and he expected they would see that it was a sign of his role of deliverer to them. But they did not.
The next day he came upon two of the children of Israel quarreling. When he tried to make peace between them, they turned and asked, “Who made thee ruler and judge over us?” Again they did not understand.
It was God, Stephen reminded the Sanhedrin, who spoke to Moses from the burning bush and told him to be ruler and deliverer to the people who had asked, “Who made thee a ruler and a judge over us?” Moses told his people, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like myself from among your own brethren; to him you must listen.” And he meant Christ. Their rejection of Christ was a rejection of Moses.
It was Moses, said Stephen, who received from God their holy law. Despite this, the children of Israel became disobedient to the law, disowned Moses, and went so far as to carry about with them the tent of Moloch and the star of the god Rempham, worshiping them.
As for the Temple, when they were in the wilderness, they had no temple; their fathers had the tabernacle with them there. Not until after David did Solomon finally build the Temple where they worshiped daily, but they were not to assume that God was contained only by temples. The prophet Isaiah had said (as our Lord said many different ways), “Heaven is my throne and the earth is my footstool. What home will you build for me? What place can be my resting place? Was it not my hands that made all this?”
Then bitterly Stephen accused them: “Stiff-necked race, your heart and ears still uncircumcised, you are forever resisting the Holy Spirit, just as your fathers did. There was not one of the prophets they did not persecute; it was death to foretell the coming of that just man whom you in these times have betrayed and murdered; you, who received the law dictated by angels and did not keep it.” Stephen was saying that circumcision was a symbol and the dedication and loyalty to God it symbolized reached deep into the heart so that one marked by circumcision as a member of a blessed race would hear the word of God and do it.
Infuriated, they began to gnash their teeth. But Stephen was filled with the Holy Spirit and, looking to Heaven, saw there the glory of God and Jesus standing at God’s right hand. “I see heaven opening,” he said, “and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” This was too much. They put their fingers in their ears to deafen this latest blasphemy and fell upon him, dragging him out of the city, “and the witnesses put down their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul.” As they stoned Stephen, he, meanwhile, was praying, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” And kneeling down, he cried aloud, “Lord, do not count this sin against them.” With that, he fell asleep in the Lord.
Saul was one of those “who gave their voices for his murder.”
Everyone is in this story: Abraham and all the prophets and Christ and His followers and His enemies and Stephen and Saul, and we are in it, too. We can look up at our Christ candle with its flame a symbol of the divine life we share, and remember that Stephen and Paul and we ourselves are all one in Christ. We are in the Church Militant. They are in the Church Triumphant. With the members of the Church Suffering in Purgatory, we are all members of the same Mystical Body, because the Head, who is Christ, and the members, who are we, are the Church. It is no play on words to say that we are part of Christ.
Good King Wenceslaus
This is also the day to sing the carol about “Good King Wenceslaus,” who went out on the feast of Stephen. St. Wenceslaus has a feast on September 28, but the carol has so attached him to Christmas that we hardly remember him otherwise. He is a hero for boys, although his story is rarely told.
His mother, Drahomira, was a pagan of particularly horrible bent. When her husband, Wratislaus, Duke of Bohemia, died and left her regent, she persecuted the Christians viciously. It was her mother-in-law, the saintly Duchess Ludmilla, who taught Wenceslaus his religion; and as a boy, he practiced the Faith and received the sacraments secretly at night. (This should certainly make St. Ludmilla one of the patrons of mothers-in-law, grandmothers, and duchesses.)
When he was eighteen, Wenceslaus claimed his right over a large part of his kingdom and ruled it as an exemplary king. He built churches, recalled priests from exile, opened the frontiers to Christian missionaries. He was tenderly devoted to the Holy Eucharist and is said to have prepared with his own hands the altar breads and the wines made from wheat and grapes he planted himself. (This should certainly make St. Wenceslaus a patron of millers, wine pressers, kings, and sacristans.)
He had a horror of bloodshed; once, in a desperate attempt to end a bloody war without further loss of life, he challenged an invading duke to single combat and is said to have vanquished him by the Sign of the Cross. (He would be a good patron for the United Nations.) He eventually effected a reconciliation with his mother and his pagan brother Boleslaus and invited him to a banquet on the feast of SS. Cosmas and Damian, September 27. The following morning, as he was on his way to Mass, his brother repaid the compliment by having him murdered — which is why his feast falls on the twenty-eighth. Two years before that, his mother had had his grandmother Ludmilla strangled to death by hired assassins.
The carol tells about a miracle said to have happened on December 26, wherein the good king sees a poor man gathering wood for his fire. Learning from his page where the man lives, he bids the page:
Bring me flesh and bring me wine; Bring me pine logs hither; Thou and I shall see him dine When we bear them thither.
And without ado, he tucked his royal robes into his boots and trudged through the cold to the hut underneath the mountain.
This spirit of serving is one of the things that needs to be restored to our society. Money is needed, and the needy are thankful for it; but the givers of the money need to do more for their own spirits than sign checks. Like King Wenceslaus, they would refresh their vision of Christ by the experience of serving, by the experience of looking into Christ’s face in His poor and feeding Him, changing His sheets, bathing His sick body, shopping at the grocer’s for His food. And for every act done with love for Him, He repays a hundredfold.
So this day the children may imitate both St. Stephen the deacon, who served, and St. Wenceslaus the king, who served, and set aside some of their Christmas toys or dollars to take to other little Christs less fortunate than themselves. This is hard, but there is an inner joy that children as well need to experience if they would know what we mean when we talk of serving. It is one thing to hear your parents talk about the blessedness of giving. It is quite another to part with something you do not very much want to part with, and then taste the peace and joy and contentment that come to the souls who have given up their own will for love of Christ.
This act of serving was hard for the little page, too, but the carol tells what a marvelous reward was his:
In his master’s steps he trod, Where the snow lay dinted. Heat was in the very sod That the saint had printed.
Children love especially to sing this carol while walking outdoors in the snow. If there are enough who know it (do help them learn all the verses: it makes no sense otherwise), they can take parts, one being king, one page, one the poor man, the rest “voices.” And afterward bid them remember, whenever they see footprints in the snow, the saint-king who journeyed to the poor man on the feast of St. Stephen, and bid them help someone that day in imitation of him.
Editor’s note: This article was adapted from a chapter in The Year and Our Children: Catholic Family Celebrations For Every Season, which is available from Sophia Institute Press.