Friday, December 07, 2012

Advent Day Six: "father of all the wretched"

Good King Wenceslas

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.

"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.

"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.

I have always loved this Christmas song:  it tells a beautiful story of a good and generous king who, seeing a man in need, makes a point of finding out who he is and bringing him food and fire-logs.  Even beyond his generosity, though, is the impression he makes on his servant, who, when he follows in his master's footprints, is warmed and strengthened for the task of doing good for others.

A little research reveals that this legend is based on the life of the historical Saint Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia, who lived from 907-935.  One chronicler writing in the 12th century described him this way:
But his deeds I think you know better than I could tell you; for, as is read in his Passion, no one doubts that, rising every night from his noble bed, with bare feet and only one chamberlain, he went around to God’s churches and gave alms generously to widows, orphans, those in prison and afflicted by every difficulty, so much so that he was considered, not a prince, but the father of all the wretched.
It makes me wonder, how would we rather be remembered for centuries to come:  for a royal title and position, or for our practical care and concern for others?  "Father of all the wretched" -- not exactly what most of us would choose to put on our vanity license plate.  Yet I think this phrase epitomizes the spirit of Christmas -- and of Christ -- in the very best sense.


  1. I don't think I've ever seen anyone putting "Father (or mother) of all the wretched" on their online bios. We want to talk about ourselves, not other people, and besides, the wretched sounds so dreadfully depressing! But as you say, this is the spirit of Christ: son of God, son of man. And that includes the wretched, poor & needy, weak & broken. All of us.

    1. That's so true, Laura. What a good point: so often we don't want to be "father (or mother or sister) OF..." we want to be the focus.


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