When the leaders of the church in the fourth century decided on December 25 as a good day to celebrate the birth of Jesus, they took over an ancient mid-winter festival. But they hardly encouraged a season of partying such as we have now. Tomorrow we recall the massacre of the baby boys in Bethlehem ordered by King Herod and now on the 26 th we mark the lynching of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. This was where Saul – who later changed his name to Paul – encountered the witness of a believer who was prepared to
die for this faith in Jesus Christ. Paul’s letters often speak of bearing witness and he surely never forgot that experience at the death of Stephen.
The ministry which Stephen exercised is sometimes called the diaconate – deacon is the Greek word for servant. And service has been a hallmark of the church from the beginning. As Jesus says in the upper room, ‘I have set you an example’. (John 13, v15) So it is fitting that a famous act of service is linked to today:
‘Good king Wenceslas looked out on the feast of Stephen’.
Wenceslas was a real king in Prague in the 10 th century and was made a saint soon after his death because of his reputation as a faithful and just ruler. The song is of course much later, but apparently it does reflect the spirit of the man and of Stephen too.
To respond to human need, whether material or spiritual, is at the heart of what it means to follow Jesus. It is a deceptively simple demand. For a very few it may lead to a martyr’s death, but it always requires a degree of self-sacrifice. It is a stand we need to take in our self-indulgent consumer-driven times, when what you have is the measure of what you are worth, when society knows the price of everything but does not recognise the value of anything.
Following Jesus is bound to be costly, albeit not unbearably so for us. Service of others is always more or less costly – not just the risk of getting cold and wet, like Wenceslas’ dispirited page. It should mean we spend more on good causes and pressure our
Government to do the same.
I have used Joan Brocklesby’s satirical couplet before:
‘Good king Wenceslas looked out;
‘snowing’ he said, and went back to bed.’
Rather let the story of Wenceslas, the example of Stephen and the spirit of Jesus inspire you to love in action. Worth getting out of bed for.
Happy new year!
Revd Peter Brain