"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 twelve years ago, I was one of them, although our family tradition was to pack up the Christmas decorations on New Year's 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:
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.
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...."All we know about Saint Stephen is taken right from the Acts of the Apostles, written by Saint Luke. In the sixth chapter of Acts, Stephen is named as one of the deacons, "men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom" (v. 3) to make sure that all of the widows were adequately cared for. In the eighth verse, we read: "And Stephen, full of faith and power, did great wonders and miracles among the peoples," for which reason Stephen was arrested, falsely accused of blasphemy. As Stephen heard the false charges laid upon him, "all that sat in the council, looking steadfastly on him, saw his face as it had been the face of an angel" (v. 15). At that point, Stephen speaks before the council, relating the history of Israel from Abraham to Jacob to Moses to Solomon, and he finished his "defense" with these words: "Ye stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye always did resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do ye" (v. 51). Their response can be read in the Epistle written below.
The Epistle reading for today from the Book of Common Prayer 2011 is from the seventh chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, relating the martyrdom of Saint Stephen:
54 Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him [Stephen]. 55 But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” 57 But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together[a] at him. 58 Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice,“Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep. --English Standard Version
The Gospel reading for Saint Stephen's Day is from the 21st chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Matthew, starting at the 34th verse:
34 Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes,some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, 35 so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah,[a] whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. 36 Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation.
37 “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! 38 See, your house is left to you desolate. 39 For I tell you, you will not see me again, until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’” -English Standard VersionJesus' words of condemnation to Jerusalem which mentioned the murders of the righteous, from A to Z (Abel to Zechariah). Christ's Words to Jerusalem often makes me tear up; His sorrow is palpable as he cries out to those He loves enough to sacrifice His life to save.
And today is also the Feast Day of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Here is the Collect (collective or public prayer) for this day from The Book of Common Prayer 2011:
GRANT, O Lord, that in our earthly sufferings in witness to your truth, we may always look to heaven, and by faith see the coming glory that shall be revealed; And, being filled with the Holy Spirit, may we learn to love and bless our persecutors, following the example of your first martyr Stephen who called to you, blessed Jesus, our only Mediator and Advocate, who stands at the right hand of God, helping all who suffer for your sake; Who lives and rules with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen. (References: Acts 7.56; John 15.20; 1 Peter 4.13-14; 2 Corinthians 4.17-18)
Saint Stephen was the first martyr of the Church, and his feast day, falling on the Second Day of Christmas, reminds us that in the midst of the joys of Christmastide is also the cross, borne by Christ and His devoted followers.
Here is the closing of the familiar carol, "Good King Wenceslas": the end of the fifth verse:
May we follow the advice of the final stanza of this familiar carol, especially on this, the Second Day of Christmastide!"Therefore Christian men, be sure,wealth or rank possessing,
Ye who now will bless the poor,
shall yourselves find blessing."
Celebrating Christmastide with you,