Twelve Days: On the Feast of Stephen

If Protestants know that today is the feast of St. Stephen, it’s probably because of a rather odd carol, a Christmas song that makes no mention of Christ.

1913 biscuit tin with Neale’s carol – Creative Commons (Gryffindor)

As John Mason Neale’s “Good King Wenceslas” begins, it is December 26th, “the Feast of Stephen.” That night the medieval Czech monarch looks out and spots a poor farmer gathering firewood. The king insists on venturing out into the deep snow to bring the peasant not just fuel, but food and drink.

As they make the frigid journey to the poor man’s home, the king’s aide is on the verge of freezing to death, so Wenceslas instructs him to “tread… boldly” in his strangely warm foot prints. Here Neale rewrote this passage from his earlier prose retelling of the story:

“My liege,” he said, “I cannot go on. The wind freezes my very blood. Pray you, let us return”…

“Follow me on still,” said S. Wenceslaus. “Only tread in my footsteps, and you will proceed more easily.” The servant knew that his master spoke not at random. He carefully looked for the footsteps of the King: he set his own feet in the print of his lord’s feet.

While Jesus isn’t even named in the carol, Neale’s song is a reminder that Christians will have to walk in the footsteps of their King and Lord. After all, Jesus’ Great Invitation is simply “follow me.” (And “was not His journey from Heaven a wearier and a colder way than this?”, Wenceslas asks his servant in an Incarnation-minded part of Neale’s story that didn’t find its way into the carol.)

As Stephen finds out in today’s lectionary reading from Acts, walking behind Jesus might lead one to the Cross.

From the cathedral of Cologne, Germany – Creative Commons (Raimond Spekking)

“Lord, do not hold this sin against them,” Stephen prayed before being stoned to death for blasphemy (7:60), an echo of Jesus’ response to his own unjust execution. And if one martyr isn’t enough for the Wenceslas story, the poor man in Neale’s carol lives by a fountain named for St. Agnes, a young Roman virgin beheaded during the Great Persecution.

But while death is never far from the birth of a child given an embalming agent by the Magi, I’m struck that there’s a more basic Christmas moral in the story of St. Stephen, especially as delivered via King Wenceslas.

Before Stephen became the first Christian martyr, he became the first Christian deacon, one of the “seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom” selected to distribute food to widows (Acts 6:1-6). While he would soon preach a memorable sermon, he enters the biblical story in silent service, taking on a humble task so that the apostles wouldn’t have to “neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables.” While he would become more famous for being faithful unto death, Stephen was first faithful unto life, or its most basic requirement.

So how does a sainted king mark the Feast of Stephen but by providing a feast, like Stephen: bringing “flesh, and… wine” to the poor, and so sharing good news in deed, if not word.

Hence Neale’s Christmas moral, written for an industrializing Britain whose traditional systems of charity were ill-equipped to respond to deepening economic inequality:

Therefore, Christian men, be sure,
wealth or rank possessing, ,
Ye who now will bless the poor,
shall yourselves find blessing.

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