A martyr is a person who chooses to suffer, even to die, rather than renounce his faith or Christian principles. Technically, Saint Stephen fits this definition. However, it has long been the custom to consider the “Holy Innocents” as the first martyrs. We hear about them in the Gospel of Saint Matthew, when Jesus was born in Bethlehem and the Wise Men came from the East to worship Him. They first went to Herod to seek the newborn King of the Jews. Herod was furious, as he did not want to share the limelight with anyone. He feared losing his throne so he asked the Wise Men to seek out the Savior and report back to him. Herod planned to kill the newborn King, but the Wise Men soon realized Herod’s evil plot and went home another way. This infuriated Herod, and he ordered that the male children aged two years and under be killed in Bethlehem and its surroundings. The soldiers carried out the evil mission, but Christ was spared. Saint Joseph, His foster father, took Him and Mary to Egypt.
It was Saint Irenaeus, Saint Augustine, and other early Church Fathers who gave the murdered children the title of martyrs. They have been commemorated as martyrs since the first century. These innocent victims gave testimony to the Messiah and Redeemer, not by words but by their blood. They triumphed over the world and won their crown without having experienced the evils of the world.
Saint Stephen, a disciple of Christ, was chosen after the Ascension as one of the seven deacons. His name means “crown.” He was also the first disciple to receive a martyr’s crown. God worked many miracles through him. He spoke with wisdom and eloquence that converted many to Christianity. The enemies of Jesus became incensed over the success of his preaching and plotted to kill him.
Many rose up against Stephen, and he was accused of blasphemy against Moses and against Yahweh. In 35 AD he was brought before the Sanhedrin, a court in Jerusalem, to be cast out of the city and stoned to death. He faced his accusers fearlessly and reprimanded his enemies for not believing in Jesus. Yet they refused to hear him and blocked their ears to the truth. Kneeling down before his murderers, he cried out with a loud voice saying, “Lord, do not lay this sin against them.” The martyr died, like our Blessed Savior, with no malice in his heart for his enemies. He went to his heavenly reward with an angelic face. Due to the means of his death, stoning, he is the patron saint of stonemasons.