Lit candles gradually pierce through the darkness of Saint Stephen’s Chapel and light up the frescoes: the stoning of the first martyr, the agony of Jesus, his arrest on the Mount of Olives. On December 26, the feast of St. Stephen, was celebrated right in the place of his martyrdom in Jerusalem, which is celebrated on this day by the Custody of the Holy Land.
In the Greek Orthodox church in front of Gethsemane, under the Lions’ Gate, there is a chapel whose rock floor is the same one on which St. Stephen’s body lay after being stoned. Having died a martyr, in the presence of Saul of Tarsus, who later became St. Paul, his conversion, Stephen was also the first deacon of the Church.
At vespers in honor of this feast, the Christmas feast that was just celebrated was recalled by the initial hymn, Adeste Fideles, which the friars, nuns and faithful sang in the darkness of St Stephen’s Chapel. After the psalms, a reading from the Acts of the Apostles about the saint was proclaimed: “They dragged him outside the city and stoned him here.” Br. Stéphane Milovitch presided over the celebration but the deacon, Br. Eleazar said the homily. “Just yesterday we were in Bethlehem to see the baby Jesus; we kissed the star and prayed in front of the manger and then we heard the Gospel announcing the birth of Jesus, but how can we bring together the beauty of finding a beautiful baby in Bethlehem and being in a place of a blood martyrdom today?” asked the friar. The answer is simple for him: those who accept Jesus as a baby, welcome him as well as the one who suffered and died on Calvary, who was buried and who rose again the third day.
Br. Eleazar warned: “Jesus is not like a buffet, where we take what we like. Jesus is to be accepted in whole or not at all.” Through a narrative prepared for the occasion, the friar tried to identify himself with a story in which St. Stephen is shot and killed while protecting the Baby Jesus in his arms. “I do not think they wanted to kill St. Stephen. No, they wanted to kill the one that he bore in his word and deed, and you must also defend him with your life. You will do everything to make him live, although you will have to die for him, as Stephen did,” said Br. Eleazar. The homily ended with an exhortation to prayer for all martyrs, those who are risking death every day for preaching the Gospel .
Fellowship followed the meditation and song. Across the street, in the monastery of the Basilica of Gethsemane, panettone and cups of hot chocolate awaited the crowd.