Good King Wenceslas; the Carols of Christmas
One of the things I love about Christmas is the way it appeals to all five senses. The smell of pine trees signals the beginning of Christmas to me. Twinkling lights brighten even the darkest night. The spicy sweetness of ginger snaps. Soft, flannel sheets. When it comes to sound, nothing says Christmas like music. I can get behind most Christmas songs. I've been known to belt out “All I want for Christmas is You” while baking and I admire true classics like “I want a hippopotamus for Christmas.” Maybe it’s all the years of being in choir during Christmas, but I love carols the most. The more obscure, the better. When our oldest was little, she had a book of carols with an accompanying CD. Her favorite was “In the Bleak Midwinter” -a carol most people don’t know all that well. At some point, she requested it when someone was playing music. She hollered,“Play ‘in the bleak’!” The musician was shocked by this little girl, but I couldn’t have been prouder.
The year I graduated college, I took a tour with the University of Dayton Chorale -performing concerts all around Europe. Our first stop was Prague. I didn’t know anything about the Czech Republic except that people said to buy all my souvenirs there because they would be great quality at wonderful prices. I didn’t want to haul them around for the reminder of my trip, so I ignored this advice. It’s a decision I’ve regretted for 17 years.
One of our concerts was in the 14th century Gothic cathedral called St. Vitus. Inside, I saw a large, solid table with candles and what looked like a fancy tent on top. At first, I assumed it was just a candle table with a tent on it. That’s normal right? Our guide said it was the tomb of King Wenceslas, the Duke of Bohemia. I’m so used to American churches, I don’t expect to see tombs of ancient rulers in the sanctuary, but there he was. I was rapt because, as I mentioned before, I love obscure Christmas carols like “Good King Wenceslas”.
Wenceslas wasn’t that significant of a ruler and he wasn’t even a king at all. He was given the title of King after his death by Otto I, Emperor of Rome. In 935, a group of conspirators, led by his brother, murdered him. It's rumored that while they were stabbing him he was praying for their souls. In addition to being a martyr, Wenceslas was known for was taking care of his people. In 1119, the chronicler Cosmas of Prague wrote this about Wencenlas:
“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, so much so that he was considered, not a prince, but the father of all the wretched.”
The carol we’ve grown to know and love was published by John Mason Neale in 1853.
Take a minute and read through the lyrics of this wonderful carol. Try not to sing them because you may miss the meaning in the familiarity of the tune.
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.
Clearly, the author wants us to take away the message that we will be blessed when we bless the poor. That’s why the last stanza starts with "Therefore". However, the part I always connect with is the part where the servant starts to lose his way in the blizzard. What a beautiful picture of our heavenly father.
“God? I’m scared and it’s cold and I’m not sure if I can see you anymore.”
His response: “Walk in my footsteps. See? They’re still warm. I’m right here walking ahead. We’ve got this.”
How significant that the man whose job it was to serve had to first walk in the footsteps of His master. A man with power. It goes against every definition of the word King to be trudging out in the snow to give the poor a feast.
God is the same. Have you ever stopped to wonder why he pursues us so fervently? Why He would ever give us His son? It goes agains every definition of the word God for Him to serve us in that way, but He does. Our Heavenly Father is walking ahead and giving us guidance. His footsteps are warm and safe.
But He doesn’t want us to just sit at home enjoying our feast. I'm sure the King's page would have been happy to stay in the castle and celebrate St. Stephen. Except his master saw a man gathering fuel and wanted to help him. Our Lord wants us to brave the winter cold and weather to love those less fortunate. To go to places unfamiliar and share our feasts.
Let’s make this our goal this Christmas. To find His warm footsteps and “Tred in them bodly”. No matter our wealth or rank, we have a God who walks before us and we will be blessed when we bless others. It may just be the thing that makes this season meaningful instead of just busy.