St Stephen's is the honour of being the first to shed his blood in the cause of Christianity. We are told in the book of the Acts of the Apostles that after he had performed great wonders and miracles among the people he was chosen deacon by Peter, and that when he was falsely accused of blasphemy against the Law of the Jews and of the Temple, "they saw his face as it had been the face of an angel." Young he must have been, and beautiful and gentle. He was condemned to death and led forth outside of the gate of Jerusalem which now bears his name, and there stoned to death by the infuriated mob.
While he was suffering martyrdom, with a forgiving heart worthy of a true disciple of his great Master, he exclaimed: "Lord, lay not this sin to their charge!"
After his death, "devout men carried Stephen to his burial and made great lamentations over him," but it was not known until four centuries later where his remains were laid.
During the reign of Honorius, the story goes that at Caphargamala, about twenty miles from Jerusalem, there stood an ancient church, in charge of an ancient priest, Lucian by name.
One night in December, as the old man lay sleeping in his baptistry, he beheld the vision of a venerable man standing by his couch; he had a long white beard, wore gold embroidered garments, and carried a golden staff.
"Who art thou?" asked the priest.
"I," answered the visitant, "am Gamaliel, Doctor of the Law, and instructor of Paul the Apostle. After the death of Stephen, who was stoned to death by the Jews beyond the northern gate, I caused his body, which had lain unguarded for a day and a night, to be taken to my house in the country. Thither it was carried by the faithful, and for forty days funeral rites were performed. Then it was laid in my own sepulchre, and near it the body of Nicodemus, who came to Jesus by night. Go now, and tell this to the Bishop."
Lucian, fearing that the story of his dream would not be believed, did not follow this behest, so Gamaliel appeared to him on the following night bearing two golden baskets filled with red and white roses.
"What mean these?" asked Lucian.
"The red roses," replied Gamaliel, "stand for Stephen, who gave his blood for love of Christ, and the white ones for Nicodemus, who was without stain." He then repeated his instruction.
When Lucian still did not obey, Gamaliel appeared to him a third time, and reproached him for his unbelief and neglect. At last Lucian went to Jerusalem, reported his dream to the bishop, and was bidden by him to go to the spot indicated, to dig and search if he might discover the relics spoken of. The sarcophagus was found in a sepulchre in the garden designated, and that in it were indeed the relics of St Stephen was proved to the satisfaction of all by the miracles performed by them: seventy sick were healed by their heavenly perfume alone.
The relics were first placed in the church of Sion in Jerusalem, then by the younger Theodosius removed to Constantinople, whence they were sent by Pope Pelagius to Rome, and finally placed in the same tomb as that containing the remains of St Lawrence.
It is said that St Lawrence then earned for himself the title given him by the people of Rome, "Il cortese Spagniolo," for when the body of St Stephen was being lowered into the tomb, St Lawrence courteously moved aside, granting the place of honour on the right hand to his guest.
St Lawrence was, as the title indicates, a Spaniard, born at Huesca in Aragon. His parents were Orentius and Patienzia, honoured at Huesca as Saints, though they do not appear in the lists of the canonized. Sixtus II, who had been Governor of Spain, upon his return to Rome took with him the young priest Lawrence, together with his cousin, that same Vincent who was afterward St Vincent. When Sixtus became Pope he made Lawrence his archdeacon because of the youth's blameless life. He gave into his care the treasure of the Church to be distributed according to their needs to the poor and the sick. This treasure had been given to the Church by various high personages, among them Julia Mammma, mother of the Emperor Alexander Severus, Flavia Domatilla, and the Emperor Philip.
It happened that in the time of Philip, who was the first Christian emperor, his general, Decius, who had been sent to quell a rebellion in Gaul, returned victorious, and was so elated by his success that he aspired to the empire. He therefore cut his Emperor's throat as he was sleeping in his pavilion and, marching upon Rome, proclaimed himself Emperor.
Philip's son, knowing his life to be in danger, gave over into the hands of Sixtus all his father's treasure and his own, lest they should fall into the hands of his father's murderer. He instructed him if he, like his father, should be slain, to give the treasure to the Church to be distributed among the poor. Then he fled and sought to hide from Decius, but was overtaken and destroyed, along with thousands of other martyrs. For Decius, having been accepted as Emperor by the Senate, who saw in him not Philip's murderer but the avenger of their gods, who had but punished one who refused to sacrifice to them, sought to establish himself more firmly on the throne by his persecution of Christians.
Sixtus was naturally among the first to be accused and condemned for worshipping Jesus Christ and refusing honour to the ancient pagan gods. As he was being led away to his death, Lawrence clung to him, entreating to be taken with him.
"Whither goest thou, Father," he cried, "without thy son and servant! In what have I displeased thee that I am found unworthy to give my blood with thine in testimony of Christ? Peter suffered his deacon, Stephen, to die before him. Wilt thou not also suffer me to prepare the way?"
Sixtus replied: "I do not leave thee, my son. In three days shalt thou follow me. Thy sufferings shall be greater than mine, for I am old and near to the end of my course, and thou art young and strong. But as thy torments shall be greater, so also shall thy triumph be more glorious. Therefore, grieve not. Into thy hands I commit the treasure of the Church. See to it that it by no means falls into the hands of the tyrant."
He then was led away and beheaded.
