Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the Feast of Stephen
When the snow lay round about
Soft and crisp and even
Today, the Second Day of Christmas, we (like King Wenceslas in the well-known carol quoted above) celebrate the Feast of St. Stephen. 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 by Holy Roman Emperor Otto I after his death in 935 AD). Wenceslas’ grandfather was the first Christian duke of Bohemia, but it was Wenceslas himself who firmly established the Church in Bohemia in the face of still strong pagan opposition, and aligned the church in his homeland with the Holy See in Rome.
Wenceslas stands at 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 the Church; 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)
|The Stoning of St. Stephen, by Paolo Uccello|
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 to save 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, as well as his brother Boleslav, who 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 before the throne of God, praising their Creator and praying for all of us.
"Mark my footsteps, good my page
Tread thou in them boldly
Thou shall find the winter's rageFreeze thy blood less coldly."
See Also: Christmas transcends worldly concerns: “The 2nd Day of Christmas: Merry Christmas & O Holy Night (Hayley Westenra)”