December 26, 2010
William G. Carter
On the church’s calendar, December 26 is the Feast of Stephen. Stephen was one of the first deacons of the church. As you may remember from the book of Acts, he was one of the seven people appointed by the church to look in on the needs of the needy, particularly the widows and the poor. He was full of the Holy Spirit and very wise. And he quickly found himself defending the Good News of Christ from the very people who resisted the good news. Stephen became the first martyr of the church, and his Feast Day is a day to remember his faith, his good works, and the ultimate cost that he paid.
That may sound harsh, but we have already had demands placed put on us by the scripture texts. Matthew tells of what happened after the Wise Men departed the manger. King Herod tried to eliminate the newborn King, and Joseph had to take his young family to hide from their enemies. The letter to the Hebrews speaks of Jesus and his sufferings, but with the end that people will be redeemed. As the writer says, “Through death, he might destroy the one who has the power of death … and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.”
Today is the Feast of Stephen, when we live Christmas forward and reflect on what the birth of Christ requires of us. There is a grand old Christmas carol that will guide our sermon time. It is rooted on the Feast of Stephen, and you will find it printed on the first page of the worship bulletin. Let’s join together and sing the first verse:
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
Wenceslas was born in 907 AD. He was the Duke of Bohemia, and not actually a King. There were nine or ten famous rulers named Wenceslas. Some of them were Slavic kings, but the Wenceslaus in our carol was the earliest of the bunch.
His father was a Christian, but his mother was opposed to Christianity. After Wenceslas’ father died when the boy was thirteen, he was taken by his grandmother and raised as a Christian. His mother was furious about the influence that the grandmother had on Wenceslas, so she arranged to have her murdered when Wenceslas was 14. This, of course, did not endear the boy to his mother, and he continued to pursue his studies of the Christian faith.
About four years later, Wenceslas assumed the throne. One of his first acts was to exile his mother and send her out of the country. He pursued his grandmother’s desire to spread the Gospel among the Slavic people. Today he is honored with a statue on the Charles Bridge in Prague. Wenceslas was a stern but fair ruler. He was widely known for his kindness to the poor, and that what we celebrate in the next three stanzas of the Christmas carol. It is a conversation between the good king and his page – and we will hear them now sing that conversation to one another.
"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
"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."
The good saints like Wenceslaus and Stephen invite us to walk in their footsteps. That is why we remember them, mark their lives, and follow their example. The Christmas carol teaches us to care for those who are half-frozen and poor. This is what Wenceslas did. It is what we are called upon to do.
It isn’t easy. Duke Wenceslas discovered that his worst enemy was his own brother Boleslav. He took part in an assassination plot that was organized by rival politicians. In the year 935, Boleslav invited his brother to a religious festival, and then attacked him on the way to worship in the church. Wenceslas was killed when he was 28 years old. His brother soon regretted his own actions. Boleslav pledged to raise his son as a Christian and dedicate him to the priesthood.
Meanwhile, Wenceslas continued to influence the Christian people in Bohemia even after his death. Having died a martyr’s death, he was quickly named a saint of the church. There were numerous legends about good works that were done in his name. Today he is regarded as the patron saint of the Czech Republic. There’s a special legend that even the places where his foot touched down are marked by the warmth of his love. We will walk in his footsteps as we remember his concern for the poor and follow his generous example.
So let us join together in singing the final verse of the carol. Therein lies today’s lesson:
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.
(c) William G. Carter
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