Sunday, October 12, 2014

Sermon for Trinity 17: A comparison of St. Stephen of Moldavia and Vlad the Impaler

A little background: I was moving my books last week into my new parish, Church of the Incarnation, Quakertown, PA, when I found on top of one box a bio of Vlad the Impaler by a Boston College professor and a Romanian aristocrat, a descendent of Vlad's. I pulled it out and started reading it again (thinking that a book entitled "Dracula" shouldn't probably sit over at the church). At the beginning of this week, I thought I might preach this sermon and then later in the week, I realized that there was a new Dracula movie coming out, so then I knew I needed to preach this sermon. As I read this bio this week, I thought, wow, wouldn't it be great if somebody did a movie about Vlad's life! not know that a movie was coming out.

I first became interested in St. Stephen of Moldavia when I picked up an interesting icon of him at a Romanian Orthodox monastery in Detroit some years ago. I have been a big fan of him ever since.


“I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called.”
Today’s sermon will be a comparing and contrasting of two princes, two men of the 15th century. While not renaissance men per se, they were not without renaissance qualities, qualities of leadership such that Machiavelli and Cesare Borgia might respect them. Both were baptized in the True Faith and both sinned. Both were patriots and freedom fighters. They both spoke the same language and they were even related by blood. Indeed, they were cousins. They helped each other out, actually getting each other out of tight spots on occasion. Both of their fathers were assassinated. In this they were like brothers. Yet one was declared a saint in 1992 and the other became in common folklore and popular culture, even to this day, perhaps the most recognized personification of evil. The saint is Stephen the Great of Moldavia. The sinner is Vlad Tepesh of Wallachia, a.k.a Vlad the Impaler, a.k.a. Dracula.
          These two princeps, princes, of Romania were patriots loyal to their homeland, defending their country against political pressures and invasions: from the south, Greeks and Bulgarians, sometimes allied and subjugated by the Turks; to the north, the Polish kingdom – stronghold of Roman Catholicism; to the east, the Ottoman Empire, lusting for blood after their victory over and conquest of Constantinople; and to the west, the Hungarian empire: defenders of Roman Catholicism and strongly connected with other German princedoms. The land of Romania, an ancient land of Roman settlers and gypsies, had its own identity. They were unlike the lands of the German tribes and the Magyars, the Huns, the Slovaks, the Poles or the Bulgarians. When those tribes along the Steppes of Russia had overrun the Roman empire, this Roman colony of Romania, stayed safe in the Carpathian mountains. These lovely peaks and forests were their refuge, invasion after invasion.
          The Romanian people, like the Greeks and Russians, were and are loyal to the Eastern Orthodox Faith. But many German Saxons settled there, loyal to German Roman Catholicism. The Orthodox Church needed help from the West against the Muslims and so had bandaged up their relationship with the Pope of Rome, at least the politicians had and the politicking bishops had – politicians and politicking bishops we shall always have with us, it seems. But the local people and the monks, they were suspicious of this peace between Rome and Constantinople. They knew that it was the concoction of politicians, to try to save their precious Eastern Christendom from the Turks, but the cockeyed concoction of politicians nonetheless. So for these two princes, the ecclesiastical-political scene was complex as well.
          Again, these two had a lot in common. Both had illegitimate children. Both killed in battle. Both impaled people. Both fought Hungary and each other. Both switched sides and allies. Both built churches and monasteries. Both fought for the Church. Interestingly enough, because of the advice of his spiritual father, St. Daniel the Hermit of Voronet, St. Stephen built a monastery every time he won a victory. He seemed to believe that those killed in the battles would need monks to pray for their souls. He built such churches 44 times! And he seems to have only lost two battles! Maybe the Joint Chiefs should send President Obama a memo! Nevertheless, there were differences. Let us look at them.
          Vlad, like his father, was Roman Catholic and was inducted into the Order of the Dragon, a semi-secret fraternal society, something like the Knights Hospitaler or the Teutonic Order of Knights or the now illegal and very controversial Knights Temple. In fact, Dracula means “little Dragon” because his father was “Dracul,” the big dragon. It was a military and religious order which seemed dedicated to fighting against John Hus’ disciples, who were leading the first Protestant war against the Hungarian kingdom, and against the Turks. Vlad later became Romanian Orthodox when he was called to rule Wallachia. He then switched back to Roman Catholicism, because it was advantageous to his protector and captor, the king of Hungary, into whose family Vlad eventually married.
          Stephen, on the other hand, remained loyal to the Orthodox Faith his whole life, but defended all of Christendom. He seemed to understand, on a certain level, that “There is one body, and one spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all.” When Pope Sixtus IV called for yet another crusade, St. Stephen was to follow the lead of the Bishop of Rome. declaring “We are ready to resume the struggle for the defense of Christendom with all the power and heart which Almighty God [has] chosen to invest in us.” And then, at that time, Stephen requested that his cousin, Vlad, who had been a political prisoner of Hungary, be allowed to return to Wallachia to lead up the crusade from there, especially against Vlad’s owner brother, Radu the Handsome, who was moving to rule Wallachia as the Sultan’s puppet ruler.
