Blogger’s Note: Most of this post was meant to be the beginning of the annual Thorp family Christmas letter. At this point, we plan to send you all Valentines…
The morning is cold, black, and bitter, like the dregs of yesterday’s coffee left in the car overnight. The thin crescent moon seems a galaxy away; the stars, more ice than fire; the jagged air catches in your throat, and the wind seems to strip life, layer by layer, from your shrunken, shivered form.
It is easy, on mornings like this, to justify staying abed, comfortable and warm beside your lover; to shut off the alarm, burrow into blankets and dreams, and await the sun. On mornings like this it’s hard—and perhaps undesirable—to imagine those who live outdoors in this weather, for whom the blue ache of cold is chiefly a sign they have not died in the night. That which you can feel is not yet frozen.
These are not pleasant thoughts on an early winter morning, when you’d rather be asleep, but they are also nothing a hot shower and coffee won’t cure.
Absolute comfort corrupts absolutely.
Two Saturdays ago, Jodi and I met at morning Mass: she, from her women’s group; I, from the confessional. As Jodi found a pew, Fr. Richards caught my attention and beckoned. He smiled as I approached.
“One more day for all these great Christmas songs,” he said—then, in a voice like a walking bass line, intoned: “God rest ye merry, gentlemen; let nothing you dismay!”
A few moments later, at the start of Mass, he announced the carol as our opening song: “We will sing verses one, three, and four—yes, we will sing three verses!”
And so we did.
The best part of singing the later verses of common carols is that we hear things we’ve never heard or don’t remember. For example, on the day after Christmas this year (Stephensmas), I began to wonder: What do we know about this Wenceslaus, who looked out upon the Feast of Stephen?
Many of us can sing all or part of the carol’s first verse; by that we know he was a good king who went out in the bitter cold the night after Christmas and spied a peasant gathering firewood. If we’ve caught a bit of the second verse, we may know the good king inquires of his servant where the poor man lives: “Sire, he lives a good league hence underneath the mountain, right against the forest fence by Saint Agnes’ fountain.”
Perhaps that’s all we know. That’s all I knew, until I rose this past Stephensmas (a morning bitter and black as the one referenced above), read with my bride the account of the first martyr’s death, and thought about the Bohemian king, who is accounted a saint himself, and about whom we know so little. So I read the latter verses, so rarely sung these days when we haven’t the time or inclination to finish anything so trivial as an old song.
Here is what I found.
“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 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, good my page
Tread thou in them boldly
Thou shall find the winter’s rage
Freeze thy blood less coldly.”
In his master’s step 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,
– “Good King Wenceslaus,” verses 3-5
What do we learn? St. Wenceslaus is prepared to venture out on foot in a blizzard to bring this peasant meat, drink, and firewood. When his servant is weary and frightened by the storm, the king speaks words of encouragement and breaks trail for him through the drifting snow—and such is the fire of his heartfelt charity that the ground beneath his feet is warmed by his passing. So we are encouraged to care for those in need, following his example. But how often do we do so?
We are too blessed. We who have a roof and snug-fitting windows and doors, heat and running water at the ready, do not travel in such circles. Unless we, like St. Wenceslaus, look out we will never encounter those who struggle to stay warm and well-fed. And unless we go forth, following in his footsteps, we should not expect continued blessing. Amen, I say to you, we have received our reward.
It was a good Christmas. We rejoiced and sang our savior’s birth. Now what are we going to do about it?