Friday, December 27, 2019

December 26. St Stephen's Day 2019

December 27, Christmas Day 3

December 26, St. Stephen’s Day

This is the one day of the year when we should all hear the carol about the Bohemian king Wenceslas (who was a 10th-century duke of Bohemia) who braved the bitter winter weather and snow to distribute alms to the poor. The carol was written by the hymn writer that should be familiar to all Episcopalians since there are so many of his hymns and translations of hymns which appear in the 1982 Hymnal.  John Mason Neale wrote the lyrics before 1853 and they were set to “Tempus adest floridum” that was first published in the 1582 collections of songs, Piae Cantiones.
Good King Wenceslas looked out, on the Feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even;
Brightly shone the moon that night, tho' the frost was cruel,
When a poor man came in sight, gath'ring winter fuel.         
The last two lines:
            Therefore, Christian men, be sure, wealth or rank possessing,
Ye who now will bless the poor, shall yourselves find blessing.

I had many errands to do yesterday, and never once did I hear the carol, though it was played often before Christmas Day.

St. Stephen

The story of Saint Stephen is written in the Acts of the Apostles 6.1-8.2.  He probably lived from 5-34 BCE. Though Stephen is a Greek name, he was Jewish given his lengthy speech to the Sanhedrin defending himself and outlining how Jesus fulfilled the Law, not subvert it. The Apostles gained so many converts, Jews and Greek-speaking Jews, that they were failing in their duty to care for the poor, especially widows of the Greek-speaking converts. The Acts of the Apostles states that the Hellenists (Greek-speaking Jews) complained that their widows were being slighted in favor of the Hebrew/Aramaic speaking widows. The Apostles decided to delegate what they saw as a burdensome, less worthy duty to deacons so that the Apostles could continue their preaching. 

The Apostles laid hands upon, ordained, seven deacons, of which Stephen was the first. Stephen was a very zealous and effective preacher and teacher among the Greek-speaking Jews especially in the three synagogues of the Freemen, and Cyrenians, and Alexandrians.  It is not known which group of freed Jewish slaves and their descendants that comprised the Freemen. The most likely group were the Jews who were taken as slaves by General Pompey when he conquered Judea in 63 BCE who had returned to Judea.  Cyrene was a Greek-speaking town in what is now Libya. Alexandria is in Egypt. The Jews in these synagogues were exceedingly angry with Stephen. They hauled him before the Sanhedrin. They claimed that Stephen’s teachings were blasphemous against Moses and God. The trial was not completed before the inflamed mob grabbed Stephen and stoned him to death. Stephen was the first martyr to the faith that did not even have the name Christian yet.

I think there are two points in Stephen’s summary of the history of the Jews from Abraham that cause the rage of the mob to become murderous. First, he quoted Isaiah 66.1 against the Temple in Jerusalem. Acts 7.48. “Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made by human hands; as the prophet says,”

Isaiah 66.1. Thus says the Lord: Heaven is my throne and the earth is my footstool;
what is the house that you would build for me, and what is my resting place?

Then Stephen immediately called his listeners. Acts 7.51-52a “‘You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are for ever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do.  Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute?’”

Saul of Tarsus witnessed Stephen’s stoning death. After Stephen’s death, his body was buried by “Godly men” who deeply mourned his death. No place of death or burial is mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles.

The Feast of St. Stephen on December 26th is from a wholly different story, and that is the finding of the bones of St. Stephen.  In 415 CE, a priest named Lucian supposedly dreamt of the locations of Stephen’s bones at Beit Jimal, an ancient small town west of Jerusalem. The relics were taken in procession to the Church of Hagia Sion on 26 December 415. Thus, the Feast of St. Stephen is the day his relics were carried (translated) to the Church of Hagia Sion, a Byzantine church built on Mount Zion. This church built by Emperor Constantine was destroyed during the Persian or Sasanian conquest of Jerusalem in 614. Stephen’s bones did not find rest but were moved several more times and distributed to many places before being taken to Rome by Pope Pelagius II (pope from 579-590). They were entombed with those of St. Lawrence in the Basilica di San Lorenzo fuori le Mura. The Golden Legend tells that the body of St. Law(u)rence rolled over so that there was enough room in the sepulcher to place the bones of St. Stephen.

There are a sizeable number of stained-glass windows retelling the story of the life of Stephen as told in the Acts of the Apostles as well as later events including the finding of his bones in the 5th century.

Photos credits. All photos are from Painton Cowen. 

Stephen entrusted with his mission. Laon Cathedral east window c.1210-1215.

Stephen preaching. Sens Cathedral. window 102 1230-1240.

The listeners to the preaching. Sens Cathedral. window 102 [Note the Jews’ hats]

Stephen is denounced. Sens Cathedral. window 102.

Stephen is imprisoned. Sens Cathedral window 102.

Stephen before the High Priest. Normandy 1230-1240 now in Victoria & Albert.

Stephen before the Sanhedrin. Laon Cathedral. East window 1210-1215.

Stephen before the Sanhedrin. Chartres Cathedral. window 13.

Stephen led out to be stoned. Chartres window 13.

Stephen led out to be stoned. Laon Cathedral. East window.

The stoning of St. Stephen appears in so many windows that I chose only two.
The stoning of Stephen. Bourges Cathedral. window 10. c.1210-1215.

The stoning of Stephen. Chartres Cathedral window 13.

Saul, seated, is given a garment from Stephen after the stoning. Sens Cathedral

Stephen is buried. Chartres Cathedral. 13th century.

The priest Lucian leads Bishop John to the relics of Stephen. Auxerre Cathedral. 13the century.

The relics are reburied with dignity and a healing rain falls on December 26, 415 CE.  Bourges Cathedral. Window 15. 1210-1215.

I have made no attempt to include all the different windows about the miracles associated with the relics of St. Stephen, many of which are included in the Legenda Aurea. Bishop Augustine of Hippo included miracles associated with St. Stephen in the City of God, Book XXII, Chapter VIII. Of Miracles Which Were Wrought that the World Might Believe in Christ, and Which Have Not Ceased Since the World Believed

As I wrote above the relics of Stephen were moved several times including within the area of Jerusalem, Jerusalem to Constantinople and then to Rome.  There is a set of six windows telling the story of the removal of the shrine of Stephen's relics from Jerusalem to Constantinople in the Cathedral of Our Lady, Chartres.

The shrine of St. Stephen is put aboard a boat.  Chartres window 13.

The devil lets loose a storm.

The boat arrives safely thought the devil is still lurking above.

A crowd of the sick and infirm welcome the arrival of the boat with the relics of St, Stephen with their apparent miraculous ability to cure.

The relics are removed from the boat.

The reception of the relics at Constantinople.

Orders were given to transfer the relics of St. Stephen from Constantinople to Rome in order to save the Emperor Valentinian II's daughter Eudoxia. Bourges Cathedral. Window 15, panels 17 and 18.

The remains of St. Stephen moved to Rome.
Bourges Cathedral. window 15, panel 19.

The top panel of the St. Stephen window at Chartres Cathedral, window 13 shows two angels carrying the soul of Stephen to heaven.  This ends this blog for today.

Stephen's soul carried to heaven by angels. Chartres Cathedral. window 13, top panel.

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