Sunday, December 26, 2010

Good King Wenceslas

December 26 is a somewhat underappreciated day. Many people just know it as the day after Christmas. Stores are starting their post-Christmas sales and getting ready for the New Year celebration. Some folks are suffering from hangovers after their Christmas parties last night. This being Sunday, many people have just been to church.

December 26 is also known for its own celebrations. According to tradition, it is the first day after Christmas, the day the singer of The Twelve Days of Christmas got a partridge in a pear tree. Britain, Canada, Australia and other countries are celebrating Boxing Day, and many folks are celebrating the Feast Day for St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Shortly after Jesus rose from the dead and ascended into heaven, Jesus' disciples started fearlessly preaching the Gospel. They were so busy preaching that the widows started complaining that their needs were being neglected. The apostles thus appointed seven men to take care of the widows and the needy. Among them was a man named Stephen. In addition to helping the needy, he preached the good news that Christ was the promised Messiah. This didn't sit well with the Jewish authorities, who felt that Jesus was a blasphemer. They thus put Stephen up for trial, and he gave an eloquent speech detailing the history of Israel, going through the prophecies of the Messiah, and explaining how Jesus fulfilled those prophecies. At the end of his speech, Stephen looked up to heaven and saw a vision of Jesus sitting at the right hand of God. When he told the Jewish authorities what he saw, they had heard enough. They dragged him out of the city and stoned him. As he died, he echoed Jesus' words on the cross, praying that God forgive his murderers, and committing his spirit into God's hands. The men who stoned him took off their coats and asked a Pharisee named Saul to hold them for them. This event had a strong impact on Saul's life, as he would later be stopped in his tracks by a blinding light from God and turn his life over to God. Saul became Paul, one of the greatest apostles, whose ministry spanned several decades and several countries around the Mediterranean region--present-day Israel, Turkey, Greece and Italy, possibly even Spain.

You probably weren't expecting a paragraph summarizing the book of Acts in a post on Good King Wenceslas, were you? :-)

Wenceslas was born near Prague, now the capital of the Czech Republic, then part of Bohemia, around the year AD 907. His father died when he was 13, and he succeeded him as duke. Until his father's death, Wenceslas was raised by his grandmother Ludmila. At that point, his mother Drahomira took over as regent, due to Wenceslas' young age. Drahomira proceeded to persecute Bohemian Christians, and it is believed that she ordered the murder (by strangulation) of Ludmila. She didn't allow Ludmila and Wenceslas to see each other out of fear that they would conspire to overthrow her. Wenceslas did indeed overthrow his mother when he was 18, and he ruled in a much more just manner. He was good to the poor, and he stopped the persecution. He even did a lot to spread Christianity in Bohemia, much to the displeasure of the nobility. He was assassinated in AD 935 by his brother Boleslav and some of Boleslav's supporters. After his death, Wenceslas was canonized as a saint, and he became the patron saint of Bohemia, and later of the Czech Republic. His feast day is September 28. Emperor Otto I of the Holy Roman Empire later granted him the title of King, thus the title of the song. However, during his lifetime, Wenceslas was only a duke.

Another thing...the title of the song kind of makes it sound like he might be a wizened king...perhaps in his 50s or 60s...which is how I have always pictured him. However, doing the math, I just realized that he was about 28 when he was martyred. Wenceslas actually lived a relatively short life (although I think the life expectancy was shorter back then).

More details on Wenceslas and his duchy here.

According to Wikipedia, the tune of "Good King Wenceslas" comes from a 13th-century Latin song called Tempus adest floridum (It is Time for Flowering), and the lyrics were published by John Mason Neale in 1853, a translation from a poem by Czech poet Václav Alois Svoboda in Czech, German and Latin.

I think it's significant (and intentional) that the song tells the story of something Wenceslas did "on the Feast of Stephen." Both Wenceslas and Stephen used the gifts and talents they had to serve the poor, and both were sainted after their deaths.

The carol itself is fairly well-known, but until now, I have only really known the first verse. This song tells the story of a time when Wenceslas saw a lowly peasant out gathering firewood on a bitterly snowy St. Stephen's Day evening. It turned out that the peasant in question lived a fair distance away, and would have a difficult time getting home in the deep snow and frost. Wenceslas took his page, and the two of them went to bring the peasant to the castle to dine at his table and get warm. The page started complaining that he couldn't go any farther in the snow, or he would freeze to death. Wenceslas thus told him to follow behind him, and step in his footsteps. The duke (or king) then led on until they got to the poor man. The last verse is a challenge to all of us to serve the poor, and in so doing, we will not only be blessing the poor, but also ourselves.

This has all the marks of a legend, and I'm not sure if it's entirely a true story, but Wenceslas was a historical figure, and true or not, I think we can all learn from this selfless act of a duke who had every right to stay in his warm and cozy castle, but instead looked out and had pity on a man who likely would have frozen to death if he hadn't stepped in.

The lyrics are here.

No comments :

Post a Comment