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On the Feast of Stephen: Sts. Stephen and Wenceslas
One of my and my father’s favorite Christmas songs was always “Good King Wenceslas.” It was a lot of fun to sing together (in my younger days, I got the page’s part). The quality of our singing was inversely proportional to the substantial enthusiasm that we brough to it, but this was okay, as it gave the rest of our family a welcome opportunity to complain about our singing. All well and good.
The song tells of Wenceslas, king of Bohemia in the 10th century, who one day, on the feast of St. Stephen, saw a poor man from his castle window. Inquiring about the man, he learns that he is indeed a poor man who lives a few miles off “by St. Agnes fountain.” Wenceslas determines that he and his page will set out to bring them some Christian, and Christmas, cheer that day, and so they do. At the end of the song, we hear that “ye who will now bless the poor, shall yourselves find blessing.”
At first glance, the song's link between King (actually a Duke) Wenceslas and St. Stephen might be coincidental. What could the two have in common? St. Stephen was one of the first deacons in the early Church and the first martyr. Wenceslas was a nobleman, later a king of Bohemia during the 10th century. And yet, the link between the two is not coincidence. Indeed, the link between St. Stephen and King Wenceslas is actually quite fitting, as both share a love of charity and the poor, a concern to spread and confess the Catholic faith, and the same fate as martyrs.
LOVE OF THE POOR
In the case of St. Stephen, we know his love of the poor largely by deduction, but it cannot be really in doubt. Luke’s Acts of the Apostles tells how in the early Church, some Greek Christians complained because “their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution” (Acts 6:1). In response, the apostles, reasoning that they must not neglect prayer and preaching of the word in favor of such concerns, decide to appoint 7 men, the first deacons to “serve at table.” Stephen, a man “filled with faith,” is one of these. Hence, an important part of Stephen’s ministry was care of poor widows.
Wenceslaus also had a reputation for care of the poor. While his father was Catholic, his mother was not, and he faced struggles for the faith as a young man. Yet he remained committed to care of the poor. One medieval chronicler wrote how he, “with bare feet and only one chamberlain, went to God's churches and gave alms generously to widows, orphans, those in prison and afflicted by every difficulty.” The famous Christmas carol may be based more in fact then mere legend. Dor Wenceslas was well known as a pious ruler who followed the Gospel exhortation: “Whatever you do for the least of me people, that you do unto me.” He thus followed the example of a host of Catholic saints, including St. Stephen.
ZEAL FOR THE FAITH
While the Acts of the Apostles portrays the diaconate as growing out of the need to do charitable works, leaving the apostles free for ministry, the book also indicates that preaching and evangelization was a major task of the early deacons. Indeed, it was his zealous preaching of the Gospel that gained Stephen many enemies. Some of his enemies attempted to dispute with him, yet “they were not able to resist the wisdom and the spirit that spoke” (Acts 6:10).
Wenceslaus too was zealous for the faith. In the tenth century, with a Catholic father but a pagan mother, he lived at a time when paganism was still powerful and his country’s conversion toward the Catholic faith was slow. When his father died, his grandmother advised him to seize power in order to defend the Catholic faith from his hostile mother and younger brother.
MARTYRS FOR CHRIST
St. Stephen is considered first Christian martyr. His eloquence and effectiveness in preaching and defending the faith roused the hatred of his enemies, who found themselves utterly unable to answer him. He was stoned to death as Saul (the future St. Paul) looked on.
Like him, Wenceslas also found himself a martyr for the faith. First,his mother schemed to murder his grandmother; then she and her other son came for Wenceslas. The unsuspecting Wenceslas visited his brother;who was pretending to offer peace. While praying in the chapel, his prayer was shattered. Without warning, his brother’s men entered the chapel where he was praying and attacked him, with his own brother delivering the killing blow. His brother later repented of Wenceslas’s murder when he heard of the miracles taking place at his tomb. Those miracles and his holy life made the man we sing of as King Wenceslas into Saint Wenceslas after his death.
Sts Stephen and Wenceslas are tied together by more than mere coincidence. On the contrary, they were both men of deep faith, who proclaimed the faith in hostile territory and often to hostile people; they were both deeply concerned with charity; and in the end, they both died as martyrs for the faith. Let the song remind us of their example, and may we receive their spirit of zeal.
Sts. Stephen and Wenceslas, pray for us.
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