December 27, 2023

A Homily on Saint Stephen the First Martyr (St. Asterius of Amasea)

By St. Asterius of Amasea (c. 350 – c. 410 AD)

1. How truly holy and beautiful is the cycle of events delightful to us. Feast follows upon feast, the one celebration comes closely after the other. We are invited from prayer to prayer: the birth of the Lord is followed immediately by the honour given to His servant. And even if someone looks back to the begetting of the One who yesterday was born according to the flesh, existing eternally according to the godhead, or [considers] the testimony about Him given by His noble servant today, they will find many various events but one purpose: that we are instructed about true religion. Yesterday indeed we learned by the periodically returning celebration that the Saviour of the world was born, that the One without flesh put on the flesh, the one without body put on the body, and so then also accepted the suffering for our sake, and was elevated on the wood for nothing else than for his concern about us. Today we look upon the brave fighter stoned for Him, so that he gave thanks with his blood for His blood.

2. Stephen who assembled us for this celebration, calling us to the present festivities by leading the city to this place – he was the first of the martyrs, the teacher of suffering for Christ, the foundation of the good confession (cf. 1 Tim 6:13). Indeed before Stephen nobody shed his blood on behalf of the Gospel. But as Cain, the murderer of his brother – as the story in the book of Moses teaches me (Gen 4:8) – accomplished this murder instead of natural love, preferring contentious jealousy, and as the first introduced murder on earth – so was Stephen the thrice-blessed first to sanctify the earth with his own blood, by a pious contest, second in time after the apostles but first by his brave deeds. Don’t be displeased, Peter, don’t be irritated, James, nor discontented, John, if I not only compare the man with your love of wisdom, but even want to assign him something more. Rather rejoice, as fathers without jealousy, able to glory in the successes of their sons, gladly overcome by their children with regard to virtue. If indeed there is something noble and great about Stephen, it is completely yours, as you are his educators and leaders into the mysteries. The good fame of the athletes is an honour for the trainer. Now that I have begged briefly your permission, I shall freely say what the subject inspires in me as a plea for the hero of Christ.

3. Yes, you are the elder of the disciples, holy Peter, proclaiming Jesus Christ before all the others. But when you were announcing the word of the Gospel, passing from city to city, crossing from place to place in labour for the message, this one entered the stadium, carrying off the crown of the contest. He went to heaven and was glorified, even when you were still on earth. And the climax was that the Father Himself and the Son summoned him by a wonderful vision. As far as Peter is concerned, may my words suffice: it would be bold to contest more with the fathers about the places of honour. Let us also consider you, James, brother of John. You were the preacher of Christ, His second prey, after Peter. Who wouldn’t admire your faith? You were simply called and without hesitation you followed. You left 1eft your boat, and your father Zebedee. You followed Christ as a true disciple. You suffered for faith eagerly, I recognise: Herod, the tyrant, slew you with the sword, though much later than Stephen. But why should I name them one by one? Our man took away before all other saints the prize of martyrdom, being the first to meet the devil95 in battle and to vanquish him, in imitation of David, but by an opposite deed: with stones David vanquished Goliath (1 Sam 17:49), with stones Stephen the devil too, but the former with stones he threw, the latter with those by which he was hit. Let us, people of Christ, cry out like once the army of Israel and shout in triumph for the victory, as if we saw him present, admiring him as he keeps upright.

4. Everyone who fights for the true religion is eminent, even if he follows as a second or a third the fighters before him. But he deserves not the same admiration as the first. A second is led by his zeal to imitate the preceding and is drawn in that way to his goal. But he who has no predecessor needs invent his bravery on his own and rightly receives the vote of precedence. Mighty was the zeal of our man, mighty therefore also the honour; immortal his remembrance, no forgetfulness covered it, no time darkened it. As the tale has been passed down from generation to generation, without interruption we celebrate his feast: priests, people, children, men, women. But we must consider again the story, so that we, as it were touching the facts, may admire all the more the man.

5. Stephen was the first of Christ’s deacons, sanctified by grace, a vessel filled by the Spirit. He daily fortified the household [of the Lord] and made the erring return to the right way. But because his teaching was more straightforward, he hindered more than the other apostles their enemies, and prominently their chief enemy, the Devil. For the Devil fixes his eyes more fiercely and wildly upon those who manifest their adherence to the true religion. He roused an assembly of Alexandrians to direct opposition. Certainly you know about the people of that city, how quick to anger they are, how heated once they have something in mind. When he caught sight of a crowd of them rushing to confront him, he did not understand the event. But he found, however, an ingenious way of addressing them with harmonious and gentle words. There is indeed no better remedy to cure anger and excitement than by mild and well formulated advice. ‘Tell me please’, he says, ‘the reason for your hatred, why you stretch out your hands against me in such a way, ready to tear me in pieces.’ When they answered: ‘Because you destroy the decrees of our Fathers and you introduce foreign teachings’, the blessed man stood up in their midst, though he was uneducated and unprepared as a rhetor – he did not speak by means of training but according to the inspiration of the Spirit – and said: ‘Gentlemen, brothers and fathers, listen’.

