Good King Wenceslas looked out, on the Feast of Stephen
So begins the familiar carol, which we all know and which I for one happen to love. Since the legendary event on which the carol is based is supposed to have taken place today, on the Second Day of Christmas, the feast of Saint Stephen, the First Martyr, this seems as good an occasion as any to reflect a bit on that legend's lofty message about the role and responsibilities of a righteous ruler and the community he leads and about its model of inclusiveness that seems increasingly to elude our contemporary society.
Saint Wenceslas (907–935) was Duke Wenceslas (Vaclav) of Bohemia, who after his martyrdom by his brother of Boleslaus (Boleslav) the Cruel, was widely acclaimed as a model of the medieval image of the just ruler, whose piety was expressed in his leadership of society. Although the actual Wenceslas was a Duke, not a King, Holy Roman Emperor Otto I (912-973) posthumously promoted him to rank of king, hence his title in the legend and the carol. While Wenceslas and the legend of his Saint Stephen's Day service were medieval, the carol itself is modern - composed by English hymn writer John Mason Neale in 1853 and set to the tune of a 13th-century spring carol Tempus adest floridum ("The time is near for flowering").
In five 8-line stanzas, Neale's carol retells a story of Wenceslas and his page going braving the harsh winter weather to assist a poor peasant on December 26. Although it takes the form of a cheery Christmas carol, its message is a serious one.(Therefore, Christian men, be sure, wealth or rank possessing.) As such, it is thus also a challenge - as reflected in the page's difficulty in carrying on, a difficulty only overcome by literally following in the saint's footprints.
As the Rite for the Coronation of a King in the pre-1969 Pontificale Romnanum and analogous texts made abundantly clear, much was expected of a just ruler. While the historical Wenceslas attained eternal glory by his martyrdom, the legend refers not to that but to his identification with and commitment to the poor as part of his righteous rule.
Christmas, the annual commemoration of the historical event of the birth of Christ, has become both our primary cultural celebration of capitalist acquisitiveness and greed and (somewhat more benignly) a family festival of domestic feeling. Above and beyond all of that, however, the true meaning of Christmas is not some nostalgic holiday pageant, for the baby whose birth we celebrate is not just some distantly ancient historical figure, but God-with-us, who challenges us to recognize and receive him in the here and now, in one another, and above all in the poor and the marginalized.
The challenge to identify with the poor and the marginalized and to make their inclusion a social and political priority is highlighted in the legend of King Wenceslaus as a responsibility laid upon all in society - from the ruler who has to set the good example, to the ordinary citizen (signified by the page).
The medieval Church set a very high moral standard for the just ruler, conscious of how challenging and difficult that standard is. In contrast, our recent history has only highlighted the abandonment, on the part of too many who consider themselves Christians, of the traditional aspiration to seek and accomplish justice and inclusion through political governance and social policy.