Stephen, Boxing, and a Bohemian Duke
By DANNY MINTON
This week’s title may seem strange, but the same theme connects all three. Most of us know of Stephen, a Christian in the first century stoned to death before an angry group in Jerusalem. We first learn of him in Acts 6, where he was chosen with six other men to serve the physical needs of the less fortunate of the city. The writer describes Stephen as “full of faith and the Holy Spirit.” To be chosen for such a task would require men who loved people and desired to help where needed. His love for the Lord and willingness to stand up for him led to his death, possibly making him the first Christian Martyr.
According to some historians, in 415 AD, a priest, Lucian, discovered the remains of Stephen on December 26 and transported them to a Benedictine church (now an Abbey). Eventually, the 26th (Western Christianity) or the 27th (Eastern Christianity) became known as “St. Stephen Day” or the “Feast of St. Stephen.”
In Britain, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and a few other countries, the 26th is also celebrated as “Boxing Day.” I believe in the United States, we’d name the 26th “Return the Gifts You Don’t Want Day.” However, traditionally, in these countries, the day followed the attitude of Stephen, someone who gave. One origin provides the belief that alms were collected during the holiday period. On the 26th, the priest opened the box, distributing the money to the poor. The second one in the countries mentioned involves employers giving a gift box to their servants and allowing them the day off to provide boxes for their families. “Boxing Day” portrayed a day of giving on all levels.
How are Stephen and “Boxing Day” tied to a Bohemian Duke at Christmastime? The answer lies in a song written by John Mason Neale in 1853 to a tune that was centuries old. The song is “Good King Wenceslas.” The song is not about Christmas but the day after Christmas. It’s also not about a king since Wenceslas(aus) was only a duke and would be given the title, King, later by Emperor Otto 1.
There are many variants about how Wenceslaus became ruler. Here is one of the scenarios passed around. Born around 907-11 AD, Wenceslaus was raised by his Christian grandmother. His mother came from a pagan background and hated the Christians. When Wenceslaus was of age to become ruler, his mother was banished, and controversy about who should rule ensued. After a power struggle, the Bohemians decided they wanted Wenceslaus as their ruler. Not quite able to take complete control, his grandmother became regent.
The grandmother was assassinated, and his pagan mother became the ruling regent. At 18, he had his mother banished due to her wanting more power. Wenceslaus was a good, kind young man who strengthened Christianity and cared for the poor and needy. Because of some of his deeds, his mother persuaded her other son to kill Wenceslaus, an act for which he later repented. However, he did continue the Christian ways of his brother and did not follow the pagan practices of his mother.
In a 12th century hagiography on Wenceslaus, the writer makes the statement, “But his deeds I think you know better than I could tell you; for, as is read in his Passion, no one doubts that, rising every night from his noble bed, with bare feet and only one chamberlain, he went around to God’s churches and gave alms generously to widows, orphans, those in prison and afflicted by every difficulty, so much so that he was considered, not a prince, but the father of all the wretched.”
The song “Good King Wenceslaus” tells the story of Wenceslaus seeing a poor peasant gathering firewood on St. Stephen Day and asking his page about his situation. When he finds out, Wenceslaus and his page set out through the winter storm with food, wine, and firewood to give to the poor family. The page begins to struggle along the way and says he can’t go any further. Wenceslaus encourages him and tells him to stay behind him and follow in his footsteps, making it easier with the warmth of the footprints and sheltered from the wind behind him. The song ends with the lyrics, “In his master’s step he trod, where the snow lay dented. 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.”
Being concerned for the poor and less fortunate is a topic throughout the Bible, exemplifying a significant theme. Through the minor prophets, God complains to the people of Israel that they have neglected and taken advantage of the poor, and this had become one reason for their punishment. All through his ministry, Jesus would talk about helping the poor and less fortunate. He preaches, “Love one another.” He proclaimed, “When you do it to the least of these, you do it to me.” Through His words and the words of those who wrote about Him, the words echo over and over in various ways, “If you don’t love your fellow man who you see, you can’t love God who you cannot see.”
We talk of this as the “season of giving.” This year make it that season where you give to someone other than family. Go to the grocery, buy a basket of food, and take it to the food bank or place that feeds the poor. If you know someone in need, set it on their doorstep. Buy some brand-new clothes at the after-Christmas sale and give them to the homeless. Give your waiter or waitress a little extra on the tip. Pay the light bill for someone in need. Whatever you do, do something to help others.
Maybe this next year, have the family set a box up at home and put all your spare change in it each day when you get home. On “Boxing Day,” give the contents to someone or an organization that helps people.
Wenceslaus was known as “Vaclav the Good,” his Czech name. Wouldn’t it be nice to hear the words as we stand before our Lord, “Well done thou good and faithful servant!”
“Danny the good.” I like the ring of that phrase!
Danny Minton is Pastoral Minister and Elder at Southern Hills Church of Christ