The Feast of Stephen: Sermon preached at the Eucharist, Sherborne Abbey, on Sunday, 26 December 2021 by Canon Charles Mitchell-Innes. (Acts 7: 51 – 60; Matthew 10: 17 – 22)
Good King Wenceslas, we are told, “looked out on the feast of Stephen.”
I like the idea of his looking out, presumably from his palace, because it ties in with what little we know for sure of this ruler’s approach to his duties and responsibilities. He was Duke of Bohemia in central Europe, in the 10th century, and was by all accounts actively engaged in charitable works amongst his subjects, visiting widows, orphans and prisoners and assisting them where he could. We can visualize him gazing out, observing his people’s comings and goings, eager to see if anything was amiss. So it is no surprise that in John Mason Neale’s mid-19th century carol he notices a poor man gathering winter fuel and is determined to help him. Now you should know that this incident is nowhere recorded; the story was woven by Neale himself as being typical of Wenceslas’ generous and unselfish characteristics, and is true to them.
The carol has sometimes been criticized for its literary quality – probably about B-; certainly the couplet:
“Thou shalt find the winter’s rage
Freeze thy blood less coldly”
is not one of Neale’s most felicitous.
But what he does is paint a vivid picture of a snow-filled mountain landscape in the depths of winter – a scene through which the monarch and his page fight their way to reach the poor man’s dwelling, and bring him “flesh and wine” and pine-logs for a fire. The story is also given immediacy and a strong forward thrust by the dialogue between “page and monarch.” The carol has also been helped on its way by its coupling with a robust and, at the time, recently rediscovered 16th century tune. But for Neale the important aspect of his story was the overtly expressed moral with which it culminates:
“Ye who now will bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing.”
Duke, later granted the title King, Wenceslas “looked out” for other people. That is why he became a saint after his death.
Why did John Mason Neale, an Anglican high-churchman, set his story on St Stephen’s day? It could be that he wished to provide something substantial to the otherwise thin musical offerings available for the various saints’ days between Christmas and Epiphany. But I suspect there was something else as well: he saw a similarity between his protagonist in the carol and Stephen himself. Crucially, both had charitable hearts. Stephen was one of the seven original deacons appointed by the Apostles, in the years after Jesus’ death, to distribute alms to the faithful, especially to the poor, the widows and orphans – you see the connection. He also preached – and how! Our reading from Acts today just catches the end of his fiery speech to the Jews, affirming that God does not depend on the Temple, a temporary institution to be superseded and fulfilled by Christ himself, who alone can open the way to God.
The coup de grâce of this oration was to accuse his audience, and their whole race historically, of putting their prophets to death, thus resisting the Holy Spirit, and culminating in the execution of Jesus, the Righteous One. At that, they took Stephen outside the walls and stoned him for blasphemy. There was no trial; it was effectively a lynching. But his death, as the first Christian martyr, had far-reaching consequences which he could not have been aware of. He became the archetype of all those thousands thereafter who were prepared to die for their faith in Christ, standing up for the right against persecution and in the face of extreme danger.
Two things stand out from the account of his death in Acts, both of which have had great impact subsequently. First, he forgave his murderers: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” He died without bitterness, no doubt remembering Jesus’ words, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” referring to his executioners (Luke 23: 24). Second, he had sure confidence in his immediate reception into God’s kingdom: “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” When, five centuries later, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer was being burned at the stake, he used these words, and those watching knew where they came from and what they signified.
We only know about Stephen what we read in Acts. He may not have been an easy man, and did not mince his words; but he was great-hearted, courageous, magnanimous even in death. He stood up for what he believed and acted upon it. And what he believed came from God and reflected, from Jesus, a passionate care for others, and for the truth. Like Wenceslas he looked out – outwards towards others wherever he observed need and distress. Those were the people he “looked out” for. That was because he also looked upwards, “gazed into heaven.”
I would suggest that to look out and to look up are still the most important characteristics that we, as Christians, are aiming to achieve – and act upon.