The apostles created seven deacons, one of whom was Stephen, but his good works got him into trouble and he was tried and found guilty by the council, the Sanhedrin. ‘But he, being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up stedfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God.’ When he told the Sanhedrin what he saw, they stopped their ears, ran upon him, cast him out of the city and stoned him. One of the stoners was called Saul, later to be known as Paul.
Stephen’s feast day is today, Boxing Day, although, it being Sunday, this year Boxing Day is officially tomorrow. Boxing Day is associated with the giving of alms to the poor and needy and goes back a long way, ye, even unto the Romans, who I don’t usually associate with charitable acts.
Stephen, the first martyr, is generally forgotten now but I got to know his story a year or so ago whilst studying Filippo Lippi’s great fresco cycle at Prato. There on the walls of the main chapel is the life and death of the saint told in pictures, drawn as much from The Golden Legend of Jacobus de Voragine as from Acts chapters 6 – 8. (If you need to get into the medieval mind, especially that of a woman, you should read The Golden Legend and suppress all modern cynicism as you do so).
This week I’m putting the finishing touches to my latest novel, A Gift for the Magus. It feels wonderfully fitting – and unplanned – that this particular book should be completed between the Feast of Stephen and Epiphany. In my mind, Lippi is symbolically linked to Stephen, and Epiphany, when the three wise men came, is linked to Cosimo de’ Medici, the Magus of the title.
The snow remains deep and crisp and even outside, so it’s a great time to be concentrating on writing. And if I ever wanted a good omen, I had one yesterday when the BBC did a programme on the painting which is central to the novel: Lippi’s Adoration.
So today and until January 6th I think I’ll forget about the persecutors, the stoners, the vile and vicious Sanhedrin, and remember instead Stephen’s theophany: what he saw. Perhaps it’s a bit crass to liken writing to martyrdom, but it follows the same pattern. As a writer you must stay true to your vision, no matter what everyone else says, and keep your eyes fixed on heaven as the stones fly.