ST. STEPHEN, DEACON AND MARTYR, & GREEK PANCAKES
Jacopo and Domenico Tintoretto
St. Stephen, Deacon and Martyr, was born early in the first century likely into a Hellenistic (Greek influenced and Greek speaking) Jewish family. Stéphanos is a Greek name meaning crown. He’s remembered as the first (or arch) among the first seven deacons of the early Christian church, for being an excellent speaker for the Lord, and as the first martyr for Jesus Christ. For speaking boldly and calling out his accusers at a trumped-up trial for blasphemy, he was dragged outside the city gate of Jerusalem and stoned to death some time in 34 A.D.
In 415 A.D., a priest named Lucian had a dream which revealed the location of St. Stephen’s remains at Beit Jimal. The relics were taken in procession to the Church of Hagion Sion on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem on December 26, 415.
St. Stephen is honored on that day in the Roman Catholic, Anglican (including Episcopal), and Lutheran Churches, on December 27 in the Eastern Catholic Church, January 9 in Eastern Orthodox Churches, December 25 in the Armenian Apostolic Church, and January 7 in the Armenia Catholic Church.
It’s funny when I realize my preconceived notions of a saint are wrong as soon as I begin my research on him or her. The funny part is how I continue to be surprised by this regular occurrence. My preconceived notion about St. Stephen was that there wasn’t a lot of information about him. Luke’s Acts, in fact, has plenty. Let’s start here:
In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.”
This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Anitoch, a convert to Judaism. They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.
So, the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith. – Acts 6:1-7
This is a lovely passage showing delegation of authority and duty, trust in people to serve in the stead of the Twelve Apostles, caring for those on the margins, and acceptance by the group. I also focused in on Stephen’s attributes, “a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit.” Sometimes we read things in the Holy Bible which seem too good to be true. But something about seeing Stephen referred to as “a man” grounds him in reality.
Alas, in this next passage we learn Stephen does his job too well for those in the government. To set the stage a little more, this part of Acts describes what went on shortly after the Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Pentecost when the apostles were given their assignment to spread the Word of Jesus Christ far and wide. Stephen and the six others ordained as deacons (but not yet called such) by the Twelve Apostles do just that.
Stephen worked among early Christians and those people who were so moved by the ministry and miracles of Jesus Christ they readily converted and welcomed Him into their hearts. Those in power, the Jewish hierarchy that ruled under and within the Roman Empire saw they were losing control of the people and revenue:
Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, performed great wonders and signs among the people. Opposition arose, however, from members of the Synagogue of the Freemen (as it was called) – Jews of Cyrene and Alexandria as well as the provinces of Cilicia and Asia—who began to argue with Stephen. But they could not stand up against the wisdom the Spirit gave him as he spoke.
Then they secretly persuaded some men to say, “We have heard Stephen speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God.”
So they stirred up the people and the elders and the teachers of the law. They seized Stephen and brought him before the Sanhedrin.
They produced false witnesses, who testified, “This fellow never stops speaking against this holy place and against the law. For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us.”
All who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel. – Acts 6:8-15
The Sanhedrin was a Jewish court of law. By Roman Rule, stoning was the only way the court was allowed to put someone to death. Again, I zoomed in on Stephen’s description. He was a man full of God’s grace and power, performer of great wonders and signs, speaker of spirit-filled wisdom, and he had the face of an angel.
This next passage is Stephen’s answer to their false charges. Heads up, it’s long. I mean, it’s really long. Feel free to skip or skim it. On the other hand, dearworthy readers, I encourage you to settle in and really read this passage. Go grab a cup o’ tea or bookmark this spot for later. We’ll be here when you get back.
Reasons to read this passage carefully:
- Not all of us know our Old Testament, and Stephen’s epic rant sums it up pretty darn well.
- Not all of us know how to summarize. Summarization is a skill writers need to learn, and one of the best ways for a writer to learn the craft of writing is to read, read, read.
- A careful reading of this passage will uncover Stephen’s overall message – Y’all didn’t listen and learn from the prophets back in the day, and you still ain’t. Much more eloquently than that, of course. The way he uses Scripture to shore up his argument is brilliant.
- Note all the references to angels:
Then the high priest asked Stephen, “Are these charges true?”
To this he replied: “Brothers and fathers, listen to me! The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham while he was still in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Harran. ‘Leave your country and your people,’ God said, ‘and go to the land I will show you.’
