09 January 2010

'Each Rock & Stone Chanted Hosanna'—St Stephen the Protomartyr

Today, 27 December on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of the Holy Protomartyr Stephen the Archdeacon. I have already posted much on St Stephen for his feastday last year (here). St Gregory of Nyssa, in his First Homily for the Protomartyr, calls him ‘the first to have received the crown [stephanos] of martyrdom, the first to have paved the way for the chorus of martyrs and the first to have resisted sin to the point of shedding blood’. [1] According to the Oxford Dictionary of Saints, ‘. . . Stephen was learned in the Scriptures and the history of Judaism, besides being eloquent and forceful.’ [2] Here is the account of his life in the Prologue:

He was a kinsman of the Apostle Paul and one of those Jews who lived in a Hellenic milieu. Stephen was the first of the seven deacons whom the holy apostles ordained for the service of the poor in Jerusalem. This is why he is called the Archdeacon—the first, or chief, of them. By the power of his faith, Stephen worked many wonders among the people. The wicked Jews disputed with him, but were always confounded by his wisdom and the power of the Spirit who acted through him. Then the shameful Jews, adept at calumny and slander, stirred up the people and leaders against this innocent man. They slandered Stephen, saying that he had blasphemed against God and against Moses, and quickly found false witnesses who supported their assertion. Then Stephen stood before the people, and all saw his face ‘like the face of an angel’: that is, his face was illumined by the light of grace as was the face of Moses when he talked with God. Stephen opened his mouth and spoke of God’s manifold works and marvels, performed in the past for the People of Israel, and of the people's manifold transgressions and opposition to God. He especially denounced them for the slaying of Christ the Lord, calling them ‘betrayers and murderers’ (Acts 7:52). While they ground their teeth, Stephen looked and saw the heavens open and the glory of God, and spoke to the Jews of what he saw: ‘Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing on the right hand of God’ (7:56). Then the malicious men took him out of the city and stoned him to death. Among his murderers was his kinsman Saul, later the Apostle Paul. At that time, the most holy Mother of God was standing on a rock at a distance with St John the Theologian, and witnessed the martyrdom of this first martyr for the truth of her Son and God, and she prayed for Stephen. This happened exactly a year after the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles. St Stephen’s body was taken secretly and buried by Gamaliel in his own ground. He was a Jewish prince and a secret Christian. Thus this first of Christ’s martyrs made a glorious end and entered into the Kingdom of Christ our God. [3]

In the words of F.F. Bruce, ‘Stephen’s blood proved to be the seed of gentile Christianity.’ [4] St Stephen’s feast was originally celebrated the day immediately after the Nativity, and still is in the West today. Thus, St Gregory of Nyssa says:

See, we acquire a feast from a feast and grace from grace. Yesterday the Lord of the universe welcomed us whereas today it is the imitator [Stephen] of the Lord. How are they related to each other? One assumed human nature on our behalf while the other shed it for his Lord. One accepted the cave of this life for us, and the other left it for him. One was wrapped in swaddling clothes for us, and the other was stoned for him. One destroyed death, and the other scorned it. [5]

Similarly, St Fulgentius of Ruspe begins his homily on the Protomartyr with the words:

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. [6]

St Augustine of Hippo, in City of God XXII.8, offers a moving account of a number of miracles which occurred through St Stephen’s relics when they were brought to North Africa (I heartily recommend the full account, available online here). At one point he writes:

For were I to be silent of all others, and to record exclusively the miracles of healing which were wrought in the district of Calama and of Hippo by means of this martyr—I mean the most glorious Stephen—they would fill many volumes; and yet all even of these could not be collected, but only those of which narratives have been written for public recital. For when I saw, in our own times, frequent signs of the presence of divine powers similar to those which had been given of old, I desired that narratives might be written, judging that the multitude should not remain ignorant of these things. It is not yet two years since these relics were first brought to Hippo-regius, and though many of the miracles which have been wrought by it have not, as I have the most certain means of knowing, been recorded, those which have been published amount to almost seventy at the hour at which I write. But at Calama, where these relics have been for a longer time, and where more of the miracles were narrated for public information, there are incomparably more. [7]

I shall offer two poems of St Stephen. The first, a fanciful old English Christmas ballad which purports to account for the date of St Stephen’s feast, but without regard for the events of Acts (!), is taken from the British Museum MS Sloane 2593, f. 22b (15th-c.) and was published by F.J. Child in The English & Scottish Popular Ballads (1882-98) [8]:

Seynt Steuene was a clerk
In kyng Herowdes halle,
And seruyd him of bred and cloþ
As euery kyng befalle.