          At the end of his life, Vlad, who had often changed his loyalty in favor of the Roman Church, was to be denounced as a sick and tyrannical prince by that very Church, despite his heroic and almost miraculous defeat of the Sultan. While, on the other hand, St. Stephen, remaining loyal to the Orthodox Faith his whole life, was to be named by the Pope, an “Athlete of Christ” and “Defender of the Faith.” The only one, besides an Albanian freedom fighter, to be so named in the fifteenth century – irony indeed.  
          Unfortunately, shortly after his bittersweet return to power as the point man of a counter-offensive against Radu the Handsome, like some sick, tragic, celebrity death, Vlad the Impaler, a national hero, was found by some monks decapitated in a swamp near the island monastery where he was probably buried. Even Vlad’s burial site is a matter for speculation, to the glee of Vampire enthusiasts. The differences continue: Vlad the Impaler only ruled six years between exiles. He was, indeed, a tragic individual. A political prisoner as a child of the Sultan, against whom he later won some stunning victories, he watched his younger brother, Radu the Handsome, undergo molestation and abuse. He became estranged from his brother, who eventually became a competitor for the princedom of Wallachia.
          Stephen, on the other hand, was one of the longest ruling in Romanian history, and that was no easy task. Romanian princes ruled, in many respects, at the pleasure of the landed gentry, the local nobles, known as boyars. This is often why Vlad failed in ruling, because he lost the confidence or was too harsh with his boyars. Stephen too, was occasionally harsh with his nobles, but remained in power, popularly. Both were freedom fighters of a holy land against an unholy invader, like the mighty Maccabees of old in Israel.
Yet one can say more truly of St. Stephen, like the valiant Simon Maccabee: “As for the land of Judea, that was quiet all the days of Simon; for he sought the good of his nation in such wise, as that evermore his authority and honour pleased them. . . . Then did they till their ground in peace, and the earth gave her increase, and the trees of the field their fruit. The ancient men sat all in the streets, communing together of good things, and the young men put on glorious and warlike apparel. He provided victuals for the cities, and set in them all manner of munition, so that his honourable name was renowned unto the end of the world. He made peace in the land, and Israel rejoiced with great joy: for every man sat under his vine and his fig tree, and there was none to fray them: neither was there any left in the land to fight against them: yea, the kings themselves were overthrown in those days. Moreover he strengthened all those of his people that were brought low: the law he searched out; and every contemner of the law and wicked person he took away. He beautified the sanctuary and multiplied the vessels of the temple” (1 Maccabees 13). If St. Stephen did not accomplish all these things, to be like the Maccabees was his goal instead of Machiavelli’s idea of the Prince. Interestingly enough, St. Stephen is said to have abdicated, allowing his son to rule in his stead. He appears to have taken on monastic vows after all was said and done.
Now for a moment of theology: We are not talking about St. Stephen having done more, and, therefore, being saved while Vlad went to hell. We don’t know that. Both were sinners. Both were sanctified in the life of the Church. For all we know, both Vlad and Stephen are saved and at rest. A unique form of Romanian mass intentions offers the Eucharist, praying, “For the commemoration and forgiveness of sins of all them that since the world began have fallen asleep in the True Faith, the blessed founders of this holy House, rightly believing Kings, Patriarchs, Pontiffs and Priests”. For something like 44 houses of prayer, St. Stephen is commemorated as both a rightly-believing King and as the founder of that holy house of prayer. For Vlad too, especially at the places he built, improved or endowed, the sacred blood of Christ is pleaded to wash and cover his sins and iniquities, especially his blood-guiltiness.
To be named a saint is to be made an example of by Holy Mother Church. Vlad might have been an example of patriotism and statecraft. But he was not an example of what we see in our Epistle lesson today. While remaining much of his life a prisoner, he was not a prisoner of the Lord. He did not walk worthy of the vocation wherewith he was called, with all lowliness and meekness, with long-suffering, forbearing others in love. We should not be unkind to Vlad; it is hard to be a good politician, and even harder to be a Christian one. But we should glorify God for the wonderful grace and virtue declared in all of God’s saints who have been the choice vessels of his grace and the lights of the world in their several generations, and especially for the holy and rightly-believing prince St. Stephen the Great of Moldavia; and we should pray for the soul of Vlad of Wallachia, that, despite all the popular folklore to the contrary, he might be gathered with his fathers and rest in peace.
Let us pray.

O God, by whose royal favor St. Stephen of Moldavia was permitted to reign over a portion of thy earthly kingdom, grant to all Christian rulers and magistrates singleness of heart, that they may punish wickedness and vice, and to us, thy servants, grace to rule our hearts according to thy commandments; that the kingdom of heaven may be made a manifest reality on earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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