Tuesday, December 26, 2023

St. Stephen's Day

‘Good King Wenceslas’ was actually Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia. He was also known as Vaclac the Good, or Svatý Václav in Czech and lived from c.907 to 28 September 935.  The reason we have his exact date of death is that, upon orders from his brother Boleslaus the Cruel, Wenceslas was killed on The Holy Innocents. 

Wenceslas was not raised in a family with a long history in the faith.  His grandfather had been converted to Christianity by Saints Cyril and Methodius while his mother was the daughter of a pagan tribal chief (though she was baptised before marriage).  Young Wenceslas’ father died leaving a power vacuum during which his  mother was banished and his grandmother murdered.  After the dust had settled,Wenceslas was chosen by the people of Bohemia to be their king.  His mother was regent until Wenceslas reached the age of 18; then he banished her.  In the turmoil, the country was split in half and one part given to Wenceslas’ younger brother, Boleslaus.  Boleslaus was not content with half and in September 935 he plotted with a group of noblemen to kill his brother.  It was said of Wenceslas:  “His deeds I think you know better than I could tell you; for, as is read in his Passion, no one doubts that, rising every night from his noble bed, with bare feet and only one chamberlain, he went around to God’s churches and gave alms generously to widows, orphans, those in prison and afflicted by every difficulty.”  

The words to the carol were written in 1853 by John Mason Neale and joined to a much older melody – it’s a 13th-century tune called ‘Tempus adest floridum’ in praise of the spring.  The carol was written for the Feast of St Stephen, better known as Boxing Day.  It continues to celebrate a long tradition of charitable giving on the Second Day of Christmas.

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,
Gath’ring winter fuel.

‘Hither, page, and stand by me,
If thou know’st 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 flesh and bring me wine,
Bring me pine logs hither,
Thou and I will see him dine
When we bear them thither.’
Page and monarch forth they went,
Forth they went together,
Through the rude 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, good my page,
Tread thou in them boldly:
Thou shalt find the winter’s rage
Freeze thy 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,
Ye who now will bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing. 



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