There was a freshness in the air and a lightness of spirit that was tangible.
Yes, in the early days of the young Christian community in Jerusalem, the apostles, formerly timid fishermen, were now filled with the power of the Holy Spirit. They preached boldly and proclaimed the Good News of Jesus Christ, and the number of believers continued to grow.
In fact, the community began to grow so much that the twelve apostles realized that they could not do everything. They could not devote themselves to the leading of prayer and preaching the Word and still have time for the other ministries that were necessary. Thus we read in the Acts of the Apostles (Chapter 6, verses 1-7) that they chose “seven reputable men, filled with the Spirit and wisdom,” to share in this ministry. These were the first deacons.
The first chosen was Stephen, “a man filled with faith and the Holy Spirit.” The apostles prayed over them and laid hands on them, and they joined the apostles in this ministry. Thus Stephen is called the “Archdeacon,” the first called among the deacons.
Stephen then began his ministry of preaching and working great signs and wonders among the people. In debates, no one could match his wisdom and the spirit with which he spoke. Soon he was charged by the religious leaders of blasphemy, much like the Lord Jesus whom he proclaimed. Even though false accusations were hurled against him, “his face was like the face of an angel.”
In a fiery speech before the high priest and Sanhedrin, he showed all the ways in which the people had persecuted the prophets and thwarted God’s plans. When the religious leaders heard all this, they literally covered the ears and ground their teeth in fury. They threw Stephen out of the city and began to stone him to death.
Stephen, however, was filled with the Holy Spirit, looked up intently to heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at his right hand. Once again, imitating the Lord whom he served, Stephen cried out: “Lord, Jesus, receive my spirit.” He fell to his knees and cried out in a loud voice: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” Upon saying this, he gave up his soul to God.
Thus St Stephen, our parish patron and heavenly intercessor, is the “protomartyr,” the first in the long line of martyrs from whose blood the Church has blossomed.