Friday, January 13, 2012
Tonight we lay alongside the story of Jesus’ birth the story of another king, another one through whom Divine Love entered the world. Come with me, back through time, back more than 1,000 years, back to a cold night, not unlike this one, one of the longest nights of the year.
Come across the Atlantic Ocean, where we find ourselves in Bohemia, in what we know today as the Czech Republic, more specifically, in Prague. A young couple of royal lineage, Wratislaw, Duke of Bohemia and Drahomira of the Veletians have just given birth to their first-born son, Vaclav.
Meanwhile, in a forest nearby, a young, poor farming couple gave birth to their first-born daughter, Gina, on a bed of pine needles.
Gina, the poor farm girl, lived a simple childhood, playing with the pigs her Dad raised, helping Mom cook and clean, watching after her little sisters and brothers.
Vaclav, son of the Duke of Bohemia, was taken under the care of his grandmother Ludmilla, his father’s mother. A good Christian woman (who would be officially sainted), she wanted to see the boy raised in the Christian faith - and didn’t believe his mother Drahomira, would see to that.
Ludmilla taught young Vaclav to read and write in Slavonic, the language in Bohemia of the Bible and the church, in addition to Latin and Greek. Each fall Vaclav went to his grandma’s country castle for the harvest. There he learned to make the bread and wine for the communion meal the church celebrated each day.
Then Vaclav was 13, his father Wratislaw was killed in battle. His mother Drahoomira ruled the land as Duchess of Bohemia until Vaclav would come of age. She repressed the Christians, persecuted the priests, and forbid the practice of Christianity.
In fear, Vaclav’s grandma Ludmilla fled the capital city of Prague to her caste at Tetin on the edge of Bohemia, where she hoped to live out her final days in quiet prayer and serving the poor. Instead, her daughter-in-law Drahomira, had her brutally killed.
Vaclav, though outwardly compliant with his mother’s anti-Christian actions, secretly continued to bake the bread and press the wine for communion and read his Bible.
For Gina, life became gradually more difficult on the hardscrabble farm. Her duties increased as the mouths to feed became bigger and more numerous. Every day was spent collecting seeds and berries, digging for roots, and hoping to find enough twigs and branches to build a fire, to stay warm.
Life became even more difficult for Gina after her marriage to the son of another pig farmer. With two infants to care for, her husband’s legs were paralyzed in a hunting accident. He wouldn’t walk again. All the household duties fell to Gina.
Meanwhile, many of the nobles tired of Drahomira’s rule and organized a successful uprising, installing Vaclav as Duke of Bohemia at age 20. He based his political rule on his Christian faith, governing with justice and mercy. The people loved him for his generosity, his compassion, and his intolerance of oppression. He spent long hours in prayer. Though the nobles had exiled his mother at Budech, Vaclav pardoned her.
Soon after Vaclav began his rule, he faced a surprise military attack from Germany. Rather than fight and suffer even greater loss of lives, he signed a treaty of peaceful alliance with Germany’s King Henry I. This pleased the people, but upset the nobles, who wanted Bohemia to retain its fierce independence.
Gina was glad to not see her brothers and sons go off to battle. But still, life grew more difficult when a disease attacked their herd of swine, killing all but two. Winter fast approached, and she didn’t know how her family would survive.
In Bohemia that winter nearly 1100 years ago, winter winds began to howl, the snow came down as fast as anyone could remember. With neither food nor firewood, Gina made one last venture to the woods to search any twigs or nuts or berries that might have somehow remained uncovered by the blizzard.
Finding only three wet twigs, she returned home, resigned to a cold and harsh end to their world.
Vaclav, Duke of Bohemia, watched from his castle window as the blizzard blew in. The nobles of his court built a roaring fire, noting amidst their reveling how this Christmas would be a dreadful one for those with no fire or no food stored up.
Out the window, Duke Vaclav saw the faint shadow of a figure searching the forest edge, barely visible through the blinding snow.
Jeff and Liz will continue our story by singing lyrics by John Mason Neale:
Good King Wenceslas looked out on the feast of Stephen,
when the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even.
Brightly shown the moon that night, though the frost was cruel, when a poor one came in sight, gathering winter fuel.
Hither, page, and stand by me. If thou know it telling:
yonder peasant, who is she? Where and what her dwelling?
Sire, she 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 the thither.
Page and monarch, forth they went, forth they went together
through the rude wind's wild lament and the bitter weather.
Sire, the night is darker now, and the wind blows stronger.
Fails my heart, I know not how. I can go no longer.
Ark my footsteps my good page, tread thou in them boldly:
Thou shalt find the winter's rage freeze thy blood less coldly.
In his master's step he trod, where the snow lay dented.
Heat was in the very sod which the saint had printed.
Therefore, Christians all, be sure, wealth or rank possessing,
ye who now will bless the poor shall yourselves find blessing
Thus began what became Duke Vaclav’s greatest legacy: he would bring provisions to the poor in the middle of the night, so they would not be shamed and embarrassed by others knowing how destitute they were. He regularly provided the poor of Bohemia with housing, clothing, food, and firewood.
On his midnight journeys, he gave alms to widows and orphans and visited the imprisoned. He became known as “the father of all the wretched.” He never forgot that his Lord, his God, his north star, was born in the lowest of human conditions - in a manger made for animals, far, far from home, and under dubious circumstances.
After Duke Vaclav’s death at the hands of his brother, the Holy Roman Emperor Otto I, son of Germany’s King Henry I, conferred on Vaclav the title King, and thus he became Good King Wenceslas.
Today, Czechs and Slovaks gather around a statue of the king in Wenceslas Square for celebrations and protests. In his words on the the celebration of Wenceslas feast day there four years ago, Apostolic Nuncio Diego Cansero spoke to us:
“Good King Wenceslas was able to incarnate his Christianity in a world filled with political unrest....His call for all Christians and people of good will is to become involved in positive social change and political activity, no matter how much it costs, in order to bring harmony and justice to society.”
Let us go to bless the poor, as God in Christ has come to us - all humanity and us as individuals - in the midst of our poverty, whatever shape our godforsakeness has taken. May we, too, walk in the footsteps of Good King Wenceslas, and know the warmth and blessings of God’s gift to us and through us.