You know that feeling you get when you realize how dumb you were for having written something or someone off? Like when you try a food as an adult that you tried once and hated when you were three and you think, “Dang, I’ve been an idiot my whole life.” Or when a friend is nagging you to watch a popular tv show and you get more and more annoyed with it, but then one day you sit and watch it by yourself and have to quietly resolve to pretend it’s not that great because the truth of how much you like it would be embarrassing in light of how vehemently you opposed it. You know that feeling?
Here’s my recent experience with that feeling: “Good King Wenceslas”.
Huh? you might think. That weird Christmas song? That would probably be because you, like me, only ever heard the first verse in random carol medleys for most of your life. The verse that goes like this:
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
Right so there’s a king who is supposedly good, but, if you’re like me, you have no reason why. He’s at a feast, which, if you come from as low-church of a background as I do, you have no real concept of. It’s night, it’s cold, and he sees a poor man looking for firewood. End of song. What.
I honestly don’t think I ever heard the rest of the verses before this past year. I think I was told at some point that the song involved the king and his servant going out to help the poor man. But it wasn’t until I was curating a Christmas playlist that I really heard the words of the subsequent verses. Verse 2 is just Wenceslas asking his page who the man is and the page answering with where the man lives. It’s everything after that that blew me away.
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
So the third verse is really just more set-up, but it is important set-up. It’s not just a nice clear winter night with snow on the ground. It is a howling, freezing winter storm. And yet, Wenceslas’ reaction at seeing the man is a determination to assist him in getting home and to make sure he is well-fed and well-sheltered. Wenceslas has the markings of a good, virtuous king: awareness, compassion, proactiveness, and vigor. This is important to note for what follows, or rather, for who follows. Wenceslas does not go alone; he takes his page with him.
The fourth verse starts after they’ve been out in the cold for some time, and the page is starting to feel the sting of winter:
Sire, the night is darker now and the wind blows stronger
Fails my heart, I know not how. I can go no longer.
The obscureness of the night and the harshness of the cold are starting to get to the page. He is not so strong as his master. Whereas Wenceslas apparently strides out into the night with great zeal, the page struggles to walk with that same conviction. But here is Wenceslas’ response to his fading servant:
Mark my footsteps, good my page, tread thou in them boldly!
Thou shall find the winter’s rage freeze thy blood less coldly.
Wenceslas is unbothered, though not unfeeling, about his servant’s faint heart. His solution is to take the brunt of the cruel weather himself and give his page shelter behind him. It is Wenceslas’ fervor that will make their mission succeed; the page has only to follow his master. And, indeed, this approach works:
In his masters steps he trod where the snow lay dented
Heat was in the very sod which the Saint had printed
Not only is the page spared from the wind by his master walking before him, not only is walking through the snow made easier by his master clearing the way, but his master’s footsteps miraculously emit heat to revive the page’s weary heart. The song then ends with this moral:
Therefore, Christian men, be sure, wealth or rank possessing
Ye, who now will bless the poor shall yourselves find blessing.
And I find this moral interesting, because I’m not sure if it goes with the plot of the story or not. We don’t actually see Wenceslas, the possessor of wealth and rank, receive any good return for his efforts. Heck, we don’t even see him reach the object of his mission. Maybe the last two lines are just the result of the author feeling the need to give the song a neat, culturally acceptable moral.
But if we wanted to try to apply this moral to the story, this is how I think it fits: the page has no wealth or rank of his own, he only gets to participate in the riches and status of his master. But sharing in his master’s blessings means that he must also participate in his master’s mission, in the more difficult parts of being a master, in the things that prove a king is good. It is certainly more difficult for the page to enjoy the difficult parts than the pleasant ones. But if he had shirked from following his master into the cold and dark, he would have disqualified himself from enjoying his master’s warmth and light, both inside his mansion and out on his mission. It is only by submitting to follow his master in the unpleasant moments that the page gets to experience the full range of his master’s blessings.
Wenceslas calls the page to follow him. He knows the page’s heart is fainter than his own, but he knows the blessing that his page will experience by accompanying him through the bitter weather. Wenceslas does this compassionate act not for his own honor but because he delights to do it, and he calls his page to come with him because he delights in him and wants him to be blessed. By following his master, the page will be blessed in a myriad of ways: he will recognize more of his master’s power, he will trust his master more, he will grow in conviction to help him withstand the night, and he will grow in compassion to prompt him to serve those in distress.
So why did this hit me so hard?
It’s a pretty low-hanging metaphor. Wenceslas is a God/Jesus figure, and the page represents the Christian. This is evident in the story the carol is derived from:
“My liege,” he said, “I cannot go on. The wind freezes my very blood. Pray you, let us return.”
“Seems it so much?” asked the King. “Was not His journey from Heaven a wearier and a colder way than this?”Deeds of Faith: Stories for Children from Church History
The Christian life is essentially the life of being a page to a good king. There is a warm and light mansion of God’s love that we have been called to live and serve in. But even as we feast and enjoy God’s love, God’s eyes are scanning the bare landscape outside his lovely home, searching for people in distress.
And when he sees them, he has compassion on them, and he moves to relieve their suffering. But he does not go alone.
You and I, we are bondservants of this good king, and enjoying his warmth and light means we must follow him out into the cold and dark. There is work to be done. There are people whose distress God has seen and to whom he wants to show his love.
He knows it is too dark and too cold for us and that our faint hearts cannot match his vigor and zeal. He knows that persecution, suffering, temptation, and weariness will crowd in on us and pierce through our cloaks right down to our bones. But the solution is not to return to that lovely warm and light house from which we set out.
The solution is to cling to our master’s back, to step in his very steps, and to feel his own warmth revive our hearts. The cold and dark will still press in, but we will know our master in a way that we never would have had we stayed in the mansion.