So he left the land of the Chaldeans and settled in Harran. After the death of his father, God sent him to this land where you are now living. He gave him no inheritance here, not even enough ground to set his foot on. But God promised him that he and his descendants after him would possess the land, even though at that time Abraham had no child. God spoke to him in this way; ‘For four hundred years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated. But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves,’ God said, ‘and afterward they will come out of that country and worship me in this place.’
Then he gave Abraham the covenant of circumcision. And Abraham became the father of Isaac and circumcised him eight days after his birth. Later Isaac became the father of Jacob, and Jacob became the father of the twelve patriarchs.
Because the patriarchs were jealous of Joseph, they sold him as a slave into Egypt. But God was with him and rescued him from all his troubles. He gave Joseph wisdom and enabled him to gain the goodwill of Pharaoh king of Egypt. So Pharaoh made him ruler over Egypt and all his palace.
Then a famine struck all Egypt and Canaan, bringing great suffering, and our ancestors could not find food. When Jacob heard that there was grain in Egypt, he sent our forefathers on their first visit.
On their second visit, Joseph told his brothers who he was, and Pharaoh learned about Joseph’s family.
After this, Joseph sent for his father Jacob and his whole family, seventy-five in all. Then Jacob went down to Egypt, where he and our ancestors died. Their bodies were brought back to Shechem and placed in the tomb that Abraham had bought for the sons of Hamor at Shechem for a certain sum of money.
As the time drew near for God to fulfill his promise to Abraham, the number of our people in Egypt had greatly increased. Then ‘a new king, to whom Joseph meant nothing, came to power in Egypt.’
He dealt treacherously with our people and oppressed our ancestors by forcing them to throw out their newborn babies so that they would die.
At that time Moses was born, and he was no ordinary child. For three months he was cared for by his family. When he was placed outside, Pharaoh’s daughter took him and brought him up as her own son. Moses was educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and was powerful in speech and action.
When Moses was forty years old, he decided to visit his own people, the Israelites. He saw one of them being mistreated by an Egyptian, so he went to his defense and avenged him by killing the Egyptian. Moses thought that his own people would realize that God was using him to rescue them, but they did not. The next day Moses came upon two Israelites who were fighting. He tried to reconcile them by saying, ‘Men, you are brothers; why do you want to hurt each other?’
But the man who was mistreating the other pushed Moses aside and said, ‘Who made you ruler and judge over us? Are you thinking of killing me as you killed the Egyptian yesterday?’ When Moses heard this, he fled to Midian, where he settled as a foreigner and had two sons.
After 40 years had passed, an angel appeared to Moses in the flames of a burning bush in the dessert near Mount Sinai. When he saw this, he was amazed at the sight. As he went over to get a closer look, he heard the Lord say; ‘I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.’ Moses trembled with fear and did not dare to look.
Then the Lord said to him, ‘Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground. I have indeed seen the oppression of my people in Egypt. I have heard their groaning and have come down to set them free. Now come, I will send you back to Egypt.’
This is the same Moses they had rejected with the words, ‘Who made you ruler and judge?’ He was sent to be their ruler and deliverer by God himself, through the angel who appeared to him in the bush.
He led them out of Egypt and performed wonders and signs in Egypt, at the Red Sea and for forty years in the wilderness.
This is the Moses who told the Israelites, ‘God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your own people.’ He was in the assembly in the wilderness, with the angel who spoke to him on Mount Sinai, and with our ancestors; and received living words to pass on to us.
But our ancestors refused to obey him. Instead, they rejected him and in their hearts turned back to Egypt. They told Aaron, ‘Make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who led us out of Egypt—we don’t know what has happened to him! That was from the time they made an idol in the form of a calf. They brought sacrifices to it and reveled in what their own hands had made. But God turned away from them and gave them over to the worship of the sun, moon, and stars. This agrees with what is written in the book of the prophets:
“‘Did you bring me sacrifices and offerings forty years in the wilderness, people of Israel? You have taken up the tabernacle of Molek and the star of your god, Rephan, the idols you made to worship. Therefore, I will send you into exile beyond Babylon.’”
Our ancestors had the tabernacle of the covenant law with them in the wilderness. It had been made as God directed Moses, according to the pattern he had seen. After receiving the tabernacle, our ancestors under Joshua brought it with them when they took the land from the nations God drove out before them. It remained in the land until the time of David, who enjoyed God’s favor and asked that he might provide a dwelling place for God of Jacob. But it was Solomon who built a house for him.
However, the Most High does not live in houses made by human hands. As the prophet says; “‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me?’ says the Lord. ‘Or where will my resting place be? Has not my hand made all these things?’”