6. How wise the introduction, how excellent the beginning of the speech to those heated people. The gentleness and mildness of the words were like some honey or soft oil diminishing the fiery heat of the wild beasts. Then he went back in memory until Abraham, beginning with ancient times and stretching forth widely his account, and so caused them by the long interval to forget their anger so that it disappeared. And developing his long oration, he demonstrated that also Moses prophesied about Christ, by the thrustworthiness of the Lawgiver quite naturally as well as stealthily introducing the word of faith. Prudently he brought forward what could serve to benefit the audience. But when he saw that their wickedness did not disappear and their mind remained incurable, he became filled with freedom of speech, and neglecting this life below, he abandoned his flattering eloquence, addressing them openly: ‘Stiffnecked, uncircumcised, strugglers against the Law, waging war against the Spirit . . .’ (cf. Acts 7:51). And what happened thereafter? Many dogs and fat bulls they surrounded him as they did the Lord, according to the Psalm, they overcame the Just (cf. Ps 21:13, 17). He stood alone, encircled on all sides by the mob of murderers. Noone was near him at that hour, no friend nor intimate, no kinsfolk, though it brings some encouragement for those in danger to see someone of acquaintance nearby.

7. The high President of this mighty contest knew that this man needed a supporter – however noble he was, he was also afflicted by human feelings. He appeared immediately as [Stephen] gazed to heaven, and showed him the Son standing at the right hand in the form of the incarnation. What philanthropy, what goodness! The athlete saw those for whom he contended in a vision. And the God of All more or less spoke to him this message. ‘Do not suffer unworthy feelings, Stephen. You have no human companions, no friend supports you in this hour of fear, but I, together with my Beloved, am watching your holy action. Your rest is prepared, the gates of paradise are open. Be steadfast just a little longer, and than leave this transitory existence and strive for the everlasting life without end. While in the body, you see God, an event of greater value than anything in the innercosmic nature. You have been introduced by the elder apostles to [the knowledge that] the Father has a real beloved Son. Look, now I manifest myself to you, as far as you can bear it. My Son stands at My right side, so that you know by His position the honor He holds. At the time it scandalised many that God embraced a body on earth. But now consider Him on high together with Me as celestial and even supracelestial, to confirm in His human shape the economy of salvation. Therefore, while you are being killed by the stones, don’t cower now, don’t give up. Look at the president of the games, and you will not fear the contest. Abandon your body, despise it as an earthly bond, a house of decay, a perishable vessel of the potter. Run up hither as a liberated man, the crown of virtue is ready for you. Leave that earth for heaven. Abandon your body for this murderous people, as food for dogs. Leave that raging mob and join the chorus of angels.’

8. For this reason God appeared Himself to the valiant man: that he should not manifest some cowardice nor should diminish his zeal by the greatness of danger. Therefore He did not send an angel as support, as He did later for the apostles in prison, nor any ministering power or co-servant, but He showed Himself to him. He became the first fruit of martyrdom, and this deserved perfection, so that the martyrs to come could build upon him, having the strength of his zeal as a basis, not becoming imitators of cowardice. So it happens as well in normal warfare. One of the soldiers leads the attack and gives the sign of battle. If he behaves victoriously and courageously, his own people will be fortified and the adversaries are overthrown. But if he manifests some weakness, fear overcomes his people and they get filled by fear, and he turns into a signal for flight. For that reason God appeared from heaven.

9. Stephen who was worthy of this magnificent vision as no other, did not keep silent about what he saw, but immediately cried out: ‘Behold, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God’ (Acts 7:56). In his opinion, to mention openly the vision to the unbelievers could possibly make them change their mind. But to them his words became a reason for even greater anger and mania; they closed their ears to his word as if it were a blasphemy and conspired immediately about murder. They dragged the Christ-bearing man out of the city (Acts 7:58): he carried his endurance as the Lord the cross. They cured evil by evil, by a murder they defended themselves because of the murder, to the cross they added the stones. They put the thrice-blessed on a flat spot, his tall body, the high trophy of martyrdom. That people of blood and anger surrounded him, imitating the formation of a dragnet as they call it in war: they threw stones at the servant of the cornerstone (cf. 1 Pet 2:6–7; Isa 28:16). Every Hebrew hand took part in the murder. The martyr was the mark of their throwing, he stood between them as the target of the archer. His body, wounded at all sides and washed with blood was bending from the right position, shaking and almost ready to fall down, tall like a plane-tree surrounded by many carpenters. But he didn’t fall down unseemingly as many others do, nor did he bend forward or lean to his side or on his back. He knelt down with the worthy attitude of someone in prayer, and ended his life urging the separation of his soul from the body, by his prayer crying to the appearing Lord: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, receive my spirit’ (Acts 7:59–60). He pressed on as for a migration, a change of abode from a foreign land to his own country, to a radiant city out of a desert and dry place. And he added to his prayer an imprecation about those throwing stones – involuntarily they were his benefactors: by the stones they saved him, by their murder they made him alive, separating him from the mud they sent him to the kingdom.

