Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the Feast of Stephen
When the snow lay round about
Soft and crisp and even
Merry 6th Day of Christmas! The Christmas Season abounds with all nature of celebrations and observances. As we observed in yesterday’s post on the Memorial of St. Thomas Becket, a (perhaps surprisingly) large number of those observances involve martyrs. We usually celebrate the Feast of St. Stephen, the very first Christian martyr, on December 26th, immediately after Christmas Day. This year, however, St. Stephen’s memorial was suppressed because the 2nd Day of Christmas was a Sunday, so we instead observed the Feast of the Holy Family.
And yet, yesterday we heard St. Thomas Becket (as depicted by T. S. Eliot in his play Murder in the Cathedral) expound on how appropriate it is that St. Stephen’s day is the very first thing we encounter after the joy of Christmas Day itself. Not only that, St. Stephen happens to have a connection, through a well-known Christmas song, to another martyr, St. Wenceslas of Bohemia. Given all that, it seems appropriate to pay a visit to Saint Stephen (and St. Wenceslas) at some point during the Octave of Christmas, even if his usual day has been pre-empted.
Aside from the story of his martyrdom as described in the Acts of the Apostles (chapters 6-7), St. Stephan’s name is known from the Christmas carol “Good King Wenceslas.” The song does not actually tell us anything about Stephen himself: it describes instead how Good King Wenceslas goes out on the saint’s day, in an act of Christian charity, to share his Christmas bounty with a lonely and poverty-stricken old peasant. And, whether or not the incident recounted in the song ever happened, Wenceslas himself was real. He is based on Wenceslas I, Duke of Bohemia (the title of king was conferred on him posthumously after his death in 935 AD by Holy Roman Emperor Otto I). Wenceslas’ grandfather was the first Christian duke of Bohemia, but it was Wenceslas himself who firmly established the Church there in the face of still strong pagan opposition, and aligned the church in his homeland with the Holy See in Rome.
St. Wenceslas, then, marks the beginning of Christianity among the Czechs. Likewise, St. Stephen’s feast is at the start of the Christmas season, and St. Stephen himself at the very beginning of Christianity, period. He was, in fact, the first Christian to give his life for the Faith after Christ himself, for which reason he is known as the protomartyr, that is, first martyr. We find a vivid account of his death in the Acts of the Apostles:
But he [Stephen], full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God; and he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing at the right hand of God.” But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together upon him. Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him; and the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. And as they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And he knelt down and cried with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep. And Saul was consenting to his death. (Acts 7:55-8:1)
Just as our Christmas joy is tempered by the realization that the child lying in the manger must someday hang on the Cross, St. Stephen reminds us, a mere day after the Feast of the Nativity itself, that following the Child of Bethlehem can mean our own Calvary. Jesus himself tells us: “Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account” (Matthew 5:11). How is it, then, that his coming is “Good news of great joy” (Luke 2:10)? Because, as our Lord goes on to say, “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:12). Indeed, as we see in the account above from the Acts of the Apostles, St. Stephen doesn’t go to his death wailing and gnashing his teeth at the cruelty and injustice of it all, but gazing joyfully on his Savior in Heaven, and begging for forgiveness for his persecutors. Countless martyrs since have done the same, up to the present day. Christ our Savior didn’t come to save us from unpleasantness in this world, but instead to save us for eternal happiness with him in the next, by rescuing us from our own sin.
Which brings us back to Good King Wenceslas, who has more in common with St. Stephen than we might at first realize. It’s true that he established a strong foundation for the Church, and exhibited exemplary personal piety and charity; it is also the case that not everyone appreciated those qualities, including other nobles still sympathetic to paganism. His own brother Boleslav was one of these, and treacherously murdered him.
At the time, it must have seemed that Wenceslas was the loser, and that his scheming brother had won, just as St. Stephen seemed to be vanquished by his persecutors. Today, however, over one thousand years later, Good King Wenceslas is still loved by the Czechs, and remembered as one of the founders of their nation, while his brother carries the odious sobriquet Boleslav “the Cruel.” Of more significance than his worldly reputation is the fact that Wenceslas is remembered by the Church as Saint Wenceslas, Martyr, whose feast we celebrate on September 28th. Saints Stephen and Wenceslas stand together among the “white-robed army of martyrs” whom we see in the ancient prayer known as the Te Deum, gathered before the throne of God, praising their Creator, and interceding for all of us.
“Good King Wenceslas” is considered a Christmas carol, although it does not seem to have any direct reference to the Nativity of Our Lord. It does, however, encourage us to emulate the saints, such as Stephen and Wenceslas, who conformed themselves to Christ, especially as exemplars of Christ’s love [see St. Fulgentius of Ruspe’s sermon from the Office of Readings for the saint’s day: St. Stephen – The Armor of Love]. The words with which St. Wenceslas encourages his cold and frightened page in the carol could easily be spoken by Christ himself, and addressed to every one of us:
“Mark my footsteps, good my page
Tread thou in them boldly
Thou shall find the winter’s rage
Freeze thy blood less coldly.”
Featured image top of page: The Stoning of St. Stephen, by Giacinto Gimignani, 17th century
Music For Christmas
Celebrate the festive season with ‘Good King Wenceslas’ by John Mason Neale.
Featuring the voices of Rebecca Rashleigh, Rebecca Gulinello, Shakira Dugan, Stephen Marsh and Timothy Reynolds, accompanied by Orchestra Victoria and conducted by Richard Mills.