You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised. You are just like your ancestors; you always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your ancestors did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him – you who have received the law that was given through angels but have not obeyed it. – Acts 7:1-53
Did you see all those to angels? Doesn’t it seem like he’s saying, I’m an angel and you’re not listening to me? I know, I know. I’m imagining this connection. The earlier passages clearly refer to Stephen as a man. He couldn’t possibly be an angel. Although, there’s something in this next passage:
When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him.
But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”
At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.
While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”
When he had said this, he fell asleep. – Acts 7:54-60
At the moment when Stephen should have been the most frightened for his life, God appeared to him in the form of the Father and the Son. Next, with the crowd hurling rocks at him, he asked Jesus to take his spirit away from the pain. Then, instead of curling up in a protective position and covering his head with his arms, he revealed his true self when he knelt to beg the Lord not to punish his murderers. After which he “fell asleep.”
A gentle death is usually implied when “fell asleep” is used as a euphemism for “died.” However, death by rock pummeling is not gentle in any way.
St. Stephen seems too good to be true. He must have been an angel. It’s clear St. Luke, the author of Acts, thought so as he recorded these events that he had either witnessed himself or heard about from others.
St. Luke was a poet. And poets are all about imagery and turn of phrase. He described Stephen as a man angelic in character. His murder, so similar in sequence and dialogue to the Crucifixion of Christ, was a perfect example for the first Christian martyr (or Protomartyr) to display as a template for all those who would follow. Stephen’s martyrdom gave the apostles and early Christians the desire and courage to risk their lives to follow the Way of Jesus Christ wholeheartedly, loud and clear.
Let’s see what happened next:
And Saul approved of their killing him.
On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison. — Acts 8:1-3
As the early Christians ran away from Saul’s persecution, they “scattered” the seeds of Christianity far and wide. Soon after, Saul had his powerful conversion on the Road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-19), and he became St. Paul.
I’ll write that again. He became St. Paul, the writer of all those letters in the New Testament explaining Christianity. I know, right?! What the? Who the? The guy with the coats?!
Yes, the guy with the coats converted through the power and grace of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, to become one of the most significant spreaders of His Word.
This guy with the coats approved of an evil act and then went crazy with it on his own, to the point of forcing early Christians out and away to distant lands. And then, with God, he changed his ways, dramatically and permanently, for the good. St. Paul remembered the angelic expressions of the first martyr when he preached and wrote letters to early Christian communities which were founded by those who ran away from his former self.
If you think about it too much, it boggles the mind. Better to ponder instead what we could do ourselves if we stopped, prayed for guidance, and adjusted our own courses.
Back to the angelic St. Stephen — for good or bad, it’s become a habit with me to see angels everywhere. Recently, a police officer gifted me only a warning for speeding on my drive to the beach because he could see I was already having a bad day and really needed to get to the shore:
Do me a personal favor, slow down. Enjoy your much-needed walk. I hope you see some dolphins. Merry Christmas!
What do you do with something like that? He had to be an angel, right? Nope. He was a compassionate human being who appreciated the fact I was having a rough time of it right then. My recovery from codependency is teaching me that not everyone who is authentically nice to me is an angel. They are humans making their choices, doing their thing.
Dearworthy readers, look around you. If the people in your life aren’t regularly treating you with genuine compassion and appreciation, then there is something wrong going on in your life. And, it’s not with you. But, you’re the one who has to make the change. As my recovery counselor recently put it:
Careful discernment of the continuum of love and where you fall, depending on the person you’re with, abates overlove or codependency. You will find clarity, a place you can trust.
I learned this lesson via a friend who treated me with compassion and appreciation throughout all the confusion that came before and upon the recognition of my codependency addiction and my early recovery process. Recovery turned out to be a major part of my spiritual journey which included, but didn’t end upon, my discovery that Jesus has been standing right here next to me all along.
It took years. Years. Plus tons of effort and epiphanies. I’ve learned how to recognize non-addictive friendships and seek them out because this friend showed me what it looks like. He gave me the template. I consider him an angel for sticking with me so faithfully. Yet, to do so makes it all seem too easy, as if he had no choice but to act angelically.
Humans aren’t angels, and our existence isn’t easy. We make choices every day – big, small, good, or bad. So, don’t take it for granted when someone acts angelically toward you. Consider it a gift. Deliver words of thanks even if your “angel” sees the situation from a different perspective than you do.
