One of my favourite Christmas Carols is not about wise men, shepherds or even a baby in a manger; it is about a faithful, faith-filled King who cares for the least of those in his kingdom.
Published in 1853 “Good King Wenceslas” is a Christmastide carol, one intended to be sung during the 12 days from December 25th to January 6th (Epiphany). The carol makes that clear by mentioning the feast of St Stephen, which is on December 26th.
“Good King Wenceslas”, tells us the story of a tenth-century follower of Jesus living out his faith in very practical ways. As such, it can draw us to reflect on both Jesus' character and our own. If you are not familiar with the carol, check it out here - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SQVUMG6LZGM
Good King Wenceslas look'd 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,
Gathering winter fuel.
It is December 26th, an important feast in Bohemia (modern-day Czech Republic). Instead of being caught up in his personal devotions and celebrations, Duke Wenceslas (calling him a king is the author taking poetic license) notices a poor man out in the snow. The man was gathering fuel (which, in winter, I imagine, was very hard to find). Wenceslas not only sees the man, but he also sees the man’s need and it clearly impacts his heart.
Jesus sees our need as well, He saw it from the beginning of time, and He and the Father and the Spirit ensured that our need would be met for all eternity (1 John 14). They saw our need because their eyes have always been firmly fixed on their beloved creation. (Isaiah 43:4, Zephaniah 3:17)
Christmas is one of those seasons where it is easy to get self-focused, to keep our eyes on ourselves and to miss the needs of others around us. For many of us (even those who know Jesus), Christmas can be challenging; we might be mourning the loss of a loved one, separated from our family, inundated with work and family commitments, and just need someone to notice. Wenceslas' act of looking out reminds me to look beyond myself and pay attention to those struggling with this season.
"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."
"Bring me flesh, and bring me wine,
Bring me pine-logs hither:
Thou and I will 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.
The carol makes it clear that the weather was brutal; snow, frost and biting cold all gave Wenceslas a reason to stay home, but instead, he chooses to act. Calling a servant, he finds out who the man is and orders his servants to gather a meal and fuel for the poor man's fire, and so Wenceslas, heads out into the snow with his page to deliver the meal.
Jesus also chose to act; He embraced the vulnerability of incarnation, and He chose to live amongst His creation because of His desire to provide for our need for a saviour. (John 1:14)
How many times have I had a thought prompted by the Holy Spirit to send a friend a meal, call them up or visit them and instead have come up with an excuse not to act? Maybe the weather is too cold (or too hot), or perhaps I have a lot of work or family to care for, so I put it off. The way in which both Jesus and Wenceslas choose action calls me to look for ways to be obedient to the Spirit’s call to act.
"Sire, the night is darker now,
And the wind blows stronger;
Fails my heart, I know now 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."
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.
In the final two verses, the page struggles to keep up with his master against the wind and snow. Rather than criticising his servant Wenceslas displays his caring heart by offering to go first. The king chose to suffer the bite of the wind and the snow blowing in his face and let his page walk in the comparative shelter of his body and footprints. In doing this, he was taking the brunt of the weather; his feet would have been treading heavily in the snow creating impressions where his page could step.
Jesus did this for us most clearly on the cross when He bore the brunt of God's judgement on our sin so that we would be protected. And He keeps on protecting us as He calls us to walk in His footsteps. (1 Peter 2:21)
I know that I am so often not willing to put others first, I have good reasons, but ultimately it is my selfishness at work; I want my life to be easier, not more difficult.
What would it mean this week for me to put someone else first, to offer them protection by my willingness to act and to suffer so that their life is just a little easier?
The last four lines of the carol draw our attention to the heart of the matter, that we are called to bless the poor. The financially poor, the emotionally poor, the time poor, the energy poor, the education poor, and all other kinds of poverty that you could name.
Like Wenceslas we are called by Jesus to live for others, and especially those who are vulnerable.
Who is God calling you to see, provide for and suffer for this Christmas season?