Summary: To understand the strange hymn "Good King Wenceslas" we must return to the Scriptures and understand the role of deacons in the early Church, and all of us today.
St Stephen’s Day Mass 2014
Thirteen Days of Christmas
“Good King Wenceslas looked out on the Feast of Stephen, when the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even.” I checked on the Internet, and found the titles of thirty-three hymns for St. Stephen’s Day, the day after Christmas, but the only one I am familiar with is the one I just quoted, and it’s written about St. Wenceslas of Bohemia. Just why did J.M. Neale connect Wenceslas with St. Stephen’s Day, and what might we derive from meditating on both saints?
I can’t read the mind of a hymn-tune writer who’s been dead for almost 150 years, but I can speculate, by referring to today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles. Stephen was a man ordained with the very first group of deacons in the early Church, perhaps within a year or two of the first Pentecost outpouring. The Church in Jerusalem was growing quickly. Jews and converts to Judaism had been believing in the Resurrected Jesus and being baptized from the very first day. The Apostles, all of whom were still in the Holy City, were overworked, because they were taking care of the secular role of the Church, especially feeding the poor, along with leading prayer in the Temple and preaching the Gospel. Exhausted, they looked for a solution, and, as they had found customary, the Holy Spirit answered in prophecy. They were to set aside seven men who had already performed some leadership roles to take over the tasks of care and hospitality. They soon were called “deacons,” after one of the Greek words for service. Of the seven named in Acts, Stephen and Philip were certainly the most prominent.
If the deacons were ordained for service–as all of us deacons still are–they quickly expanded their roles. We see Philip, for instance, going to Samaria and even on the road to Ethiopia, preaching Jesus and baptizing converts. Stephen, who may have been a Jewish convert, went back to the synagogue he was familiar with to preach about Jesus. He got a cold reception, and when he persisted in arguing with fundamentalist Jews, he was killed. The postscript is that Saul was a member of the synagogue who agreed with the murder, eventually extended the persecution of the Church beyond Jerusalem, and fell before the vision of the resurrected Christ on the road to Damascus. And, as we all know, Saul became Paul and changed the Roman world forever.
But that’s not the connection between today’s feast and St. Wenceslas. The connection is the service that Stephen was ordained in the first place to do. All Christians are called to a triple vocation. We first hear it in baptism, again at confirmation. In imitation of Jesus Christ, the Anointed one, we are anointed to the offices of prophet, priest and leader. In the hierarchy, every ordained person continues in those offices of service. The bishop especially is ordained to leadership, the priest to prayer and reconciliation, and the deacon to prophecy and service. Deacons proclaim the Gospel, and preach the Gospel, and we also exercise service ministries all over the diocese. I teach. Others visit the sick, care for the poor, and minister to prisoners and migrants.
Yet are these ministries not the responsibility of all Christians? Wenceslas was a king, but he was also a servant. Jesus led by serving. So did Stephen. So did Wenceslas. So should all of us, attracting humanity to Jesus Christ and the Church by following their examples.