Saint Augustine on the Feast of Stephen

Today is the Feast of Stephen in the West. In the East, this feast falls tomorrow, on the Third Day of Christmas. We Americans might know this feast best from its reference within “Good King Wenceslas.” This English Christmas carol relates a much older story of a Bohemian king going on a journey and braving harsh winter weather to give alms to a poor peasant on the Feast of Stephen (December 26, the Second Day of Christmas). This king is himself a saint as the song records: “Heat was in the very sod / which the saint had printed.”

What few of us American Christians know is that Saint Augustine wrote with extraordinary enthusiasm in The City of God (composed 413 to 426) regarding the miracles that he witnessed himself when the relics of Saint Stephen were recovered in Jerusalem for the first time in Augustine’s own day and carried throughout the Roman empire where they were accompanied by numerous healings and even resurrections of the dead in city after city. These relics of the first martyr, stoned to death as recounted in the opening of the Acts of the Apostles, were recovered because of multiple visions that came to a venerable priest in Jerusalem named Lucian in the year 415. Here is an account of this astounding recovery from Lives of the Saints by Alban Butler (first published 1756 to 1759):

The second festival in honor of the holy protomartyr St. Stephen was instituted by the Church on the occasion of the discovery of his precious remains. His body lay long concealed, under the ruins of an old tomb, in a place twenty miles from Jerusalem, called Caphargamala, where stood a church which was served by a venerable priest named Lucian. In the year 415, on Friday, the 3d of December, about nine o’clock at night, Lucian was sleeping in his bed in the baptistery, where he commonly lay in order to guard the sacred vessels of the church. Being half awake, he saw a tall, comely old man of a venerable aspect, who approached him, and, calling him thrice by his name, bid him go to Jerusalem and tell Bishop John to come and open the tombs in which his remains and those of certain other servants of Christ lay, that through their means God might open to many the gates of His clemency. This vision was repeated twice. After the second time, Lucian went to Jerusalem and laid the whole affair before Bishop John, who bade him go and search for the relics, which, the Bishop concluded, would be found under a heap of small stones which lay in a field near his church. In digging up the earth here, three coffins or chests were found. Lucian sent immediately to acquaint Bishop John with this. He was then at the Council of Diospolis, and, taking along with him Eutonius, Bishop of Sebaste, and Eleutherius, Bishop of Jericho, came to the place. Upon the opening of St. Stephen’s coffin the earth shook, and there came out of the coffin such an agreeable odor that no one remembered to have ever smelled anything like it. There was a vast multitude of people assembled in that place, among whom were many persons afflicted with divers distempers, of whom seventy-three recovered their health upon the spot. They kissed the holy relics, and then shut them up. The Bishop consented to leave a small portion of them at Caphargamala; the rest were carried in the coffin with singing of psalms and hymns, to the Church of Sion at Jerusalem. The translation was performed on the 26th of December, on which day the Church hath ever since honored the memory of St. Stephen.

Saint Augustine devotes many pages in The City of God to the miracles that he and others witness as these recently-discovered relics were brought to his city, and Augustine wished that he could devote even more space to the accounts:

What am I to do? I am so pressed by the promise of finishing this work, that I cannot record all the miracles I know; and doubtless several of our adherents, when they read what I have narrated, will regret that I have omitted so many which they, as well as I, certainly know. Even now I beg these persons to excuse me, and to consider how long it would take me to relate all those miracles, which the necessity of finishing the work I have undertaken forces me to omit. For were I to be silent of all others, and to record exclusively the miracles of healing which were wrought in the district of Calama and of Hippo by means of this martyr— I mean the most glorious Stephen — they would fill many volumes; and yet all even of these could not be collected, but only those of which narratives have been written for public recital. For when I saw, in our own times, frequent signs of the presence of divine powers similar to those which had been given of old, I desired that narratives might be written, judging that the multitude should not remain ignorant of these things. It is not yet two years since these relics were first brought to Hippo-regius, and though many of the miracles which have been wrought by it have not, as I have the most certain means of knowing, been recorded, those which have been published amount to almost seventy at the hour at which I write. But at Calama, where these relics have been for a longer time, and where more of the miracles were narrated for public information, there are incomparably more.

My father and godfather are both named Stephen, and this saint holds a special place in my heart. Holy First-Martyr Stephen, pray with us at the throne of our our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ on this second day feasting our Lord’s nativity.

Reliquary for the hand of Saint Stephen in Genoa, Italy.

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