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St. Stephen of Sweden: Of Odin, Evangelism, and the Ascension

2 Jun

“The blood of Christians is seed.”
~
Tertullian

We re-watched Thor: Ragnarok (2017) the other night. What a fun ride – lots of laughs, lots of fun amid the wreckage and (bloodless) carnage. It’s representative of the best in superhero films – the ones that don’t take themselves too seriously, and their characters don’t either. Thor and his movies are particularly enjoyable, however, because of the cognitive dissonance: You’d expect a guy named “Ant-Man” to be self-deprecating and goofy; you wouldn’t expect the Norse god of thunder to be so.

Not that there aren’t darker moments in Ragnarok – like when Odin, a preeminent deity and Thor’s dad, fades away (or dies, or its equivalent – you’re never quite sure in the Marvel universe). In a sense, though, Odin is still very much with us: We commemorate his legacy the middle of every week, for Wednesday (that is, Woden’s day) is named in his honor.

Did you know that? Yes, the days of our modern week are residual shout-outs to ancient pagan gods and their associated planets. Sun-day and moon-day, plus Thor’s day and Saturn’s day, and the rest. Yet, if the worship of Odin and his crew was so entrenched in the past that we’d still be remembering them every day of the week today, how is it that they and their followers have disappeared – just like Odin did in Ragnarok?

We can credit the likes of St. Stephen of Sweden for that, and this happens to be his feast (June 2). Stephen was an 11th-century monk of Saxony’s New Corbie (or Corvey) Abbey. “From its cloisters went forth a stream of missionaries who evangelised Northern Europe,” reads the Catholic Encyclopedia, and Stephen was among them.

He was consecrated a missionary bishop and dispatched to Sweden where paganism stubbornly held sway. Apparently St. Stephen was tremendously successful in his efforts to preach the Gospel, for conversions were rife. So much so that Swedish devotees of Odin decided the good bishop needed to be silenced, and they murdered him in a murky forest around the year 1075.

Now, there are some historians who say that Stephen of Sweden never existed, and that he was an amalgam figure concocted via folk traditions to account for a variety of secular cultural practices – namely festivals and horse racing and other mid-winter rioting on and about December 26, St. Stephen’s day (but that other St. Stephen, the deacon and protomartyr from Acts 7). Maybe, but these kinds of tricky historical conundrums are hard to sort out a thousand years later.

In any case, there’s no question that somebody like St. Stephen got in there and starting mixing it up with the Odin-worshippers around that time. “Norse beliefs persisted until the 12th century, and Sweden was the last Scandinavian country to be Christianised by Catholic missionaries,” reports the country’s official website. “In 1164, it became a so-called ecclesiastical province of the Catholic Church and Catholicism became firmly established.”

In addition to St. Stephen’s feast, today is also Ascension Sunday for most U.S. Catholics, and we heard in the Gospel the Lord telling the Apostles that they’d be his witnesses everywhere. “Behold I am sending the promise of my Father upon you,” Jesus tells them before he ascended, “but stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.”

He’s talking about the power of Pentecost, and it’s the power that St. Stephen and his ilk must’ve drawn on when they fearlessly proclaimed Christ throughout pagan Scandanavia. Such actions may have cost them their lives, as it did the Apostles, but their drawing on that power nonetheless made it possible for the Church to take root there and flourish.

We could use some of that power today. Come Holy Spirit.
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“Alongside the history of salvation
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It is a wonderful thing to be God’s faithful people. We achieve fulfilment when we break down walls and our heart is filled with faces and names!
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