THE FEAST OF STEPHEN, DEACON AND MARTYR DECEMBER 26/Second Day Christmas
1. Good King Wenceslas looked 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
2. Hither, page, and stand by me, If thou knowst 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 shall 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 not how I can go no longer. Mark my footsteps, good my page Tread thou in them boldly Thou shall find the winters rage Freeze thy blood less coldly.
5. In his masters step 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.
HIS WORDS CUT DEEP INTO THEIR HEARTS
His words cut deep into their hearts,
For what he said was true.
They stopped their ears, and cast him out
For what he said was new.
St. Stephen looked into the heavens
And saw them opening up
The glory of the Lord shone round
His face shone bright with hope.
The Son of God at God's right hand
Shone brightly on his face,
They left their garments with a man
And stoned him in his place.
St. Stephen prayed and then he cried,
“Lord Jesus take me home!”
He saw his Savior glorified
Who quietly said, “Come.”
He cried “Forgive them for their sin.”
And then he fell asleep
As all who saw it, looked again,
It cut them very deep.
They brought his body to the grave
And cried aloud for grief.
A martyr whom Christ Jesus saved,
For his most firm belief.
Text: Gracia Grindal Copyright Wayne Leupold Editions, Inc.
The story of Stephen, the man the disciples voted in as the first deacon, is heart rending and thrilling. Even a little ironic. The disciples have chosen him as deacon so he could do the tasks of feeding the widows and children in their purview so they could continue preaching. Stephen became a great worker, doing wonders and signs among the people, some recounted in Acts 6-7. His reputation preceded him so he soon came under the scrutiny of the leaders of the synagogue who instigated others against Stephen. They brought him before the council who asked him to defend himself. When he did, he, a deacon, preached the longest sermon in Acts! And then he was stoned, his face radiant and shining. Saul, later Saint Paul, is the one holding the coats for those stoning Stephen. As he was dying, Stephen saw the glory of the Lord and died praising God and forgiving those who were killing him.
The Feast of St. Stephen was remembered in the old Christian countries of Europe. In a way they picked up something of his role as deacon to help the poor and homeless. The Bohemian carol Good King Wenceslaus tells of the king’s work on the Feast of Stephen, of giving alms to the poor despite the bad weather. It was made an official holiday in many Christian countries. In Finland there was the “ride of St. Stephen’s Day, when people rode merrily through the streets. It was a popular day for weddings, and other carousing. In Ireland it was called The Wren day. The Wren (Wran) boys or girls wear costumes of old clothes and masks, and in some places doff straw hats. Almost like carolers, they go through the neighborhoods, singing and dancing for people at home in their houses, asking for food and drink, or donations to a charity. The Nordic countries had the practice of julebukking, something like our trick or treat, going to the neighborhood in costumes daring their neighbors to guess who they were. If they fail, they had to provide treats, often strong drink. Boxing Day, common in the countries associated with the British Empire, which is now a shopping day, originated with the giving of alms to the poor, in the tradition of St. Stephen.
These traditions may disappear in our increasing secular times, although people love these kinds of holidays because they are fun for families and especially the young. The Wenceslaus carol remembers the original St. Stephen as a deacon as the king and his page are feeding the poor and tending to their needs. It fits the Christmas season well.
My mother loved this day for many reasons—maybe most of all it marked the end of the most demanding days of the Christmas holiday with its required traditions, especially the food. The festivities, while fun, can take an increasing toll on us as we get older and begin to lose our powers. Second Day Christmas was restful, including the Christmas sales, the visit of her aunt and uncle who raised her, really our grandparents. We ate leftovers, especially the roasted spareribs, should there have been any left, and all the Christmas goodies--pies, sweet soup--søtsuppe, Christmas bread--julekake, fruitcake, krumkake, spritz cookies, yes cookies! She remembered especially the julebukking of her childhood in Western Minnesota, minus the spirits.
Mothers, especially, but also fathers, and aunts, uncles and older siblings, and friends could be described as deacons! They spend countless hours at the stove, buying and wrapping gifts, serving the traditional meals, and then resting beside the Christmas tree in the evening with family. A time to be thankful and rest in the light of the Christ child whose coming changed everything: brought us our salvation, and spurred our service to others which helps to make the dark world bright.
This famous carol was put together by John Mason Neale and his music editor, Thomas Helmore, who published the results of their work in 1853 in a book Carols for Christmas Tide. The tune they chose came from an old book of tunes found in Finland, Piae Cantiones from 1582. The hymn has been used in popular culture a great deal of late—on the Simpsons, The Polar Express, Will and Grace, the Colbert Report, Games of Thrones, etc. The gospel has a way of getting through in the strangest ways. Even if people make fun of the story, when they hear it they pick up a central notion of the Christian faith: we are called to help the widow and orphan and all those who are hungry and homeless.
NB: During these days, if you like Bach's cantatas, don't miss those for Christmas. I will include links to the one for this day, Cantata 57 intended for St. Stephen day and it is a glorious one indeed. I am partial to the Netherland Society's versions.
Traditional Choral Arrangement
The Mormon Tabernacle Choir https://youtu.be/gUmYppCTvZY
Mannheim Steamroller Christmas album
Bach Cantata BVW 57 for St. Stephen's Day Blessed in the Man/Selig ist Der Mann
Christmas Cantatas by Bach in Canterbury The Girls and Lay Clerks of the Cathedral Choir, with period instrument ensemble, The Harmonious Society of Tickle-Fiddle Gentlemen, and singers from the Cathedral Quire.