Today’s liturgy poses an interesting juxtaposition of seeming opposites for us to ponder so that we might be led to a deeper insight into the mystery of God’s Reign. The Church sets before us the life and deeds of Stephen of Hungary as the saintly memorial today, the day after the feast of the Assumption, the day after he was said to have died in 1038. Stephen was the son of a fierce warrior leader of the pagan Magyar tribes near the end of the first Christian Millennium. He was baptized in childhood and became both a passionate Christian and a brilliant ruler - uniting the tribes, allying with the Germans and the Holy Roman Empire through marriage, and establishing a system of dioceses and Abbeys that imposed a relatively peaceful, agrarian life, provided education, medical care, social order and a developing agrarian economy.
Stephen is recorded to have been deeply concerned about the poor. He had a particular compassion for orphans and made himself available to his people. He remained a warrior king, however, and was not above committing a certain number of atrocities toward those enemies who had the temerity to challenge him. He was a first generation convert of one of the most warring tribes in European history, so turning the other cheek was not his motto. One could say that he was highly intolerant of fellow tribesmen who longed for the good old days of blood sacrifice and rapine warfare as Sunday afternoon entertainment. He fought war with war in the complex social-political structures of his day, and such violence enabled him to stay on the throne he established and give the Christian faith (as it was then understood and practiced) a firm foothold among his people.
As the community honors Stephen and his efforts to spread the Gospel through political might, we are confronted by the paradox of a Gospel that demands innocence and vulnerability of us. “‘Let the children come to me . . .’ Jesus said ‘for the Kingdom of God belongs to such as these.’” Participation in God’s reign requires that the strong seek the vulnerability of small children in order to enter the mystery. Perhaps the characteristic most evident in little children, who have not yet been taught to be afraid, is a trusting fearlessness toward others. They speak the truth, they expect people to like and accept them, they expect to like and accept others. They do not carry fear or anger against people for their skin color, their economic condition, their gender, their ethnic heritage – or their religion. In short, very small children aren’t contaminated yet with defenses against the false divisions of the human condition. This soon changes for most of us, however, and Jesus speaks harshly against scandalizing such innocent ones. He suggests that being drowned would be a better fate than that which awaits the one who destroys the innocent vulnerability of a child.
So how do we deal with this strange paradox of the warrior king who imposed Christianity with extensive violence and the teaching of Jesus that we must return to a childlike trust and defenselessness if we want to live in God’s Reign? Perhaps the first reading from the Prophet Ezekiel can offer us a key. The text is a prophetic reflection on the responsibility of each person for his/her own judgments and deeds. You can’t say “my Dad did these things, so my life was ruined.” Ultimately, we are held accountable for our own judgments and behaviors within the world in which we were given to live – but we are held accountable by a God who doesn’t want anyone to be lost or destroyed. Therein lies our hope – therein lies our confidence. Our God works within the historical reality of our world to “write straight with crooked lines.” Just as God can use Stephen’s warfare to bring peace, he can turn Stephen’s heart to compassion for the poor and the oppressed and leave a message of governance that emphasizes the needs of the least for future kings. If our childhood innocence has been trampled, wounded or distorted by our choices for sin, our crimes, as Ezekiel says, God invites us to turn and be converted from our crimes and to receive a new heart and new spirit – the heart of the innocent Christ, and the Spirit of God. May our prayer today be the psalm response of the liturgy: Create a clean heart in me, O God and a steadfast spirit renew within me.
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