I have to be honest; I’ve never liked this carol much.
|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.
Yawn. This is what I thought (and probably did) when a choral arrangement of this carol was handed out to our church choir as one of three pieces we would be singing for this year’s Christmas Eve services. Seriously? With an opportunity to dine from a cornucopia of Christmas choral fare at our festal table, we’ve opted for a vaguely charitable text sung to a nothing special 17 measures of tune?
I mean, what do we have to work with here? We’ve got a king, Wenceslas. Who’s he? It’s the Feast of Stephen. Anyone know what that is? (For the record, it’s a celebration of Christianity’s first martyr. It is celebrated the day after Christmas. Cheery). And we have a poor man gathering firewood. It’s cold and snowy. Because we always end the carol right here, we are left to assume that Wenceslas probably does something kind for the poor man. If not, it’s a much worse carol than I initially thought.
But guess what… There are four more verses!
Before digging into the other verses of this carol, let’s just say that while there may be a small degree of resemblance between the historical Wenceslas and the king in this story, I believe the tale is clearly allegorical, and I’d like to examine it as such.
The players in our allegory are:
- Wenceslas, representing God and the wealth of blessings (material and immaterial) that God wishes to bestow upon “the least of these”
- The king’s page (see, I bet you didn’t even know there was a page, did you?), representing you, me, and all who have the wherewithal to transfer Wenceslas’s (God’s) blessings to those in need.
- And the poor man, who represents, well…. the poor.
Ready? Verse 2:
“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.”
Notice the questions Wenceslas asks the page: Who is this peasant? Where does he live, and what is his dwelling? Now notice the page’s answer: He lives “a good league hence” (a league is how far a person can walk in an hour – anywhere from 2 to 7 miles), underneath the mountain, by a fountain. The page (like us – hint, hint) knows where to find the poor man, but he doesn’t seem to know who he is or how he lives. So, too, many of us are aware of where the poor are (probably a good league hence – not too close), but we don’t know who they are, and we don’t really know how they live. My “take away” from this verse: While he knows where to find the poor, failure to answer the king’s other questions indicates he isn’t probably overly familiar with the more intimate details of the peasant’s day to day existence. By allegorical association, I’m willing to bet most of us are, sadly, much the same.
“Bring me flesh, and bring me wine, bring me pine logs hither:
Thou and I shall 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.”
My observations here:
- Wenceslas bids the page to go and get the food, wine and firewood;
- Together they will see the peasant dine, when they deliver it to him where he is (thither); and
- Together they set out to care for the poor, even though conditions are less than desirable.
There is an important distinction worth making here: While the king goes with the page on the journey, it begins by Wenceslas asking the page to bring, bring, bring. The page is assumedly bringing the goods from the king’s home and storehouse, to which he already has access as a member of the king’s household. Once it is gathered, however, we see that the king goes with the page (in the midst of “rude wind” and “bitter weather”. I think it bears significant mention that Wenceslas and the page go to where the poor man is. If king and page can see the poor man from where they are (assumedly at home, given the wild weather), wouldn’t it be much easier to invite the man to come to them and share in the bounty? Instead, we see those who are blessed with much making the effort to do the difficult task of meeting the poor where they are. Speaking of effort, there is an important coexistence of the page’s personal responsibility (bring, bring, bring, even though it belongs to the king) along with the king’s promise of his presence in the process (“thou and I shall see him dine, when we bear them thither”). Note also that the page and king set right out on this mission with no apparent hesitation, despite the terrible weather. We often “start strong” on our plans to care for others, but often it becomes difficult to see it through for any number of reasons.
“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.”
Ah, yes. The quick and eager start is now threatened by the onset of darkness and an increase in the winds. Strip away the Victorian English and you have basically what you and I say when the going gets tough: “This seemed like a good idea before, but now I have my doubts. I’m fearing for my safety. I want to go home.” Come on, you know you do it. I do it all the time. I begin with the best of intentions and then find excuse after excuse to avoid following through. Note the response from Wenceslas: He doesn’t say “Stop your whining. Suck it up and finish what you started.” Rather, he says follow in my footsteps. Not only does the king travel with, he also goes ahead to clear the way. And in following, the king promises “winter’s rage” will “freeze thy blood less coldly”. And what does the page do?
“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.”
The page chooses wisely. He finds that in following Wenceslas, he is actually warmed by heat “in the very sod” that is uncovered by Wenceslas’ leading footsteps. It’s interesting to me that we don’t have a sixth verse… what happens? Do they deliver the food and firewood? Do they have a grand time together, rich and poor alike? Is the peasant grateful? Does he take what is given and squander it? I think the answers to these questions are intentionally omitted, and here is why: The outcome is often less important than the readiness and willing to be obedient and carry out the master’s orders.
In Richard Foster’s section on “service” from his classic Celebration of Discipline, he says this:
“A natural and understandable hesitancy accompanies any serious discussion of service. The hesitancy is prudent since it is wise to count the cost before plunging headlong into any Discipline. We experience a fear that comes out something like this: “If I do that, people will take advantage of me; they will walk all over me.”
“Right here we must see the difference between choosing to serve and choosing to be a servant. When we chose to serve, we are still in charge. We decide whom we will serve and when we will serve. And if we are in charge, we will worry a great deal about anyone stepping on us, that is, taking charge over us. But when we choose to be a servant, we give up the right to be in charge. There is great freedom in this. If we voluntarily choose to be taken advantage of, then we cannot be manipulated. When we choose to be a servant, we surrender the right to decide when we will serve. We become available and vulnerable.”
This Christmas, I’m ready to give the gift of Wenceslas. All around me are people in need, while I have far more than enough. Am I willing to follow the master and bestow upon others the plenty with which I’ve been blessed? If so, may I be daily reminded that it is in doing so I find myself more blessed. And in saying “blessed”, I am not talking about material blessings. I’m talking more about the blessings of joy and peace I possess when I know I have done the right thing, regardless of how it is received, regardless of whether or not anyone even knows I did the right thing. I’ve always thought the best kind of giving is when you don’t expect to be given anything in return, but I’ve decided what is even better is to give when and because you know the recipient can’t possibly give you anything in return. This is the gift, not just of Christmas, but of each day. This is the gift of Wenceslas.