Looking Out on the Feast of Stephen
Part of the 2006-2007 Liturgy Symposium Series
ISM Great Hall - 409 Prospect Street, New Haven, CT
Refreshments for mind, body, and spirit will be served. Free and open to the public.
Jill Burnett Comings has been Assistant Professor in Liturgical Studies at the Caspersen School of Graduate Studies at Drew University since 2003. After receiving her B.A. in English from Nyack College, she earned her M.A.R. (Liturgics Concentration) from Yale Divinity School and her Ph.D. in Liturgical Studies from Drew University. Her dissertation, entitled Aspects of the Liturgical Year in Cappadocia (325-430) was published by Peter Lang in 2005, and she is also the author of several articles, essays and book reviews. Dr. Comings’s research and teaching interests include early Christian liturgical history, Anglican liturgical history and liturgical time.
If it is accurate to speak of a general pattern by which early Christian martyrs’ cults and feasts originated and spread, the cult of the deacon Stephen, the first person known to have died for believing in Christ, is an interesting exception. According to the Acts of the Apostles, Stephen was stoned to death by his opponents and then buried by “devout men” who “made loud lamentation over him.” Unlike many similar narratives that would follow, this very early martyrdom account does not mention any continuing veneration given to those holy remains at this holy grave. Whoever these devout men were and wherever they buried him, the location of Stephen’s body remained a mystery until 415, when the priest Lucian was reportedly led by visions to the proto-martyr’s remains at Caphar Gamala, just north of Jerusalem. The liturgical commemoration of Stephen spread rapidly and far after this important discovery, but unlike the cases of many of his successors in martyrdom, apparently it did not start with it.
This paper will explore the history of the cult and feast of St. Stephen, with particular interest in how they participated in the expanding sacred topography, shifting sacred physicality and evolving sacred narrativity – holy places, holy bones, holy stories – that provided the framework for the developing Christian sanctoral calendars. We will also consider the feast’s changing fortunes as it was adapted to ever more remote host locations and cultures and as it was affected by its temporal relationship to the increasingly popular western feast of the Nativity.