Monday, September 28, 2009

Saintly Good King Wenceslas

One of the best loved Christmas Carols is "Good King Wenceslas." In 1853, John Mason Neale chose Wenceslas as the subject for a children’s song to exemplify generosity. It quickly became a Christmas favorite, even though its words clearly indicate that Wenceslas ‘looked out’ on St. Stephen’s Day, the day after Christmas. So Good King Wenceslas is actually a Boxing Day carol! For a tune, Neale picked up a spring carol, originally sung with the Latin text ‘Tempus adest floridum’ or ‘Spring has unwrapped her flowers’ (see below). This original spring tune was first published in 1582 in a collection of Swedish church and school songs.

Jolly Old St. Wenceslas

Who was King Wenceslas anyway? Wenceslas was the Duke of Bohemia who was murdered in 929 AD by his wicked younger brother, Boleslav. As the song indicates, he was a good, honest, and strongly principled man. The song expresses his high moral character in describing King Wenceslas braving a fierce storm in order to help feed a poor neighbour. Wenceslas believed that his Christian faith needed to be put into action in practical ways. Wenceslas was brought up with a strong Christian faith by his grandmother St. Ludmila (herself a convert of Saints Methodius and Cyril). Wenceslas’ own mother Drahomira, however, joined forces with an anti-Christian group that murdered Wenceslas’ grandmother, and seized power in Bohemia. Two years later in 922 AD, the evil Drahomira was deposed, and Good King Wenceslas became the ruler.

His mother secured the apostasy and alliance of her second son, Boleslas, who became henceforth her ally against the Christians. Wenceslas in the meantime ruled as the brave and pious king of Bohemia. When his kingdom was attacked, the prince of the invading army, which had been called in by certain seditious individuals, was approaching with a lance to slay him. This prince, named Radislas, saw two celestial spirits beside him; he had already seen him make the sign of the cross and then heard a voice saying not to strike him. These marvels so astonished him that he descended from his horse, knelt at the feet of Wenceslas and asked his pardon. Peace was then reestablished in the land.

In the service of God Saint Wenceslas was constant, planting with his own hands the wheat and pressing the grapes for Holy Mass, at which he never failed to assist each day. He provided for the poor and himself took what they needed to them at night, to spare them the shame they might incur if their poverty became public knowledge. He desired to introduce the Benedictine Order into his kingdom, but was struck down by a violent death before he could do so and himself enter a monastery, as he wished to do.

His piety provided the occasion for his death. After a banquet at his brother’s palace, to which he had been treacherously invited and where he manifested great gentleness towards his brother and mother, he went to pray at night before the tabernacle, as he was accustomed to do. There, at midnight on the feast of the Angels in the year 938, he received the crown of martyrdom by the sword, at the hand of his own brother.

He became Bohemia’s most famous martyr and patron saint. His picture appeared on Bohemian coins, and the Crown of Wenceslas became the symbol of Czech independence.

Intergenerational Appeal

Even as a young child, I remember feeling moved as I sung this jaunty, unusual carol. Recently the phrase ‘Fails my heart, I know not how, I can go no longer’ really spoke to me. It reminded me that sometimes there are times in our lives when life and its stresses seem to overwhelm us, and we feel that ‘we can go no longer.’ The response of Good King Wenceslas was most interesting. He said: ‘Mark my footsteps, my good page, Tread thou in them boldly: Thou shalt find the winter’s rage freeze thy blood less coldly.’ Wenceslas reminds us that when we are all alone, life can feel very bleak. It is at such times that solidarity with another human being can help ‘our blood freeze less coldly’. Wenceslas affirms that we are not alone, and subtly points to the basic Christmas message that Jesus our Master will never leave us in the cold.

Further, the appeal to walk in the steps that others have forged for us is being used in Benedict XVI's appeal - on this Feast of St. Winceslas - to Europe to recover her Christian patrimony before she reverts to barbarism.

In His Master’s Steps

In the last verse are the memorable words: ‘In his master’s steps he trod, where the snow lay dinted.’ The author John Neale, an Anglican priest, shows us here that the essence of true living is learning to walk in our Master’s steps. All of us need a Higher Power to help guide us along our journey. Jesus said: "If anyone would come after me (and tread in my steps), he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me." Our challenge each Christmas is to look beyond the toys and tinsel, to see ‘the Master’s steps.’


Good King Wenceslas (76.76D)


Found at bee mp3 search engine

Sources 1, 2, 3, & 4.

2 comments:

John Purssey said...

Do you know if Good King Wenceslas was the source of the Boxing Day tradition; giving gifts to the poor on The Feast of Stephen?

Fr. Chris Larimer said...

The song presumes the custom - and is late. Snopes has a good discussion.