Friday, December 26, 2008

Good King Wenceslaus

On this Feast of Stephen (well, at least for us in the Western Church; the Orthodox celebrate it tomorrow), people might be reminded of the Christmas Carol, "Good King Wenceslaus."

Now, the subject of the carol wasn't named Wenceslaus, and wasn't a king. He was actually named Václav, and was the Duke of Bohemia (907-935 CE).

(There actually was a King of Bohemia named Wenceslaus, but he reigned some three centuries after Václav (1205-1235 CE).)

But let's not let little things like facts get in the way.

Well, at least he was good.

Anyway, Václav was noted for his piety and generosity in his lifetime, and shortly after his death was acclaimed as a saint. He rapidly became venerated throughout Bohemia, and all the way to England. Because of the power of the legends surrounding him, Václav became the medieval model of the "just monarch" who really cared for his subjects.

In the mid-19th Century, Anglican cleric John Mason Neale (noted for publishing English translations to many now well-known carols) published the words of Good King Wenceslaus:

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, tho' 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 them 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, good my 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.
Václav's page is unable to withstand the harsh cold as Václav is going about on the night after Christmas, giving alms to the poor. Václav instructs him to follow directly in his footsteps, and when the page does so, he finds heat radiating from the saint's footprints, enabling the page to accomplish his mission of caring for those less fortunate.

So, irrespective of the guy not really being named Wenceslaus, and not really being a king (he was posthumously granted that title by Emperor Otto I (d. 973 CE)), his legendary charity and the lovely musical remembrance thereof can inspire us none the less during these Twelve Days of Christmas.

Blessings and peace to one and all,

Fr. Tim, SJ

1 comment:

Mirabilis said...

Václav is the Czech form of Wenceslas -- but you are right, he wasn't formally "king" although rulers of lands were often dukes in those days.

You didn't mention that he was martyred: murdered by his younger brother, Boleslav "the Cruel." The murder haunted him, and he tried to make reparations -- his son was raised to be a priest, and his daughter became a nun (and went to Rome to petition the pope at Rome to make Prague a bishopric).

What's strange is that Wenceslas is usually portrayed in the West as a jolly old man. He died in his twenties.

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