Among the first seven deacons ordained by the apostles was a man named Stephen, who was “full of faith and the Holy Ghost”. Falsely accused of blasphemy by his enemies, he was brought to speak before the high priest and the council, and instead of defending himself, he spoke out against those who had again and again rejected God’s prophets and repaid God’s love with idolatry. Because they knew what he said was true, they hardened their hearts against him. He was dragged out of the city and stoned to death.
I have here represented St. Stephen as a young man in the choir dress worn by deacons in the Anglican Church of Virginia. He carries a Bible to represent his knowledge and understanding of the Word, and his head is wreathed with the red roses that symbolize martyrdom. Beneath his feet are stones, and by his side palms, which are associated with both martyrdom and victory.
St. Stephen’s feast day is the 26th of December, and one of the psalms appointed to be read on this day is the 118th (117 in the Vulgate), a hymn of victory which begins “O give thanks unto the Lord; for he is good: because his mercy endureth for ever.” When I first read through it to select a verse to include in this work, I thought that it was hardly an appropriate psalm to read on the day dedicated to the first martyr, and selected verse six – “The Lord is on my side; I will not fear: what can man do unto me?” – as the only verse relevant to the subject of my icon.
But when I read it again, the writer's trust in and love for God struck me: “I called upon the Lord in distress: the Lord answered me, and set me in a large place … It is better to trust in the Lord than to put confidence in men. It is better to trust in the Lord than to put confidence in princes … The Lord is my strength and song, and has become my salvation.”
The psalmist writes “All nations compassed me about: but in the name of the Lord will I destroy them. They compassed me about; yea, they compassed me about: but in the name of the Lord I will destroy them.” What could be more appropriate for a martyr? For there is victory in death: the men who killed St. Stephen because they could not answer his words wrote their defeat in his blood. Their souls were as destroyed by hate as his was transformed by love. His last words were a prayer: “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.”
Death could not touch him. The victorious saint sleeps, awaiting the Resurrection.
I shall not die, but live, and declare the works of the Lord. Psalm 118:17