St. Stephen, the First Martyr, and my own personal favorite Carol….about the Martyred Saint Wenceslaus of Bohemia


LIFE OF ST. STEPHEN THE PROTOMARTYR OF ALL CHRISTENDOM

St. Stephen was martyred in Jerusalem about the year 35. Tradition calls him both the first Christian martyr (or “protomartyr”) and the first “deacon” of the Christian Church.

All that we know of the life, trial, and death of St. Stephen, derives from the Book of Acts, Chapters 6 and 7.  In the long chronicle of Christian martyrs, the story of Stephen stands out as one of the most moving and memorable.

Although his name is Greek (from Stephanos, meaning crown), Stephen was a Jew, probably among those who had been born or who had lived beyond the borders of Palestine, and therefore had come under the influence of the prevailing Hellenistic culture. The New Testament does not give us the circumstances of his conversion. It would seem, however, that soon after the death of the Messiah he rose to a position of prominence among the Christians of Jerusalem and used his talents especially to win over the Greek-speaking residents of the city.

The earliest mention of Stephen is when he is listed among the seven men chosen to supervise the public tables. We recall that these first Christians held their property in common, the well-to-do sharing what they possessed with the poor; and at this time, as always in the wake of war, there were many “displaced persons” in need of charity. We read in Acts that the Hellenists, as the Greek-speaking Christians were called, thought that they, particularly the widows among them, were being discriminated against at the public tables. The Apostles were informed of these complaints, but they were too busy to deal with the problem. Therefore seven good and prudent men were selected to administer and supervise the tables. The seven, on being presented to the Apostles, were prayed over and ordained by the imposition of hands. Associated in these charitable tasks with Stephen, whose name heads the list as “a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit,” were Philip, known as “the Evangelist,” Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicholas-all Greek names. The title of deacon, which came to be linked with their function, derives from the Greek verb meaning “to minister.” These men served the Christian community in temporal and charitable affairs; later on they were to assume minor religious offices.

Stephen, already a leader, now began to speak in public with more vigor and, “full of grace and power, was working great wonders and signs among the people.”  By this time a number of Jewish priests had been converted to the new faith, but they still held to the old traditions and rules as laid down in Mosaic law.  Stephen was prepared to engage in controversy with them, eager to point out that, according to the Master, the old law had been superseded.  He was continually quoting Jesus and the prophets to the effect that external usages and all the ancient holy rites were of less importance than the spirit; that even the Temple might be destroyed, as it had been in the past, without damage to the true and eternal religion. It was talk of this sort, carried by hearsay and rumor about the city, and often misquoted, intentionally or not, that was to draw down upon Stephen the wrath of the Jewish priestly class.

It was in a certain synagogue of Jews “called that of the Freedmen, and of the Cyrenians and of the Alexandrians and of those from Cilicia and the province of Asia” that Stephen chiefly disputed.  Perhaps they did not understand him; at all events, they could not make effective answer, and so fell to abusing him. They bribed men to say that Stephen was speaking blasphemous words against Moses and against God. The elders and the scribes were stirred up and brought him before the Sanhedrin, the supreme Jewish tribunal, which had authority in both civil and religious matters. False witnesses made their accusations; Stephen defended himself ably, reviewing the long spiritual history of his people; finally his defense turned into a bitter accusation. He concluded thus:

“Yet not in houses made by hands does the Most High dwell, even as the prophet says…. Stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ear, you always oppose the Holy Spirit; as your father did, so do you also. Which of the prophets have not your fathers persecuted? And they killed those who foretold the coming of the Just One, of whom you have now been the betrayers and murderers, you who received the Law as an ordinance of angels and did not keep it.”

Thus castigated, the account is that the crowd could contain their anger no longer. They rushed upon Stephen, drove him outside the city to the place appointed, and stoned him. At this time Jewish law permitted the death penalty by stoning for blasphemy. Stephen, full of “grace and fortitude” to the very end, met the great test without flinching, praying the Lord to receive his spirit and not to lay this sin against the people. So perished the first martyr, his dying breath spent in prayer for those who killed him. Among those present at the scene and approving of the penalty meted out to Stephen was a young Jew named Saul, the future Paul, Apostle to the Gentiles: his own conversion to Christianity was to take place within a few short months.

The celebration of the Feast Day of St. Stephen is December 26, the day after Christmas, aka “Boxing Day” “Two Turtle Doves” in “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”  Despite the close association between Saint Stephen and Saint Wenceslaus of Bohemia in the Anglo-American mind, owing to a 19th century hymn, Saint Stephen the Protomartyr is NOT the Patron Saint of Hungary, who was in fact another King/Martyr who lived in the eleventh century after Saint Wenceslaus of Bohemia died in the tenth.

