Good King Wenceslas looked out, on the Feast of Stephen . . .
26 December 2009
One of my favorite Christmas Carols is the 156-year-old carol: Good King Wenceslas. In 1853, John Mason Neale chose Wenceslas as the subject for a children’s song to exemplify generosity.
Wenceslas was the Duke of Bohemia who was murdered in 929 AD by his 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 neighbor. 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. Wenceslas’ own mother Drahomira, however, joined forces with a 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. 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.
I remember even as a young child feeling moved as I sung this unusual carol. Why does Good King Wenceslas have such a deep and lasting impact on its hearers I wander? Perhaps it is because there are so many levels of meaning to this carol. A child may hear one thing, an adult may hear another. I find that I can hear it again and again, and not tire of the carol.
The phrase ‘Fails my heart, I know not how, I can go no longer’ reminds us that sometimes when life and its stresses might threaten to overwhelm, and we feel that ‘we can go no longer.’ The response of Good King Wenceslas was to say: ‘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 a basic Christmas message that Jesus our Master will never leave us in the cold.
In the last verse are the memorable words: ‘In his master’s steps he trod, where the snow lay dinted.’ The author of the carol, John Neale, a priest of the Church of England, shows us here that the essence of true living is learning to walk in our Master’s steps.