By Augustine Sokolovski, Doctor of Theology, Priest.
On 28 September, the day after the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, the Church commemorates the translation of the relics of the Holy Proto-martyr Stephen. The historical coincidence of this day, on which the relics of the protomartyr were found in Jerusalem in 415, with the Feast of the Cross, is very important and semantically rich because Saint Stephen could be truly called the Man of the Holy Cross.
According to the testimony of the Acts of the Apostles, Stephen performed signs and miracles and preached the Gospel. Those who challenged him could not resist the power of his words. With the help of the people, the elders and the scribes captured Stephen and brought him to trial in the Sanhedrin. At the trial, Stephen was accused by the false witnesses of blasphemy against “this place”, that is, the Temple and Jerusalem, against the Law, and against God. Obviously, the account of what happened to Stephen replicates the trial and accusation of the Lord Jesus Christ. Stephen’s account follows the same sequence of the events leading up to the Crucifixion in the Gospels. His account states something very important: “All who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel” (Acts 6:15).
What is the face of an angel? The commentators and exegetes tried to explain this in different ways. Thus, Theophylact of Ohryd (1050-1107) spoke of “a special beauty of the preacher’s look”. The ascetic writers spoke about the traces of grace and a special spiritual light emanating from Stephen who was experienced in virtues. Gregory Palamas (1296-1359) spoke about the uncreated light, as well as other things. All those interpretations were aimed at edifying the congregation in a moral, ascetic, and pastoral way.
It is very important for us to remember that according to the biblical logic, the face of an angel is the Face of the Angel of the Great Council, the Messiah, the Servant of God, the Lord Jesus Christ. “His name is called the Angel of the Great Counsel” (Isaias 9:6), says the Greek translation of the Isaias.
It seemed to those who faced Stephen at the trial that Jesus was obviously dead. He had been crucified and killed on the cross; his place of burial was known; and his body was stolen by his closest disciples. The reason why they betrayed, caught, and put Stephen to trial was his allegedly false testimony about those events that had taken place.
Then, at the very culmination of Stephen’s trial, the trial of the entire Christian Community, the members of the Sanhedrin looked at Stephen and saw… Jesus Christ. “All who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel” (Acts 6:15).
Stephen offered them an exposition of the entire biblical history, from Abraham (Acts 7:2) through Moses (7:20) and David (7:46) to Solomon “who built Him a house” (7.47). According to the listeners – Stephen’s judges – the sacred biblical history was fulfilled in the Temple, the Cult, the Law, and the Worship. But Stephen and, in fact, the Living and Present Jesus Himself, pronounced the Judgment: “Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made with human hands; as the prophet says, ‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me, says the Lord, or what is the place of my rest? Did not my hand make all these things?’”
It was at the point where the Sanhedrin expected approval, appraisal, and affirmation, Jesus, the Living and Present, through the mouth of Stephen, proclaimed the abolition, deconstruction, devastation, conclusion, the final curtain, the apotheosis of the religious. Through the mouth of Stephen, did the Lord Jesus announce his verdict. “At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom”, according to the Gospel (Matthew 27:51). When Stephen addressed the Sanhedrin, he pronounced the bitter sentence: “Mene, mene, tekel, and parsin. You have been weighed on the scales and found wanting” (Dan 5:25, 27).
“The witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he knelt and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”” (Acts 7:58-60). While Stephen was stoned to death and ascended into heaven, his prayer – the same last words of Jesus on the Cross – gained Paul for the Church – the one who, while killing Stephen, saw the Face of the Great Sufferer, the Harvester of Sorrow, our Lord Jesus Christ.