With stunning abruptness we're jostled from the Christmas Mass (the Christ Mass) to the feast of St. Stephen, proto-martyr. And then on to the slaughter of the Holy Innocents. It is an antidote to the sentimentality that inevitably attends devotion to the baby Jesus. A sentimentality, let it be allowed, that is not to be scorned. Others may make neat distinctions between "authentic sentiment" and sentimentality, but these days of Christmas are a time for the suspension of neat distinctions. Sentimentality is all too human, and all too human is what God became.
In recent decades, the Church has revived the office of permanent deacon. Stephen was among the first of them. The deacons were to attend to the taking care of business so that the apostles could be freed up for prayer and preaching. So much for job descriptions. Right off, Stephen is eloquently preaching and getting himself in deep trouble with the authorities, ending up as the first of the martyrs.
Unless one counts the Holy Innocents as the first martyrs, and there is a venerable tradition that does just that. Those baby boys of Bethlehem played a part in salvation's story beyond their knowing. Recall the fourth-century hymn of Aurelius Prudentius, Salvete, Flores Martyrum:
Sweet flow'rets of the martyr band
Plucked by the tyrant's ruthless hand
Upon the threshold of the morn,
Like rosebuds by a tempest torn.
First victims for th'incarnate Lord,
A tender flock to feel the sword;
Beside the very altar gay,
With palm and crown, ye seemed to play.
Ah, what availed King Herod's wrath?
He could not stop the Savior's path.
Alone, while others murdered lay,
In safety Christ is borne away.
In safety borne away not to escape but to fulfill his destiny by dying in order to redeem those first holy innocents, and the innumerable others of history's Rachels weeping for children lost.
And then, set between St. Stephen and Holy Innocents, the feast of St. John, apostle and evangelist, and my patron saint. In St. John's Church I was baptized; for seventeen years I was pastor of St. John the Evangelist in Brooklyn; and in the chapel of St John the Evangelist I was received by John Cardinal O'Connor into full communion with the Catholic Church. It's been St. John all the way, and I'm counting on his company the rest of the way home.
John was most beloved of the Lord and, as we are told in the gospel reading for his day, he could also run faster than Peter. But when he arrived at the empty tomb, he waited for Peter and let him enter first. Taking off from that, Balthasar does imaginative riffs on the differences between the Johannine Church and the Petrine Church, and how it is that love serves authority and authority serves love.
St. Stephen, St. John, the Holy Innocents. At Christmas, God enters our human history and of a sudden we're jostled into happenings crazy and wonderful. For this new year of the constancy of surprise I pray grace and glory for you and yours.
In such a week politics intrudes, but briefly.
Much has been said and written about whether evangelicals will support a Mormon candidate for president. My own view has been that Governor Romney's Mormonism will meet with at least equal resistance from non-Christians and secularists. Jacob Weisberg, editor of Slate.com is a case in point. He writes in the December 20 issue of the Financial Times: "Nor is it chauvinist to declare that certain religious views are disqualifying in and of themselves. There are millions of religious Americans who would never vote for an atheist for president because they believe that faith is necessary to lead the country. Others would, quite reasonably, not vote for a religious fanatic or fundamentalista Christian who thinks that the earth is less than 6,000 years old or a Scientologist who thinks it is haunted by the souls of space aliens sent by the evil lord, Xenu.
"Such views are disqualifying because they are dogmatic, irrational and absurd. By holding them, someone indicates a basic failure to think for himself and see the world as it is. By the same token, many secular Americans would reject anyone who believes the founding whoppers of Mormonism. The LDS Church holds that Joseph Smith, directed by the angel Moroni, unearthed a book of golden plates buried in a hillside in western New York in 1827. The plates were inscribed in 'reformed' Egyptian hieroglyphicsa non-existent version of a language that had yet to be decoded with the help of the Rosetta stone. Smith was able to dictate his translation of The Book of Mormon by looking through diamond-encrusted decoding glasses and burying his face in a hat. He was an obvious conman.
"Mr. Romney has every right to believe in conmen but he should not be running the country if he does. One might object that all religious beliefs are irrationalwhat is the difference between Smith's 'seer stone' and the virgin birth or the parting of the Red Sea? But Mormonism is different because it is based on such a transparent and recent fraud. The world's greater religions have had thousands of years to splinter, moderate and turn their myths into metaphor. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, on the other hand, remains monolithic, literalistic and cultish. But Mr. Romney has never indicated that there is any distance between himself and Mormon doctrine. He is a church 'elder' who performed missionary service in France as a young man and did not protest against his church's overt racism and policy of discrimination, in which black men were denied admission to the priesthood before the policy was abolished in 1978. He usually tries to defuse the issue of his religion with the tired jokes about polygamy or cries foul and insist that his religious views are 'private.' They may be that, but if Mr. Romney is running for president, they are the country's concern as well."
Mr. Weisberg is less than civil, but one may well share much of his evaluation of the LDS belief system without excluding the possibility of supporting Mitt Romney. (For my misgivings about the LDS, see "Is Mormonism Christian?" in the March 2000 issue of First Things.) First, what would people think of someone who abandoned the religion of his forebears in order to advance his political career? (Mr. Romney is apparently having difficulties enough in explaining some of his political changes.) Second, do we really want to exclude from high office millions of citizens born into a religion whose tenets strike most Americans as bizarre, especially when there is no evidence that those peculiar tenets would have a bearing on their public actions? Third, candidates should be judged on the basis of their character, competence, and public positions. That one was born a Mormon is not evidence of a character flaw. That one remains a Mormon may be evidence of theological naiveté or indifference. But we are not electing the nation's theologian. And, it should be noted, there are very intelligent Mormons who are doing serious intellectual work to move their tradition toward a closer approximation of Christian orthodoxy, which is a welcome development.
In any event, Romney's being a Mormon may be a factor but it should not be the decisive factor in supporting or opposing his candidacy. Once again, in politics the question frequently comes down to, Compared to what? Depending upon the character, competence, and positions of the other candidate or candidates, it is conceivable that one might support Mitt Romney.
Please note that this is not an endorsement. It is a response to Jacob Weisberg and others who would use religion to oppose a candidate for the presidency in a manner not substantively different from their use of religion in opposing the present incumbent of the White House. One need only recall the innumerable rants against a president who is born again, prays daily, thinks he has a hotline to God, and is bent upon replacing our constitutional order with a theocracy. In the game book of unbridled partisanship, any stick will do for beating up on the opposition.