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The day after Christmas is celebrated day in some countries as Boxing Day. Not in United States of America, and, not too many people know what Boxing Day is in those countries where is it observed.
In America, we do sometimes sing about Boxing Day, in a very popular and well known boxing day carol. It’s 129 years old and uses a melody from an ancient spring song. It’s a song all about a good king…who steps out on the Feast of Stephen.
Good King Wenceslas… Who was he and what is the Feast of Stephen?
King Wenceslas was the duke of Bohemia who died about 900 in our Common Era. His beautiful grandmother, a devout Christian, who later became a saint, St. Ludmilla of Bohemia raised him in to be a Christian in a land that in the early tenth century was still largely pagan. That alone was significant but more importantly, she raised him to see his Christianity as a duty to other, and to life. She taught him that his Christian faith had to be put to practical use. That was a teaching that made a life long impression on him.
That is what the carol is about. When he saw suffering, he did something about it. Unfortunately, Wenceslas’ mother didn’t share the passion for Christianity. So she had his grandmother strangled and she became the regent to the young king and ruled Bohemia.
Drahomira -- her name -- a harsh and unpopular ruler, persecuted Christians and allowed priests to be murdered. But nothing she could do would wipe out the message of service his grandmother instilled in him and the accompanying love for the Christian message of charity and compassion.
So…. when he took over leadership of Bohemia at age twenty he restored safety for priests and became known for his compassion and love of people. He was tremendously concerned about the poor and stood up against injustice (hand to hand duel to stop raids). He bought children out of slavery and set them free and built churches (basically brought education to the country).
But he wasn’t popular with everyone. Because of his Christianity and his politics (sided with German King Henry) he was assassinated, slain at the gates of the church. He became the patron saint of the Bohemian, or of the Czech, people. The carol we sing today about him, tells about his care of the poor and about how he would go the extra mile for others. It tells of a wintery scene, the day after Christmas, St. Stephens Day. It’s freezing cold and the king spots a poor man outside.
He asks his page who it is and upon hearing the answer he says to the page, bring food and wine, you and I are taking it to him for dinner.
Good King Wenceslas looked out on the Feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even.
Brightly shone the moon that night, though the frost was cruel,
When a poor man came in sight, gathering winter fuel.
“Hither, page, and stand by me, if you know it, telling,
Yonder peasant, who is he? Where and what his dwelling?”
“Sire, he lives a good league hence, underneath the mountain,
Right against the forest fence, by Saint Agnes’ fountain.”
“Bring me food and bring me wine, bring me pine logs hither,
You and I will see him dine, when we bear them thither.”
Page and monarch, forth they went, forth they went together,
Through the cold wind’s wild lament and the bitter weather.
“Sire, the night is darker now, and the wind blows stronger,
Fails my heart, I know not how; I can go no longer.”
“Mark my footsteps, my good page, tread now in them boldly,
You shall find the winter’s rage freeze your blood less coldly.”
In his master’s steps he trod, where the snow lay dinted;
Heat was in the very sod which the saint had printed.
Therefore, Christian men, be sure, wealth or rank possessing,
You who now will bless the poor shall yourselves find blessing.
There is a line in the carols the page sings…he is getting cold out there ‘Fails my heart, I know not how, I can go no longer’ which really speaks to me. It reminds me of those times in life when it seems overwhelming and we feel we just can’t go another step.
The response of Good King Wenceslas inspiring. He says: ‘Mark my footsteps, my good page, Tread thou in them boldly: Thou shalt find the winter’s rage freeze thy blood less coldly.’
He put himself in the front of the servant to shield him. In the presence of suffering, the king knew that solidarity with another human being could help. (Heat was in the very sod which the saint had printed – illustrates the miracles of love and human kindness)
This is the kind of Christian heroes that made me love the Christian message which is supposed to be a message of love and service and not a message of judgment and oppression. At least in my opinion.
Beautifully captured in the St. Francis Prayer.
Let me rather be the one to give consolation, let me seek it…
Rather than seeking consolation and understanding and so on…
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
...where there is injury, pardon;
...where there is doubt, faith;
...where there is despair, hope;
...where there is darkness, light;
...where there is sadness, joy;
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
...to be consoled as to console;
...to be understood as to understand;
...to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
...it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
...and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.