Feast of St. Stephen of Hungary
by Very Rev. Chrysostom Baer, O.Praem.
Today we here at St. Michael’s Abbey hold the celebration of St. Stephen, King of Hungary, at the rank of feast, with Gloria and incense. This is to show in the manner we do best that we gratefully acknowledge our history, our roots. When our spiritual forebears realized that communistic tyranny was ending their religious life, they fled to the land of the free and the home of the brave, and replanted their flag. We did not arise out of a vacuum. Divine providence uses real people and circumstances to work out our salvation.
St. Stephen, like Moses in the first reading, led his people to the shores of the Promised Land. The missionary effort that turned the kingdom of Hungary into a Catholic land, whose only hiatus was those dark years of communism, was under St. Stephen’s inspiration, by his instigation, using his sword. Obedient to the Old Testament lawgiver, he loved the Lord, his God, with all his heart, soul, and strength. He drilled this lesson into his children, from Bl. Emeric down to our seven founding fathers.
And in so doing, he likewise gave us the lesson that even more important than knowing where we came from is knowing where we’re going. Here in this church we too stand on the bank of the Jordan River, looking into the Promised Land, to where the Virgin Mother of God has been assumed, and angels gaze with rapture.
Accepting our spiritual inheritance from St. Stephen, then, doesn’t just mean identifying his picture in the refectory or recognizing the emblem of the kingdom of Hungary impaled on the sinister of Abbot Parker’s escutcheon. It means taking to heart the words of Moses, speaking of them at home and abroad, so that we can spend our strength to form a culture imbued with the love of Christ, removing the darkness of pagan error and scattering abroad the light of the Gospel—all this with the conviction that, because we have here no lasting city or kingdom but seek the one that is to come, all that we do in this life has every possible impact on the life to come.
Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends (Jn 15:13). My whole life has in one way or another revolved around the desires that make up the very core of this single verse. Sometimes intentionally, but most times unknowingly, I found that the direction of my life was set by the principles which form the bold application of this verse.
The Norbertine vocation is essentially Eucharistic. It is true, the Church expects every religious institute to “make every effort to participate in the Eucharistic sacrifice daily, to receive the most sacred Body of Christ, and to adore the Lord Himself in the sacrament.”
The Gospel passage we just heard comprises the entire fifteenth chapter of Luke, all thirty-two verses. It reminds me of St. Justin Martyr’s second century description of the Mass: “On Sunday we have a common assembly of all our members,” he says. “The recollections of the Apostles are read, as long as there is time.”
Fortunately the three parables are fairly clear in their literal meaning; let us examine but some few points for their spiritual import. In the parable of the lost sheep, notice how our Lord even phrases the question: “What man among you having a hundred sheep and losing one of them would not leave the ninety-nine in the desert and go after the lost one until he finds it?” The scribes and Pharisees may not have been shepherds, but they weren’t stupid. Not one of them would have left the ninety-nine to find the one because that’s the best way of losing the ninety-nine and still not finding the one.
But in this they did not understand the deeper contrast Christ Jesus was drawing between God and man. Man has to leave one place to go to another. God remains with the ninety-nine even as He goes off to find the one. The life of grace is not lost in the ninety-nine while He seeks by grace to draw back the heart of the one. And the only way man can have a glimpse at how much God wants a sinner’s heart is by realizing He is so crazy with love as to leave the sure thing in favor of the impossible risk.
The other side of this perspective is the father in the parable of the prodigal son. Without ever leaving his house, his vision extends to his son who is “still a long way off,” which implies not only that he was looking for him but that also his sight sees him where he is. Put the two parables together, and we see that only if the Good Shepherd goes in search of the stray can the squalid son lift his head from the pig sty to dream of happiness at home. Only then does the Father see his wretched son afar off and in mercy run out to meet him.
The reaction of son and father are perfect. The son resolves to confess, and in his shame to accept a dignity lower than is truly his. He does confess, but the father does not let him even ask for what is beneath him, let alone allow him to ask and then deny it to him, and instead enriches his son with tokens of love and esteem: the finest robe, a ring, sandals to wear, and the fattened calf to feast upon.
When in our sins we can no longer hide from the Good Shepherd and so we confess our sins to the Father’s representative, we are never lowered beneath our dignity as sons and daughters of God. Rather, every mark of honor we threw away is returned to us in love. We are again clothed with the finest robe of sanctifying grace and charity which we received at baptism. The ring is the signet whose seal of the Holy Spirit we received at confirmation. Sandals are mortification from worldliness by separating us from the earth and keeping us from getting dirty as we tread the paths of this life; they also prepare our feet to run with the truths of the Gospel. “How beautiful upon the mountains,” says Isaiah, “are the feet of him who brings glad tidings.” In such a state, the full Catholic life in all its majesty, we are ready to feast on the fattened calf, Christ Jesus Himself sacrificed for our sins and given to us as food in the Holy Eucharist.
This is the happiness of our eternal Father. His food is our salvation. His joy is our redemption from sin. As St. John Chrysostom says, “He feasts on the fruit of His mercy by the sacrifice of His Son.” This is the festivity of the household ministers, the harmony of the angels, the symphony of the saints. And it is for us every time we go to confession.
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