Thomas J. Craughwell is the author of Thomas Jefferson’s Crème Brulee: How a Founding Father and His Slave, James Hemings, Introduced French Cuisine to America.
Today, Dec. 26, the Christian world celebrates the feast of St. Stephen. All we know about him comes from the Acts of the Apostles (talk about an unimpeachable source), chapters 6, 7 and 8. But there is another story about St. Stephen, also historically accurate, and it is the reason why today was chosen as his feast day.
In 415, a priest named Lucian was sleeping in the baptistery of his church located about 20 miles from Jerusalem. (He had the baptistery do double duty as his bedroom so he could protect the sacred vessels from being carried off and pawned by burglars).
One night, when he was half awake, he saw an elderly man walking toward him, calling him by name. “I am Gamaliel,” the old man said, “who instructed the apostle Paul in the law.” You’ll find Gamaliel mentioned in Acts, too—Acts 22:3—where St. Paul says that he studied the law “at the feet of Gamaliel.” It was Gamaliel who saved the lives of St. Peter and St. John when they appeared before the high priest and the Sadducees. The Sadducees wanted to execute the apostles, but Gamaliel advised caution. Regarding this teaching about Jesus, he said, “If this plan or this understanding is of men, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them.” There is an ancient tradition that Gamaliel secretly became a Christian.
In his appearance to Lucian, Gamaliel told him the location of the tomb of St. Stephen, which had been lost and forgotten for centuries. After Stephen’s martyrdom, Gamaliel had the body brought to his estate in Caphargamala (modern-day Beir Jimal, Israel) and buried in a tomb he had prepared for himself and his family. The lost tomb was not far from Lucian’s church. Then Gamaliel revealed something else—he and Nicodemus, the man who came to Christ by night to satisfy himself that Jesus was the Messiah, and assisted Joseph of Arimathea in taking Christ’s body down from the cross and burying it in Joseph’s tomb, was also buried with Stephen (when the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem drove Nicodemus out of the city as a traitor to their faith, Gamaliel sheltered Nicodemus until the good man died). And Gamaliel was buried in the same spot, too.
God had sent Gamaliel to Lucian because he wanted the relics enshrined in churches where, he said, “through their means, God might open to many the gates of His mercy.” Then Gamaliel instructed Lucian to go to Patriarch John, bishop of Jerusalem, and say that God wanted him to witness the opening of St. Stephen‘s tomb and then carry the relics to the Holy City. His message delivered, Gamaliel vanished.
Lucian did not want to be gullible. After all, he had been only half awake when he had this vision—or perhaps it was only a dream. So he put off going to see Patriarch John, and prayed for guidance. Three weeks later Gamaliel returned and rebuked Lucian for his lack of faith. This time Lucian was convinced that the vision was authentic. He procrastinated no longer, and called upon the patriarch. John instructed Lucian to conduct an excavation, and report on what he found.
Lucian did indeed find the remains of the three saints. At this news, Patriarch John with a large crowd of clergy and the faithful, came to the tomb. He placed the bones of St. Stephen in a chest. As he did so, more than 70 witnessed who suffered from a variety of serious ailments, were healed. The date of the recovery of the relics of St. Stephen was Dec. 26, 415. That is why we celebrate the feast of St. Stephen on Dec. 26.
The report that the relics of St. Stephen had been discovered sent a surge of religious joy through the Christian world. Among those excited by this unexpected gift from God was the great bishop and theologian, St. Augustine. Some relics of St. Stephen had been sent to Hippo, site of Augustine’s cathedral. In his City of God Augustine tells story after story of the miraculous healings God granted through the intercession of St. Stephen. After filling page after page of miracles he knew firsthand, because often he knew the person who had been healed, Augustine says, “Now what am I to do? I am constrained by my promise to complete this work, a promise which must be fulfilled; and that means that I cannot relate all the stories of miracles that I know.”
One of the stories Augustine did record tells of the day a portion of St. Stephen’s relics arrived at a neighboring diocese. The bishop and a great throng of Christians turned out and formed a grand procession to the newly built shrine. A blind woman was led to where the bishop was carrying the reliquary. The woman asked if she was near the saint. The bishop said yes, and gave her one of the flowers that decorated the reliquary. The woman applied the petals to her eyes, and immediately her sight was restored.
Eventually the major part of St. Stephen’s relics were acquired by Pope Pelagius II (reigned 579-590) and placed in the same shrine as his fellow deacon, St. Lawrence, in the Roman basilica of San Lorenzo fuori le Mura, where they can still be found.
Decades ago, there was a feast day, The Finding of the Relics of St. Stephen, celebrated on Aug. 3. No one knows why that date was chosen; Father Alban Butler (1710-1773), the great scholar of the saints, suggested that perhaps it marks the anniversary of the dedication of some great church in honor of St. Stephen. Candidly, at this point, what does it matter? Today is the day we honor St. Stephen, because today is the day Almighty God, in His mercy, restored the Protomartyr to us.