I recently returned from a trip to Budapest Hungary. Traveling to foreign lands and meeting foreign people expands our horizons and opens us up to new perspectives, and sometimes helps us to understand ourselves better.
I didn’t know much of Hungary before we left, not nearly as much as I know now. We had the intimate advantage of a guided tour by our own daughter who is living there now. She regaled us with some of the rich history that is proudly displayed throughout the sprawling city.
Budapest is a City full of strong, stately buildings and monuments to its past, good and bad. We have our own monuments to the past that are no less stately, though many centuries more recent, but viewing the unfamiliar Hungarian monuments got me thinking.
Why do we do this? Why do we erect such proud monuments to our past?
Hungary has long been a Christian nation. One of the most celebrated Hungarians is Szent Istvan (Saint Stephen) who is responsible for beginning this history. Szent Istvan should not be confused with Stephen in the Book of Acts, who is considered the first Christian martyr.
Stephen, the martyr, is described as “a man full of God’s grace and power, [who] performed great wonders and signs among the people.” (Acts 6:8) He was a powerful preacher with great wisdom. When hauled before the Jewish rulers, charged with speaking blasphemies about God (proclaiming Jesus as the Son of God), we are told Stephen’s “face was like the face of an angel”. (Acts 6:15)
Stephen’s power didn’t consist of physical might or political influence. He spoke with the power and authority of God, as Jesus did, speaking boldly, directly and without concern for his own benefit to the council that challenged him, but he was no physical threat. (Acts 7:1-53) The Sanhedrin responded to Stephen’s daring by stoning him to death. (At this, Stephen, “full of the Holy Spirit”, looked up to heaven and said, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit”, and he died. (Acts 7:54-60))
Szent Istvan’s story is very different. He lived a millennia later. He is considered the last Grand Prince of the Hungarians and the first King of Hungary. He succeeded his father as the supreme Magyar chieftain in 997 and was crowned king by the Pope on Christmas Day 1001 at Szent Istvan’s request.
Szent Istvan was born pagan but baptized at the age of 10. When Stephen became king, he abolished pagan rituals, declared his kingdom Christian and forced all the pagans under his rule to convert. He conquered those who refused. (See Saint Stephen of Hungary)
The stories of the two Saint Stephens couldn’t be much different. Both were known as men of power, but one wielded physical might and political influence, and the other did not. One forced his subjects to convert, conquering those who disobeyed and quelling challenges with violence. The other spoke the truth boldly but died a martyr at the hand of the ruling powers.
Szent Istvan is lionized with austere bronze statues demonstrating his might and influence. We like to build monuments to our heroes and our proud past, and sometimes even our humble past. (There are monuments to Stephen the Martyr as well.)
In viewing these monuments to Hungary’s past, it seemed odd to me that the first King of Hungary was canonized (made a saint). A thousand years after the life and death of Jesus, he seemed as much removed from the qualities of Jesus that are better exemplified by the other Saint Stephen, the martyr.
Yes, he Christianized a nation of pagans, but he did it by the might of a sword and the influence of a crown. Jesus taught his disciples to put down the sword, to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, but to render unto God what is God’s. And, there should be little doubt whether we should be rendering more to Caesar than to God.
In truth, the quick histories that I read about Szent Istvan focused on his historical significance – the might and the influence. These histories say little of his personal character. One Franciscan history stated, with no outside reference, that he was always available to the poor. Most of his reign was peaceful. These are the only attributes, other than his commitment to Christianity, itself, that suggest anything close to Christ-likeness, but he may have been more Christlike than history allows.
Our histories focus almost exclusively on the powerful and the influential. We fixate on them with monuments made of stone and the pomp and ritual of ceremonial observances. St. Stephen’s Day is celebrated each year with fireworks and festivities. Millions of people have flocked to the monuments, the cathedral and celebrations of St. Stephen in Budapest.
In church today, we sang hymns to Jesus who will be “King forever”. All the nations and kings of the nations will bow at His feet, but he came to us as a humble child and died on a cross at that hands of his “subjects”. He came not with a sword or worldly influence. He came humbly preaching good news to the poor.
I was also reminded of these words that Jesus spoke, “Unless a seed falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a seed, but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life will lose it, but whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves Me, he must follow Me….” (John 12:24-26) Jesus demonstrated this for us with his own life, even to the point of giving up His life, and Jesus calls us to follow Him.
Of the two saint Stephens, one followed Jesus in the same way that Jesus lived among us, and the other didn’t.
My purpose in writing these things is not to criticize or judge Hungarian history and venerable Hungarian leaders. I don’t know the details of Szent Istvan’s life, but the contrast of the recorded history between the Stephens is pretty stark, even if the Hungarian Stephen was a “good guy” as kings go.
Most importantly, God is the one who “removes and establishes kings”. (Daniel 2:21) This doesn’t mean that God sanctions or approves what kings do, but a sovereign God always accomplishes His purposes, and Jesus ultimately is the name at which every knee will bow.
We build monuments to kings, and even sometimes to martyrs, but only God endures. We construct monolithic stone cathedrals that are more like tributes to human will than godly character and stand like living reminders of whitewashed tombs. We revel in the cold relics of our past with pomp and circumstance while God beckons us to come humbly to the Living Waters.
He invites us to give our lives up to Him, to loose our grip of the monuments of our past. These monuments, though made of stone, copper, bronze and the weightiest substances on earth are like apparitions compared to the everlasting weight and glory of the one true God who is King forever.