How to Conquer Evil Empires: Reflections on St. Stephen’s Day

Today is the feast of St. Stephen, the first martyr. (An account of his martyrdom can be found in Acts 6-7). Most know it as Boxing Day, which gets its name from a traditional way of celebrating St. Stephen’s Day: as the saint was renowned for his generosity to the poor, this is a day to put something into the “alms-box” for the poor. Though the tradition of giving a Christmas box to the poor is still alive in some places, modern “Boxing Day” has largely become about practising the precise opposite of this virtue. That seems to be pretty well what always happens when secular culture appropriates Christian cultural traditions. 

I spent some time today in prayer with this beautiful image of St. Stephen’s martyrdom: 

The Martyrdom of St. Stephen, by Annabale Carracci.

Carracci doesn’t spare us the horror: note the little child in white being loaded up with stones. But St. Stephen isn’t horrified—his eyes are on heaven, and because of that, he’s able to love his murderers and pray for them. (As C.S. Lewis put it, “the Christians who did most for the present world were precisely those who thought most of the next. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this.”)

Meanwhile the worldly men gather their stones against the backdrop of lifeless stone walls, a symbol of the great worldly kingdom which is executing St. Stephen. 

Yet between the cracks of that wall, just above St. Stephen, a small tree is growing. Perhaps a symbol of another kind of Kingdom: 

“The kingdom of heaven is like to a grain of mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field. Which is the least indeed of all seeds; but when it is grown up, it is greater than all herbs, and becometh a tree, so that the birds of the air come, and dwell in the branches thereof.” (Matthew 13:31-32)

But also, as I came to realize, a symbol of St. Stephen himself, and what he is doing to the Empire. I was reminded of one of my favourite quotations of St. Josemaria: 

“We must convince ourselves that the worst enemy of a rock is not a pickaxe or any other such implement, no matter how sharp it is. No, its worst enemy is the constant flow of water which drop by drop enters the crevices until it ruins the rock’s structure.”
(Christ is Passing By, #77) 

St. Josemaria of course intends this as a metaphor for our spiritual struggle: it is not the big temptations that break us, but the little ones, which, if we don’t fight them, weaken us slowly, little by little. 

But as Carracci’s painting shows, the metaphor works in reverse too: swords can’t pierce the stone walls of an evil empire, but trees, even small ones, can. 

They do it slowly, but surely. Only one little crack may show through at first, at the Wall seems as invincible as ever. But no dead thing, no matter how large it is, can ever in the long run avoid its fate: the living things will always grow through it. 

A greater evil rules our world now than did the Roman Empire. (For all Rome’s wickedness, this alone far outdoes any atrocity of the ancient world: It can seem unstoppable. 

We are tempted to try overcoming it by imagining grandiose political projects for its defeat or reform. Raised on stories of heroes defeating great evil through their combat prowess, we wait for a Luke Skywalker to destroy the modern Death Star all at once with a cleverly aimed shot. 

But history tells a different, and even better story. It’s not better weapons (dead things) that we need, but living things, Saints, growing despite the deadness around them, pushing through it, slowly, but certainly. 

Fighting political battles has its place. We have a duty to stand against injustice. But if you really want to defeat the evil empire, what it will ultimately take is Saints. Start by being one, and if you are parent, raising them. 

Because doing so can lead to something better than the destruction of the evil empire: its conversion. 

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