GOOD KING WENCESLAS (King/Duke “Herzog” of Bohemia, reigned 924-935)  To the tune of the well-known 19th Century Carol, it is possible to sing an older verse:

“Christian friends, your voices raise.

Wake the day with gladness.

God Himself to joy and praise

turns our human sadness:

Joy that martyrs won their crown,

opened heaven’s bright portal,

when they laid the mortal down

for the life immortal.”

[Words: Saint Joseph the Hymnographer, 9th Century, translated from the Greek. Music: “Tempus Adest Floridum” (“Spring has unwrapped her flowers”), a 13th Century spring carol; first published in the Swedish Piae Cantiones, 1582.]

Saint Wenceslaus’ Day:  September 28, Patron Saint of Bohemia, Czech Republic, Prague, lived approximately 907-935, canonized around 985.

Patron saint of Bohemia, parts of Czech Republic, and duke of Bohemia frorn 924-929. Also called Wenceslas, he was born near Prague and raised by his grandmother, St. Ludmilla, until her murder by his mother, the pagan Drahomira. Wenceslaus’s mother assumed the regency over Bohemia about 920 after her husband’s death, but her rule was so arbitrary and cruel in Wenceslaus’ name that he was compelled on behalf of his subjects to overthrow her and assume power for himself in 924 or 925. A devout Christian, he proved a gifted ruler and a genuine friend of the Church. German missionaries were encouraged, churches were built, and Wenceslaus perhaps took a personal vow of poverty  Unfortunately, domestic events proved fatal, for in 929 the German king Heinrich I the Fowler (Heinrich der Voegler, reigned 919-936, immortalized as Der Deutschen Konig, the just king who sets the trial-by-combat over accusations against Duchess Ilsa von Brabant in Richard Wagner’s opera “Lohengrin”, tomb recently archaeologically discovered) invaded Bohemia and forced Wenceslaus to make an act of submission.

This defeat, combined with his pro-Christian policies, led a group of non-Christian nobles to conspire against him. On September 28, 935, a group of knights under the leadership of Wenceslaus’ brother Boreslav assassinated the saint on the doorstep of a church. Virtually from the moment of his death, Wenceslaus was considered a martyr and venerated as a saint. Miracles were reported at his tomb, and his remains were translated to the church of St. Vitus in Prague which became a major pilgrimage site. The feast has been celebrated at least since 985 in Bohemia, and he is best known from the Christmas carol “Good King Wenceslas” (Anglicized spelling of Wenceslaus).

Though it was an Anglican priest, scholar, and hymnist John Mason Neale (24 January 1818 – 6 August 1866), chaplain of Downing College, Cambridge, and member of the Anglo-Catholic “Oxford Movement” and “Society of Saint Margaret” (to both of which both my parents were great adherents) wrote the words to the carol “Good King Wenceslas” which he published published in 1853, the music published in Sweden at least 300 years earlier (and possibly, as noted above, much more ancient still, dating back perhaps to the 13th century).

This unique “Christmas carol” makes no reference in the lyrics to the nativity or, really, to Christ or Christmas at all in its modern, popular form.  “Good King” (i.s. Saint) Wenceslas reigned as King of Bohemia in the 10th century, long before Prague became the second or third city of the Habsburg-Austrian Empire.  Good King Wenceslas was a Catholic and was martyred following his assassination by his brother Boleslaw and his supporters, his Saint’s Day is September 28th, and he is the Patron Saint of the Czech Republic. St. Stephen’s feast day was celebrated on 26th December which is why this song is sung as a Christmas carol.

The carol, and legacy of Saint Wenceslaus, owes its popularity to the concept of giving in meaningful ways at Christmastime, especially to the poor, especially by the rich.  Whether its mid-Nineteenth Century composition is in any way related to the movement sometimes called “Christian Socialism” is a different topic.

1. 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,
Gath’ring winter fuel.

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.”

3. “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 winds wild lament,
And the bitter weather.

4. “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.”

5. 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.

Alternative last four lines supposedly by author Neale. although I have never heard it sung this way .

Therefore, Christian men rejoice,
Who my lay are hearing,
He who cheers another’s woe
Shall himself find cheering.


One response to “St. Stephen, the First Martyr, and my own personal favorite Carol….about the Martyred Saint Wenceslaus of Bohemia

  1. Pingback: Saint Edward The Martyr

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