by Fr Gabriel-Allan Boyd
Something very meaningful to ponder on December 27th (St Stephen’s Feast Day) is a beautiful and lively old Christmas carol. The song tells the story of a Czech king, “Good King Wenceslas,” who, looking out the window from high up in his castle to watch the wintry sunset, sees a poor peasant, out in the bitter cold…an evening so cold he felt no man should have to work in it, wearing little more than misery and rags, gathering little sticks and scraps of whatever he could find to keep his home fire fed. The legend is based on the life of the historical Saint Wenceslas I, King of Bohemia (907–935). The Christmas carol starts like this:
“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.”
And so, moved with compassion for this poor man…Good King Wenceslas, as evening draws nearer, decides to embark upon a journey to find where the poor man lives, braving even harsher winter weather to give alms to him (the very best of provisions of meat and sustenance and good firewood). Accordingly, the good king asks his attending servant (his loyal page) for his assistance in accomplishing this hazardous mission through the storm into the night. The song goes on:
"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 him thither."
Page and monarch forth they went
Forth they went together
Through the rude wind's wild lament
And the bitter weather”
During the journey, the King’s page becomes completely overwhelmed by the cold and the wind and the snow and is about to give up the struggle against the frigid weather. But Good King Wenceslas advises him that he will be able to endure the trip if he would but follow in the king's footprints, step for step, through the deep snow. Thus the song says further:
"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 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.
So in the context of the birth of Christ, what does this Christmas Carol…and the death of St Stephen commemorated this day (Acts 7) have to do with anything? And most of all, why, just 2 days after celebrating such a sweet family holiday like Christ’s birth are we observing such a horrific event? Why can’t these days right after Christmas be gentler, like a nice warm-fuzzy Norman Rockwell painting? Why can’t Christmas be just about mulled hot apple-cider and families gathered around the piano together singing “Silent Night”?
It’s because the real events surrounding Christ’s birth weren’t really so much like the Christmas carol, “Silent Night.” That's a fiction. Not long after Christ’s birth, the screams of mothers were heard in the air as they watched their first-born baby-boys being murdered by Herod’s men. Christ’s birth is God’s entrance into our world, where the demons fight in a mad frenzy to reign supreme. The birth of God’s Son—Light & Life—is a dazzling interruption to their perceived reign of darkness…their desire to remove any semblance of beauty and light and love. And so, as Jesus is borne onto the scene, He immediately encounters that brutal struggle through the dark works of Herod—who couldn’t bear the thought of anyone else being king. And in these days of Christmas, when we allow Christ to be borne anew into our hearts, as Saint Stephen did, we can expect to encounter the demons putting up everything they can imagine to plant fear in our hearts and to extinguish whatever light might otherwise emerge from us. Wherever Christ is borne upon the scene, it will always encounter Herodian violence…the world’s rebellion…some form of the cross.
To this very day, the birth of Christ still brings out the most hostile reaction from the dark powers of this world. And it’s so easy for us to be intimidated by the dark events happening in the world all around us. Even today, so many years after His life and death, the presence of Jesus being born into our hearts anew still encounters the cross from the world. Sometimes it feels like that storm closes in all around us…bitterly cold…dark and fear-inducing…draining us of all our strength…making us feel as though we can’t go on.
So what can we do?
As God’s loyal servants...like King Wenceslas’ loyal page amidst the storm...like Saint Stephen the First Christian Martyr…we too need to walk in the path of our King, Christ our Savior, being warmed and encouraged and strengthened by planting our feet, step-by-step into His footsteps. We trust in His every word, following those words closely…making His way our way…having His goals as our goals…and in the end, we will miraculously find ourselves at His desired destination…warmed by His ardent affection… heartened and upraised by our participation in His risky offering of love.
So…Christ is borne! Glorify Him!