In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me:
As He died to make men holy, let us live to make men free,
While God is marching on!


Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Good King Wenceslaus

In recent years the traditional Christmas carol Good King Wenceslaus has become one of my favorites. It's about a king who, with his page, ventures out of the palace to bring alms to a poor peasant whom he has seen gathering firewood on the Feast of Stephen (the day after Christmas, December 26). During the journey, the page is about to give up the struggle against the cold and stormy weather, but is enabled to continue by the warmth miraculously emanating from the king's footprints in the snow. The legend is based on the life of the historical Saint Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia (907–935). The tune is based on a 13th century Finnish carol, but the text was written in 1853 by the English hymnwriter John Mason Neale (1818–1866), who translated or arranged such other enduring Christmas favorites as Good Christian Men, Rejoice and O Come, O Come, Emmanuel (the charity celebrated in Good King Wenceslaus seems reflected in Rev. Neale's co-founding in 1854 of the Society of Saint Margaret, an order of women in the Anglican Church dedicated to nursing the sick).

What inspires me about Good King Wenceslaus--and makes it so fitting for the Christmas season--is the spirit of love, giving, and self-sacrifice that infuses it. The King is touched by the plight of the peasant he sees braving the elements to provide for his family, and willingly steps out of his comfortable, privileged world and into the raging storm himself, carrying his own provisions in his own arms to bring help to the poor man. There is also great love and trust between the King and his page, whom he encourages and makes sure, through a wonderful miracle, can endure the challenge before them. Is this story an allegory of Christ, the Good King who lowers Himself to succor the wretched and helpless, and the faithful but self-doubting servant, his page?

The story of Good King Wenceslaus is best experienced in Rev. Neale's delightful lyrics:
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 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."

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.
My favorite recording of Good King Wenceslaus is one made in the 1940s or 50s (not sure which) by Bing Crosby. Here's a video version, with images taken from an old comic book telling of the story.

May we all strive to emulate the Good King's example this Christmas--and all year--by stepping out of our comfort zones to share our blessings with others less fortunate than ourselves.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful back story to this Christmas carol! I'd no idea of its history. Thank you for sharing it with us!