2021-12-26 St. Stephen's Day
Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
“Good King Wenceslas looked out, on the Feast of Stephen.” We’ve sang those words a few dozen times in our day and probably never gave them much thought. The Feast of Stephen or St. Stephan’s Saint Day is today, December 26. We know it more readily as Boxing Day - a day to bolster the economy with loads of retail spending and deals to be had. But now it has been all but eclipsed by Black Friday. Originally, Boxing Day was a day where the Lords would go around and provide small boxes of gifts to the servants as a little blessing and reward for their work throughout the year. Then it became a day to visit family and friends and have parties. But the Church inscribed this day as St. Stephen’s Day, the day on which Good King Wenceslas looked out.
If we recall who Stephen was, we go to the book of Acts and learn that he was the first person to die for the Christian faith, also called the protomartyr. Martyrs paid the utmost cost for their faith in Jesus, choosing to readily die at the hands of evil men than to betray their loyalty to the Lord of Life. If we don’t count John the Baptist, then St. Stephen truly is the first Christian martyr. He was one of the seven deacons appointed by the Apostles to serve tables and attend to the physical needs of the people. And, he also had a side hustle of preaching and doing many miracles, all of which ticked off the Jews and got him in trouble with the Sanhedrin. The words of his preaching enraged the Jews so much that they dispensed with the trial and skipped over stopping by Pontius Pilate’s Palace. They hauled him outside the city and went all out Old Testament, hurling rocks at him until he was dead. And in his final breath he said “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (7:60). Just like his Master Jesus, He asks for grace for his enemies.
So it kind of seems odd, having his Saint Day the day immediately following the birth of Christ our Lord. It feels like a bit of a strange contrast, like a peanut butter and pickle sandwich! But the apparent disharmony makes sense when we step back and see the big picture. The Christ child Jesus, lying in the manger is the only-begotten Son of God who for us and our salvation became man. This incredible incarnation paves the way for His dying on the cross to defeat death and bring forth life. From the swaddling cloths of the nativity to the grave cloths of our Lord’s death and resurrection, we see exactly where this miracle baby was going. And St. Stephen likewise seeds the church with his own blood as he follows in the steps of Christ with martyrdom, dying while forgiving his executioners.
So we roll up all of this together on this Third Day of Christmas, the very day that Good King Wenceslas went out on the feast of Stephen, when the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even. Brightly shone the moon that night Though 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.”
This good King, upon seeing the poor man is moved with mercy and compassion. He calls for food and drink to be brought, and lots of wood to get a nice hot crackling fire going. The song is based on the life of an actual person. St. Wenceslas I, Duke of Bohemia. One of the biographies written about Wenceslas says, “His deeds I think you know better than I could tell you… 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.”
Christian charity, acts of mercy, caring for those in need is really the focus of Boxing Day. Not sales. Not fighting to return unwanted gifts. Charity. Giving abundantly out of selflessness. In yesteryear, people would box up food and supplies and take them to help the poor, the lonely, the downtrodden. Christians would give financial gifts to those who were in need. While many people are giving extra money to charity this time of year, getting the donations in before the 31st so they can get a tax receipt – we as Christians are called to act in love to those in need – not for a tax receipt, but as an extension of Christ’s love for them and St. Stephen’s desire that people receive the Gospel and repent.
This we see in the heart of King Wenceslas who went the extra mile for the poor man, even though it was cold and miserable outside. He mirrored the same faith of St. Stephen that sought to help and serve the people around him. But in St. Stephen’s case, the people wouldn’t listen. They wouldn’t hear his word that ultimately spoke of Christ in the face of man-made traditions. And, it cost him his life. This describes Christ Jesus our Lord. It describes St. Stephen. It describes King Wenceslas.
The last line of the carol says “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 God who put on flesh for you calls you to be a blessing to those around you. He calls us to walk in his steps and the steps of St. Stephen which fill the world with hope, peace, joy and love.
On his heels is St. Peter telling us “Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing” (1 Peter 3:9). God who has given us everything calls to us to give to others as an extension of His Love. The God who comes in human flesh at the very first Christmas comes and feeds you, his people, with His flesh and blood for your forgiveness. He sends you forth into this world to be his flesh and blood in this world.
On this, the feast of Stephen, on this Boxing Day, take some time to think beyond yourselves. Your King of Kings and Lord of Lords has gone before you. Walk in the master’s steps. For this is our Saintly way of life. Amen! Merry Christmas!