10. But let us also consider the words of his prayer, to what aim he says ‘Lord, do not hold their sin against them’ (Acts 7:60). He prays not, as some incorrectly presume, that the sin of his enemies should remain unavenged and guiltless. That would make him opposing the Divine intention: he would seem to rectify the righteous judgement and the legislation which would give the murderers what they deserved. But what does he say? ‘Lord, do not hold their sin against them’, that is, ‘Give them fear because of compunction; bring them to regret what they dared, let them not die away in circumcision, draw them through repentance to knowledge about you, kindle in their hearts the flame of the Spirit. If they repent in that way, it will be manifest that you hold not that sin against them, but by the bath of grace they will wash away your and my blood and be free of any charge.’ So it happened and the drama came to its end. The host of angels were rejoicing, amazed about the contest, and led Stephen with a numerous escort to his own inheritance. The devil on the contrary turned away empty, in complete distress, or to say it more concretely about this spirit which walks in the air, imitating a prophetic saying, with a face like a burned pot (cf. Joel 2:6; Nah 2:11). He achieved the contrary to what he intended, and by his attempt to diminish the Christians, he made the list of the martyrs increase.

11. And what now about St Paul? He indeed was one of the murderers, a real Benjamin, a snatching wolf. He did not personally throw stones but he guarded the clothes of those who were throwing and so he was serving the rapacious pack. But after a little I’ll see you, who are now so swelling with pride and breathing like a fierce beast, as an old feeble woman led by the hand, when you are brought to Ananias (cf. Acts 9:8ff.), after having made the acquaintance of Truth. I shall laugh in a while pleasantly when I hear you speaking about your troubles because of the Gospel, and mentioning among other dangers: ‘On one occasion I was stoned’. It was appropriate that you had to defend yourself by stones because of the stones and that you have solved the charge of sins by the same suffering.

12. Neither are we allowed to leave the vision of Stephen unexplored. As the God of all who foresees the future knows what in the life of men will happen as sins and prepares their treatment, He has done also the same in this case. When the theophany on its own was useful for the contestant, a voice from heaven sufficed, as it happened at the baptism or later at the metamorphosis, or as happened to Paul on the way to Damascus (cf. Matt 3:17, 17:5 and Acts 9:4). But since in our days that evil Sabellius from Lybia appeared in the churches of God and introduced the evil doctrine of the mixture of the persons [of the Trinity], therefore, as an anticipation of the future and a confirmation of the souls beforehand, God shows Himself to Stephen in His very own glory; and moreover He shows the Son as a person on His own, standing at His right side, so that by a clear distinction of the Persons the hypostases are manifest.

13. But probably someone would say: ‘The question about the Father and the Son has been treated sufficiently by you, but what about the Holy Spirit?’. If for the safety of faith the Father and the Son appeared from heaven, then it was fitting that the Holy Spirit too was present, so that by the vision a direct introduction to the mystery was achieved for men. The one who puts forward this reasoning against us, must be answered as follows. O very wise man, you who question what is read must have a right insight and trained memory in order to have every piece of Scripture present. If you look for the presence of the Spirit, return a little before the stones and the murder, and you will find the Spirit mentioned before the vision, present with Stephen and preparing him as an athlete. At the very beginning of the narration we find the following text: Stephen, filled with grace and truth and power, worked miracles and great signs among the people. But some stood up from the synagogue that is called from the Freedmen, and from the Cyreneans and the Alexandrians and those from Cilicia and Asia, and started to debate with Stephen and they could not stand against him because of his wisdom and the Spirit through whom he spoke (Acts 6:8–10). You see that Scripture clearly presents us the person of the Spirit. Even if this is written a little earlier, and the Father and the Son are coming later, this change of order does not harm faith in any way. To do this is customary for Scripture: one time it mentions the Son alone, another the Spirit with the Son. Sometimes it starts with the Father, to finish with the Spirit or on the contrary takes a beginning at the Spirit and leads by the text through the Son to the Father. And this customary mode of expression can be seen happening almost negligently in the case of the great Paul. But now our duty to Stephen is fulfilled. If not properly because of the size of the subject, it might be sufficient because of the ability of the speaker. Glory to our God, forever and ever. Amen.

Source: 'Let Us Die That We May Live': Greek Homilies on Christian Martyrs from Asia Minor, Palestine and Syria (c. AD 350-AD 450).

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