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ST. STEPHEN'S DAY.
Grant, O Lord, that in all our sufferings here 2.pon earth for the testimony of thy truth, we may steadfastly look up to heaven, and by faith behold the glory that shall be revealed; and being filled with the Holy Ghost, may learn to love and bless our persecutors by the example of thy first martyr St. Stephen ; zoho prayed for his murderers to thee, O Blessed Jesus, who standest at the right-hand of God, to succour all those that suffer for thee, our only Mediator and Advocate. Amen.
HOUGH the collects for the days conse
crated to the memory of St. Stephen and the Holy Innocents are comparatively of a modern date, having been newly made at the Reformation, yet the observation of those days is of very early antiquity, as appears from the testimony of several very antient writers. *
It has been observed, that the ancient church denominated the day of a martyr's death his birth-day. + “So Tertullian and others use the “ words Natalitia and Natales,” when speaking of the martyrs; “ meaning not their natural
birth, but their nativity to a glorious crown so in the kingdom of heaven. The Natales or “ birth days of the Emperors often signify not " their natural but political birth-day, or the 6 day of their inauguration to the imperial
* See Wheatly, p. 194. Oxford edit. † Bingham's Antiquities. B. xx, ch, vii, sect, 2.
And so it was with the church: “ whenever she spake of the nativities of her “ martyrs, she meant not the day of their na“ tural birth, but the day wherein by suffering “ death they were born again to a new life, " and solemnly inaugurated to a celestial king“ dom and a crown of endless glory.” An ancient author says, “ When they celebrated " the memorial of those holy men, they kept “ not their first nativity, as being the inlet to “sorrow and temptation, but the day of their “ death, as the period of their miseries, and " that which sets them beyond the reach of
temptation. We celebrate the day of their death, because they die not even when they seem to die.”
St. Stephen has the first place assigned to him in the calendar of our church, because he was the protomartyr in the cause of Christianity. * He had the honour of being the foremost in the van of the “ holy army of martyrs,” and is therefore justly intitled to a precedence in our grateful commemoration of Divine mercy shewn to the church through those persons who have fought her battles and suffered for her benefit. In reviewing the collect appointed for our use on this day, we shall, first, state the circumstances on which it is founded, and to which it refers; and then, secondly, consider the petitions which we are instructed to offer for ourselves.
Christianity, on its first appearance in the world, openly avowed its hostility to the dominion of him who is styled in Scripture “ the
prince of this world.” Its real and apparent object was the destruction of that system of
* See Wheatly, p. 194.
corruption, both in principle and practice, which, originating at the fall, had arrived at full maturity, when the Stronger than the strong man armed came to bind him and spoil him of his goods. It is therefore no cause for surprise that the powers of earth and hell rose up in furious opposition to the Messiah and His followers, and that, having « killed the Prince of “ life,” they laboured to exterminate all who professed themselves His followers.
The first of those who fell victims to the rage of hell after the death of Christ, was St. Stephen. Of the birth, parentage, or education of this highly favoured man, neither Scripture nor ecclesiastical history has given us any account. It is certain that he was a Jew; but whether originally descended from Abraham, or united to the Jewish church by proselytism, we have no means of determining. Antiquity records that he was one of the seventy disciples whom our Lord selected to be coadjutors of His Apostles.
The primitive church was endowed in an eminent degree with the spirit of Christian charity. And while its members were chiefly anxious to build up each other in their most holy faith, they were not unmindful of the bodily wants which were felt by the poor among them. “ Love and charity were the common soul “ which animated the whole body of believers, “ and conveyed heat and vital spirits to every “ part.” The rich sold their possessions, and laid the sums obtained for them at the Apostles' feet, that, being thrown into one common treasury, an equal distribution might be made as every one's wants required. But this harmony which prevailed in the church received a temporary interruption from a partiality shewn by the conductors of this business. - The Gre“ cians murmured against the Hebrews, because “ their widows were neglected in the daily minis“tration." Acts vi. 1. These Grecians or Hellenists were not of the Hebrew race, but Greek or Gentile proselytes, who had, either themselves or in their ancestors, deserted the pagan superstitions, and embodied themselves into the Jewish church, taking upon them circumcision and the rites of the Mosaic law. *
For the purpose of restoring peace and quiet to the church, the Apostles, whose time was too much occupied by higher concerns to be able to attend to the distribution of alms, proposed the election of a set of officers who might superintend this business. This was accordingly done, and seven deacons were solemnly ordained by the hands of the Apostles, of whom St. Stephen was the first, “a man full of faith “ and of the Holy Ghost." And as these deacons were authorised by the solemnities of consecration which were used, not only to manage the affairs of the poor, but also to preach the gospel, the zeal of St. Stephen, and the doctrines which he preached enforced by the unquestionable miracles which he performed, soon excited the fierce animosity of the unbelieving Jews. From among the various synagogues with which Jerusalem abounded, and which were appropriated to the Jews and proselytes of various countries in which they were dispersed, the professors and students of five different colleges offered themselves as opponents of the Christian Deacon. But notwithstanding their advantage in numbers, and probably in age and experience, “they were not able to resist the “ wisdom and spirit by which St. Stephen
* On this point Dr, Cave and Dr. Prideaux are at issue. As the object of these pages is practical and not critical, the reader who wishes to see what these learned men have said on the subject is referred to their works. See Cave's Life of St. Stephen, and Prideaux's Connection of the Old and New Testament. Part II. book 1. & 8. and notes.
spake ;” and no wonder, for the Spirit of God spake by him.
Being foiled in the disputation, they had recourse to the most dishonourable method of silencing the zealous advocate for Christianity.
They suborned men which said, we have heard “him speak blasphemous words against Moses “ and against God. And they stirred up the
people, and the elders and the scribes, and “ came upon him and caught him, and brought “ him before the council. And they set up false “ witnesses which said, This man ceaseth not to “ speak blasphemous words against this holy “ place and the law. For we have heard him “ say, That this Jesus of Nazareth shall destroy “ this place, and shall change the customs which « Moses delivered us." Acts vi. 9-14.
The court being set and the accusation brought, Stephen was permitted to answer for himself, which he did in a most eloquent and convincing speech; while the Sanhedrim, looking steadfastly upon him, discovered an extraordinary splendour in his countenance, which made him to resemble an angel of God. The drift of his argument is to shew that the previous dispensations of God, under the patriarchal and Mosaic æconomies, were introductory to a purer and everlasting dispensation which the Lord Christ, who had been