Friday, December 26, 2008

Happy 2nd Day of Christmas -- Happy Boxing Day -- Feast of Saint Stephen

"Good King Wenceslas looked out, on the Feast of Stephen...."

Many, if not most evangelicals, have no idea when the "Feast of Stephen" referenced in the above carol occurs. For many, the day after Christmas is the day to clean up the detritus of Christmas and to pack away the tree and other decorations as Christmas is now over. Some head to malls to return gifts or to take advantage of "After-Christmas" sales. Until about eight years ago, I was one of them, although our family tradition was to pack up the Christmas decorations on New Years Day.

But as I've learned more about liturgical worship, specifically Anglican traditions, I've unearthed several joyful surprises. The first, and most important, is that Christmas Day is only the FIRST Day of Christmas, which lasts for twelve days, finishing with a wonderful Twelfth Night feast. Thus today is merely the Second Day of Christmas, and we have much more celebrating to do over the next ten days or so.

I also discovered the uniquely English tradition, also practiced in Australia and Canada, of Boxing Day. I found this explanation on
the British Shoppe website (They also have the history behind the Cracker, which we had fun "pulling" at my parents' house on Christmas night):

Boxing Day takes its name from the ancient practice of opening boxes that contained money given to those who had given their service during the year. It was also the day when alms boxes, placed in churches on Christmas Day, were opened. The money was then given to the priest or used to help the poor and needy. Another name for Boxing Day used to be Offering Day.

The earliest boxes of all were not box shaped, as you might imagine, nor were they made of wood. They were, in fact, earthenware containers with a slit in the top (rather like piggy banks.)

During the seventeenth century it became the custom for apprentices to ask their master’s customers for money at Christmas time. They collected this money in earthenware containers, which could be opened only by being smashed, and on Boxing Day the apprentices would eagerly have a ‘smashing time’, hence the expression, seeing how much they had collected.

A later tradition, and the one which has survived to this day, was the distribution of Christmas ‘boxes’, gifts of money to people who had provided services throughout the year – the postman, the lamp-lighter, parish beadles, parish watchmen, dustmen and turn-cocks – which happened on the day after Christmas Day.

And today is also the Feast Day of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr. I dragged myself out of bed, exhausted after days of cleaning and preparing for Christmas then having Christmas Eve here with Keith's family and Christmas afternoon and early evening with my family at the beach, and made it (a little late) down the hill to Victoria House for the celebration of St. Stephen's Day. Here is the Collect (collective or public prayer) for this day:

Grant, O Lord, that, in all our sufferings here upon earth for the testimony of thy truth, we may stedfastly look up to heaven, and by faith behold the glory that shall be revealed; and, being filled with the Holy Ghost [Spirit], may learn to love and bless our persecutors by the example of thy first Martyr Saint Stephen, who prayed for his murderers to thee, O blessed Jesus, who standest at the right hand of God to succour all those who suffer for thee, our only Mediator and Advocate.

During Morning Prayer which precedes Holy Communion, we read 2 Chronicles 24:17-22, the story of the prophet Zechariah being murdered by his own people, and for the NT reading, Father read aloud the sixth chapter from the Acts of the Apostles which tells of Stephen being chosen as a deacon and of his capture and the accusations against him. Then for Holy Communion, I read the Epistle reading, Acts 7:55+, of Stephen's martyrdom. Father Acker then read the Gospel reading: St. Matthew 23:34+, Jesus' words of condemnation to Jerusalem which mentioned the murders of the righteous, from Abel to Zechariah (the same story we read from 2 Chronicles in Morning Prayer). Christ's Words to Jerusalem often makes me tear up; His sorrow is palpable as He cries:

"O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not! Behold, your house is left unto you desolate."

So today is a three-fold day: the 2nd Day of Christmas, Boxing Day, and the Feast of St. Stephen. As Stephen's assignment as Deacon in the early church involved caring for the poor, we also ought to remember the story told in the carol, "Good King Wenceslas." One of my favorite Christmas devotional books, Christ in the Carols, tells of King Wenceslas:

"King Wenceslas the Holy, who ruled Bohemia from A.D. 1378 to 1419, was known for his good works and his care of the poor.... Rather than order his servants to leave a few morsels for the underprivileged peasant or send his page out to find the man and deliver some seasonal gift, Wenceslas chooses to take action himself. Leaving the warmth of his castle, the king braves fierce wind and bitter cold to search out the man. Whether factual or myth, Wenceslas' great compassion in this song reflects God's heart for the lost and the poor.

"Jesus said that he came to seek and save the lost. This is the primary reason that God chose to become man. Not content to send others in his place, the King of glory left heaven and came looking for us. Braving hostile elements, even unto death, he personally sought us out.... Like the page, we are to follow in our Master's footsteps as He continues to pursue the abandoned, the orphaned, the poor, and the lost...."

Here is the closing of the familiar carol, "Good King Wenceslas": the end of the fifth verse:

"Therefore Christian men, be sure,
wealth or rank possessing,
Ye who now will bless the poor,
shall yourselves find blessing."

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