This hymn written by the Anglican hymn writer and translator JM Neale was written to promote the spirit of generosity. It is thought that Boxing Day – the Feast of Stephen – was when servants and tradespeople received their “Christmas boxes” from the employers. Turning to the legend of Wenceslas he used the song to influence people to be more generous.
St Matthew 25: 34-40
Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
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 Gath’ring winter fuel
“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 him 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.” “Mark 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 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
The hymn ‘Good King Wenceslas’ is incredibly evocative for me and comes to mind quite frequently when walking on the Lakeland fells in the mist or rain or snow at any time of the year. I am not a map reader, nor have a good sense of direction, so I usually find myself following in the footsteps of my walking companion and quite literally stepping in the prints he’s made in the mud or snow. I often burst into this song as I picture that page boy trying to keep up with the determination of the good king wanting to show his generosity of spirit – just on this special day of Christmas – to those he sees suffering in poverty and to whom he feels a sense of responsibility.
Christmas does that to us, doesn’t it? It is a time when we show our generosity – not only in response to folk who have kindly given us an unexpected gift, but we also find that perhaps it’s a time to give a bit more to charity – perhaps to ease our conscience over spending all that money on food and drink……. Or is it because we wish to see the justice of God prevail as in the scene of the heavenly banquet when those who cared for the hungry, thirsty, naked, imprisoned and strangers are recognised and welcomed into the kingdom? And not only at Christmas.
I am always grateful that when I can’t see where I’m going on the hills I have someone to follow and so too in my life as a disciple. I try to walk the walk and talk the talk but I am certain that if I tread in the footsteps of the Master I will be led in the right direction.
When we forget to be generous – remind us of our riches When we see hunger and thirst – show us your face When we are tired and can’t go on – refresh us with the encouragement of your Spirit When we lose our way through the mist of uncertainty – guide our steps on the right path Strengthen our determination to follow where you lead, for Christ’s sake. Amen
The Rev’d Lis Mullen is an active part-time retired minister. She is a member of Kendal URC