It’s the week before Christmas, and our readings are for the commemoration of Saint Stephen Protomartyr on December 26. Protomartyr simply means the first martyr; Stephen was the first one to die for confessing Jesus Christ as Lord. Of course, Stephen wasn’t the first martyr ever – only the first Christian one. Zechariah the priest is stoned in the court of the house of the Lord in our first reading, and Jesus laments over the sins of Jerusalem in our gospel reading – sins which include shedding the blood of those sent to it, from A for Abel to the Z of Zechariah.
Zechariah cries out for God to see and avenge him; Stephen cries out for God to forgive them. Zechariah knows that God is righteous; it would be wrong to simply pretend such sins didn’t exist and God won’t do that. As the hymn says, Abel’s blood for vengeance pleaded to the skies, but the blood of Jesus for our pardon cries. Jesus weeps over Jerusalem knowing that He is going to pay the price for all those sins. He weeps over those who still won’t accept His sacrifice, His washing of renewal and repentance, and His heavenly gift of forgiveness. Following Jesus’ example, Stephen held out forgiveness to those who would not listen, pleading with God to change their hearts. And God heard Stephen’s prayer – for Saul, who stood there approving of Stephen’s death, would be changed by God’s message. Soon Saul, becoming Paul, would follow Stephen on the path of discipleship, with his own martyrdom only the gateway to the glory of God and Jesus at His right hand.
The Old Testament lesson is from the book of 2 Chronicles, chapter 24, verses 17-22:
Now after the death of Jehoiada the princes of Judah came and paid homage to the king. Then the king listened to them. And they abandoned the house of the Lord, the God of their fathers, and served the Asherim and the idols. And wrath came upon Judah and Jerusalem for this guilt of theirs. Yet he sent prophets among them to bring them back to the Lord. These testified against them, but they would not pay attention.
Then the Spirit of God clothed Zechariah the son of Jehoiada the priest, and he stood above the people, and said to them, “Thus says God, ‘Why do you break the commandments of the Lord, so that you cannot prosper? Because you have forsaken the Lord, he has forsaken you.’” But they conspired against him, and by command of the king they stoned him with stones in the court of the house of the Lord. Thus Joash the king did not remember the kindness that Jehoiada, Zechariah’s father, had shown him, but killed his son. And when he was dying, he said, “May the Lord see and avenge!”
The Epistle lesson is from Acts, chapter 6, verses 8 to chapter 7 verse 2 and chapter 7 verses 51-60:
And Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people. Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), and of the Cyrenians, and of the Alexandrians, and of those from Cilicia and Asia, rose up and disputed with Stephen. But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking. Then they secretly instigated men who said, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.”
And they stirred up the people and the elders and the scribes, and they came upon him and seized him and brought him before the council, and they set up false witnesses who said, “This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law, for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us.” And gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel.
 And the high priest said, “Are these things so?”
And Stephen said: “Brothers and fathers, hear me… You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.”
Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him. But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”
But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul.
And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.
The Gospel for the Feast of Saint Stephen is from Matthew, chapter 23, verses 34-39:
Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation.
“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again, until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’”