Steuyn out of kechone cam
Wyth boris hed on honed;
He saw a sterre was fayr and bryght
Ouer Bedlem stonde.

He kyst adoun þe boris hed
And went in to þe halle:
‘I forsak þe, kyng Herowdes,
And þi werkes alle.

‘I forsak þe, kyng Herowdes,
And þi werkes alle;
Þere is a chyld in Bedlem born,
Is beter þan we alle.’

‘Quat eylet þe, Steuene?
Quat is þe befalle?
Lakkyt þe eyþer mete or drynk
In kyng Herowdes halle?’

‘Lakit me neyþer mete ne drynk
In kyng Herowdes halle;
Þer is a chyld in Bedlem born,
Is beter þan we alle.’

‘Quat eylet þe, Steuene? art þu wod,
Or þu gynnyst to brede?
Lakkyt þe eyþer gold or fe
Or ony ryche wede?’

‘Lakyt me neyþer gold ne fe,
Ne non ryche wede;
Þer is a chyld in Bedlem born
Sal helpyn vs at our nede.’

‘Þat is al so soþ, Steuyn,
Al so soþ, iwys,
As þis capoun crowe sal
Þat lyþ here in myn dysh.’

Þat word was not so sone seyd,
Þat word in þat halle,
Þe capoun crew Cristus natus est
Among þe lordes alle.

Rysyt vp, myn turmentowres,
Be to and al be on,
And ledyt Steuyn out of þis town,
And stonyt hym wyt ston!

Token he Steuene
And stonyd hym in the way,
And þerfore is his euyn
On Crystes owyn day. [9]

The second poem is by a Greek-American poet born on Rudyard Kipling’s estate in Cambridgeshire. [10] Here is Nicholas Samaras’s ‘Saint Stephen, Past Jaffa Gate’:

What was important
was to stand
straight as an exclamation point
and let earth and heaven rain
down on me.
What was important
was to be ambitious only for truth.
What temple could enclose that, what raiment
disguise such a simple witness:
my frail body seized with speech,
my neck pulsing its latticework of blood,
a gunny tunic, the color of dust,
knotty drawstring, sandals,
hair thick with Christ?

The stiff-necked Sanhedrin ground
their teeth at me, carried me on a canopy of coarse hands
past Jaffa Gate, the Street of the Chain.
The sky tumbled over itself, jagged patches of light.
Claws of elders rent my sackcloth,
threw me to the dung path of their fathers.
Hotly, I felt the stings, the puncturing,
my body opening like dark flowers,
salty water warping my sight.

Through a haze, I saw one applauding.
Let him stave off the light today.
Let Saul later see the vision of his own blindness.
What was important now was to
open my ragged arms to the mob’s refusal,
to underline an Orthodoxy,
give my body to the earth’s testament.
Each rock and stone chanted Hosanna
as it sang into my flesh (sad parchment),
pursed the closing air, whistled me home. [11]

There is of course a Grateful Dead song called ‘St Stephen’ which features the lovely lyric, ‘Saint Stephen with a rose, in and out of the garden he goes’ (perhaps Bishop Savas could grace us with some informed comments about this song!). But I don’t suppose anyone needs my help to draw connections with rock’n’roll.

In conclusion, I wish many years to my father-in-law, whose nameday this is.

[1] Taken from this site.

[2] David Hugh Farmer, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, 5th ed. (Oxford: Oxford U, 2004), p. 485.

[3] St Nicholas (Velimirović), The Prologue from Ochrid, Vol. 4, trans. Mother Maria (Birmingham: Lazarica, 1986), p. 376.

[4] F.F. Bruce, ‘Stephen’, The Oxford Guide to the Bible, ed. Bruce M. Metzger & Michael D. Coogan (Oxford: Oxford U, 1993), p. 714.

[5] From this site.

[6] From this site.

[7] St Augustine, The City of God, trans. Marcus Dods (NY: Modern Library, 1950), p. 828.

[8] James Kinsley, ed., The Oxford Book of Ballads (Oxford: Oxford U, 1989), pp. 695, 696.

[9] Kinsley, pp. 3-4. For those who struggle with the extremely archaic spelling and vocabulary, a modernised version with lexical glosses can be found here.

[10] From this site.

[11] From this site.

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