Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, December 23, 2017 - Good King Wenceslaus

    My favorite holiday story is the tale-in-song of Good King Wenceslaus. It takes place on the Feast of St. Stephen, December 26, second of the twelve days of Christmas. On this particular evening in the early tenth century, the much-loved and posthumously-declared king, Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia looks out upon the frosty snow. He sees a poor man gathering sticks in the distance and becomes curious about him.
    He calls upon his page to tell him about the man. The page explains he lives a fair distance away, by the edge of the forest, near St Agnes’ fountain. Agnes and Wenceslaus are the two patron saints of Bohemia. The reference to her in the second verse is acknowledging that. However, the 19th century songwriter took a bit too much license. At the time of our good king Wenceslaus, Agnes wasn’t yet born. She is actually a direct descendant of Wenceslaus, born 276 years after his death. Neither Agnes nor her fountain existed in the tenth century. But the well, thought to be the very fountain from the story, is still in operation in Prague to this day.
    Returning to the carol story, the king immediately tells his page to gather food and wine which they will personally deliver to the man’s house. And despite the freezing cold, out they march into the night, with only their good intentions to hearten them.
    It’s far too cold, the wind has become stronger. The page falters, he can’t go on. But the king is undaunted. The warmth of his gesture heats the very indentations he makes in the snow. The page is invited to walk in the king’s footsteps to stay warm.
    In the song, the king and page never actually arrive at the poor man’s house. As they disappear off into the night, leaving the listener standing alone in the snow as the figures dim from view, the story ends with a moral lesson. Those of privilege who bless the poor find themselves blessed. And though the story ends with an implied ellipsis, it’s understood that king and page succeeded in their mission to feed the poor man. But also more. It’s understood the honor he received at being personally delivered a meal by the king. A stand-in for Jesus himself. We are the page, walking in the footsteps of the king. For warmth, yes, but also to guide our way.
Christian cults to Wenceslaus sprung up immediately upon his death in Bohemia and England venerating him as a courageous saint and martyr. Though the stories of him are partly myth, Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia was an early archetype of a righteous king. Leadership through piety and compassion. He became the standard against which all future leaders were evaluated. Most were and still are found wanting. Yet a 12th century anthem to Svaty Vaclav—his real name—is sung nearly every Sunday as the final hymn in the churches of the Czech Republic to this day.
    By the time the Christmas carol we sing today was written about Wenceslaus in 1853, the legend of Svaty Vaclav had long grown to epic proportions. His real life generosity to his people and the steadfastness of his faith continued to resonate with the poor and oppressed and propelled his tale through the centuries.
    The fictionalized story told in the Christmastide carol is not factually true. Agnes herself could attest to that. But it is honest nonetheless in its portrayal of the teachings of Christianity and their intentions for humanity. We are to be the good king. We are to be strong and compassionate and fearless in our mission to elevate and honor the poor, not merely sustain them. It’s the difference between walking in the cold by ourselves, and walking in the still-warm footsteps of the master.
    Happy Christmas, everyone.

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