Lawrence immediately applied himself to the distribution of the treasure entrusted to him. By night and day he went about Rome seeking out the poor, the sick, the naked; for their relief he gave all the money he had received from Sixtus. He arrived one night at a house on the Caelian Hill, where lived a Christian woman named Cyreaca, who constantly sheltered other Christian men and women under her roof. "Long she had had an headache," and St Lawrence healed her of the "ache and pain" by laying his hands upon her head. He washed the feet of the poor people in the house; by the sign of the Cross he restored sight to Creseentius, a blind man, and so he spent the time until the followers of Decius, who had heard mention of 'treasure' in the farewell of Sixtus, reported this to the Emperor. Lawrence was immediately brought before him and questioned concerning that same treasure. He answered that in three days he would show it.
Accordingly, on the third day, having collected all the poor and the sick among whom he had distributed his alms, he brought them into the presence of Decius, saying: "Behold the lasting treasures of Christ's Church, which shall not diminish but increase! The hands of these have borne the treasure into Heaven!"
Decius, thinking himself mocked, ordered that Lawrence should be cast into a dungeon, there to await torture. A Roman knight, Hippolytus by name, was set as guard over him. This man, seeing the wonders performed by Lawrence in his prison (for he there healed the sick and restored sight to the blind, after which his fellow prisoners consented to be taught and baptized in the faith of Christ), came to him and questioned him. What Lawrence told him he believed. He was converted, and not he alone, but also nineteen members of his family.
As Lawrence continued steadfastly in his same answers concerning the treasure, and moreover refused to sacrifice, and constantly held to his Christian beliefs and practices, Decius had him taken away by night to the baths of Olympias, near the villa of Sallust. There he ordered a sort of iron bed to be erected, a bed in appearance, but in fact a gridiron, for under it a fire was lighted, and upon it "Lawrence Contumax" was stretched and burned alive. In the midst of his tortures Lawrence cried that the hot coals were refreshment to him, and ended by saying to Decius: "Thou wretched man, seest thou not that thou hast roasted me on one side? Turn me on the other, if thou wouldst have me well cooked, and then eat!"
Decius and his executioners, dumbfounded at this constancy, knew not what further agony to inflict upon him, when he exclaimed: "Oh, my Saviour, I thank Thee that Thou hast found me worthy to enter through the gates of Thy Paradise!" and gave up the ghost.
In confusion Decius hurried away, leaving the body on the fire. This Hippolytus took, and having embalmed it, piously interred it in a hidden place near the Via Tiburtina.
When the Emperor heard of this he caused Hippolytus to be seized. All his family were executed for their belief before his eyes; even his old nurse, Concordia, was scourged to death, and he himself, remaining constant in his assertions of faith, was tied by the feet to the tail of a wild horse, dragged over rocks and briars, and so dashed to pieces.
Shortly after, Decius, being present at the games in the amphitheatre, was seized with the pangs of death, and loudly crying out the names of Lawrence and Hippolytus, expired.
A story is frequently told in connection with St Lawrence which has to do with Emperor Henry II, afterward St Henry of Bavaria. Henry reigned at the end of the tenth century. He was deeply devoted to the Church, and with his saintly wife, Cunegonde, founded, built, and endowed many cathedrals, monasteries, and convents. On one occasion, when he had led his armies against the Poles and Sclavonians, partly to suppress a rebellion and partly to convert them, he dedicated his army to the protection of St Lawrence, St George, and St Adrian, who were actually seen fighting on his side. He triumphed by their aid and converted and baptized his enemies.
His career was, however, not one of unqualified well-doing. Though he and his honoured Queen had for the several years since their nuptials lived together in a virgin union, he permitted himself at one time to be influenced by evil reports concerning her. Although he was in his heart convinced of her purity and knew her incapable of infidelity to him with the knight implicated in the slander, yet he consented to Cunegonde's submitting to a trial by fire. The saintly Empress walked unhurt barefoot fifteen paces upon burning ploughshares, and although Henry after this tried in every way to show her renewed and redoubled honour to make amends for the indignity to which she had been subjected, she finally obtained his permission to retire into a convent.
Now the story goes that in the middle of a certain night a hermit, sitting at his late vigil in a remote and solitary cell, heard the sound of a wild rushing in the air outside. He opened his window and asked who passed by, disturbing his meditations with such tumult. Answer came: "We are a legion of devils that go to be present at the death-bed of the Emperor Henry, if per-adventure we may seize his soul."
The hermit said; "I adjure you that you appear to me again on your return, and tell me how you fared."
The demons promised and sped on their way.
Later in the same night the same sounds were repeated outside, and a knocking was audible at the window. The hermit opened it.
"Well," he asked of the nearest demon, "how did you fare?"
"Ill," answered the demon, sullenly. "We arrived at precisely the right juncture; the Emperor was in the act of dying; immediately we presented our claim. But it profited us nothing. Although in St Michael's balance we placed his false suspicion of his wife, and all his evil deeds, and his good angels likewise piled his good deeds on the other side, our side dipped and touched the ground, so much heavier was it. Victory had surely been ours had not that burned and roasted fellow, Lawrence, suddenly appeared on the scene and brought forth a pot of gold of great weight, which he flung into the balance, and our side flew up. We were then constrained to flee, but I, in my anger, was avenged against that pot, for I broke off one of its ears, and here it is!"
So saying, he held up the golden handle of a chalice to the hermit's astonished gaze.
Hastening to Eichstadt on the following morning, the hermit was informed that the Emperor was dead. Furthermore, on going to the church of St Lawrence, he found that the golden two-handled chalice, which Henry had had made in honour of the Saint, had indeed lost an 'ear' during the night!