For example, I have another friend who helped me through a difficult time of detox. He was a rational, encouraging voice in the void who helped me get through one day at a time and, sometimes, one hour at a time.
Months later, when I had reached a level of recovery that seems more than a little like happy, I expressed my gratitude to him and pointed out that he was a part of my Fatima miracle. The following ensued:
You’re a deeply spiritual and caring person, and I don’t want to hurt your feelings or make you angry with me like I have with other people in my past, but I have to tell you now, I’m an atheist. In no uncertain terms.
How the heck did you find out? I thought I was holding on to this secret so carefully!
You once commented something about it on Facebook. Meanwhile, I thought I had been making progress with you. That if I just kept inviting you to go check out your local Episcopal church, you’d go, and I’d earn apostle points. But, you were just being polite about it, weren’t you?
Yep. I can’t believe you knew this whole time.
Anyway, I want you to know I respect you so much at this point, I’m done. I won’t try to convince you to go to church anymore.
That’s good because there’s really no . . .
As he yammered on, I thought to myself, Jesus gets this about you, and He loves you:
Blessings not just for the ones who kneel
To me, this friendship seems filled with angelic presence. But to him, it’s an average friendship filled with amusing conversation. Somewhere in the middle is a miracle, and I believe that enough for both of us.
So, was St. Stephen an angel in disguise? Well, it would make for a good story, and thanks to St. Luke, it does. But, no. St. Stephen was a human who chose to act in accordance with the teachings of Jesus Christ despite the danger surrounding him.
If we follow the template laid out for us by St. Stephen – strive for hope (prayer + action) and err on the side of love, we can be pretty sure we’re doing the right thing in the eyes of God (or for the sake of goodness) and in the eyes of the random “guy with the coats” who will carry our example forward like a “ripple in still water when there is no pebble tossed.”
We give you thanks, O Lord of glory, for the example of the first martyr, Stephen, who looked up to heaven and prayed for his persecutors to your Son, Jesus Christ, who stands at your right hand; where he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen. — Collect, Holy Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints
For More Info
STARS IN A DARK WORLD: STORIES OF THE SAINTS AND HOLY DAYS OF THE LITURGY by Fr. John-Julian, OJN
LIVES OF THE SAINTS, COMPLETE, STANDARD EDITION: Volume IV by Alban Butler
In honor of St. Stephen, his caring for those on the margins, and his Greek culture, let’s make:
ANCIENT GREEK PANCAKES (TIGANITES)
Tiganites are traditional Greek pancakes. This first recipe is made from ancient ingredients which would have been available for Stephen to distribute to the Hellenistic Jewish widows in his care. Dried figs were a stored and relied upon winter food in that region of the world.
1 cup all-purpose (whole wheat or barley for more authenticity) flour
½ teaspoon sea salt
1 cup room-temperature water
1/3 cup olive oil
½ cup chopped dried figs
1 tablespoon olive oil for frying
Options for dipping: honey, Greek yogurt
Combine flour and salt in medium to large bowl. Add water and olive oil. Whisk until smooth. Add figs and stir.
Grease a large frying pan or griddle with olive oil and heat to medium high. With a serving spoon, pour batter onto the pan or griddle. Cook for one to two minutes on each side until golden. Repeat.
Serve warm with optional honey and Greek yogurt.
MODERN-DAY GREEK PANCAKES
This second recipe nods to their biblical ancestry but are more familiar to today’s palate accustomed to sugar and spice and everything fattening.
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 teaspoon baking POWDER
½ teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon salt
1 cup milk
3 tablespoons melted butter
½ cup chopped dried figs
1 tablespoon olive (or vegetable) oil for frying
Options for dipping or spreading: honey, Greek yogurt
Combine flour, brown sugar, baking POWDER, cinnamon, and salt in medium to large bowl. In a small bowl whisk together egg, milk, and butter.
Pour wet mixture into dry and stir with fork until smooth. Add figs and stir.
Grease a large frying pan or griddle with oil and heat to medium high. With a serving spoon, pour batter onto the pan or griddle. Cook for one to two minutes on each side until golden. Repeat.
Serve warm with optional honey and Greek yogurt.
You’d really rather go with butter and maple syrup, right? If you do, know you’re being all American or Canadian about it and not so much Greek. But, as long as you make ‘em in honor of St. Stephen, I’m sure he’d be cool with it.
As a matter of fact, him being so angelic and all, I think he’d even be touched, if, before you noshed on some Fig Newtons, you held up the package and said, “Here’s to you, St. Stephen!”
Remember to share.