Good King Wenceslas looked out,
On the feast of Stephen
When the snow lay round about,
Deep and crisp and even . . .
Today, the day after Christmas, is the Feast of St. Stephen. In England it is called “Boxing Day,” in Ireland “Wren Day,” and in Finland “the ride of St. Stephen’s Day – referring to a traditional sleigh ride with horses. It is the day when the Christian church has for centuries celebrated the life and death St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr.
Everything we know about Stephen comes from the Book of Acts. The name Stephen (Stephanos) is Greek, so we assume he was a Hellenistic, Greek-speaking Jew in Jerusalem. He is described in Acts 6:5 as a man “full of faith and the Holy Spirit . . . doing great wonders and signs among the people.” He was chosen to oversee the distribution of food to poor widows, and he was also a preacher. His speech in Chapter 7 is the longest sermon recorded in Acts.
Most memorable are Stephen’s words just before his martyrdom.
Stephen, filled by the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven. He saw God’s glory, with Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and he said, “Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” (Acts 7:55-56 NKJV)
As he was saying this, men began to stone him, laying their cloaks at the feet of a young man named Saul, a persecutor of Christians, who later became St. Paul, the Apostle. Who knows what effect Stephen’s words may have had on Paul’s conversion.
It is no wonder that the early church gave St. Stephen the honor of a feast day on the first day after Christmas, a special season in the church year. And what does this have to do with Good King Wenceslas, other than he went out on the feast of Stephen? Good King Wenceslas saw a poor man trying to keep warm with very little fuel, and he had pity on him. Saying to his servant, “Bring me bread and bring me wine, bring me pine logs hither,” he brought the poor man to his house for dinner, becoming an example, in this carol, for all who have plenty and can give to those in need. This is the spirit of St. Stephen’s life and death – to give regardless of the cost.
May we all have this spirit today.