One of my favorite carols is Good King Wenceslas. The reason I love this carol so much is because it tells a story about a ruler who sees one of his subjects suffering and personally attends to the man’s needs. In a time when the headlines, the realities of our political life make us cynical and even bitter toward government officials and those in power, it’s good to reflect on what a virtuous potentate looks like.
This carol makes a brief appearance in Love Actually, a movie set at Christmas time that’s said to be the ultimate romantic comedy. One of the main characters in Love Actually is David, the newly elected Prime Minister, who sets out on Christmas Eve with his driver to find the woman he loves. David knows which street she lives on, but not which house, so he knocks on each door until they find her. At one door, a trio of excited little girls implore David to sing a carol, and the carol he chooses is Good King Wenceslas. It’s a small detail, to be sure, and easily missed, but I think it says something huge about David’s character as PM. He is coming to grips with his role, and the fact that Good King Wenceslas is the first song to come to mind shows us how much he’s been focusing on the desire to be a good leader for his people.
The carol is a wonderful moral tale, well worth more attention than it usually gets, but it also tells the story of a real man.
Duke of Bohemia
The real King Wenceslas was never actually a king. Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia. He was a young ruler, and governed only a few short years until his death at age 28. His legacy was that of charity and compassion; he brought the Bohemian Church into communion with the Bishop of Rome, bringing new liturgies and spiritual resources to his people; and he was posthumously titled as a king because of how the people loved and regarded him. Wenceslaus was canonized as a saint of the Roman Catholic Church, and the modern day Czech Republic claims him as its patron saint.
When Wenceslaus came to power he inherited a no-win situation. His father had forged an alliance with Duke Arnulf of Bavaria against King Henry the Fowler of East Francia, but at the time when Wenceslaus came into power, Arnulf and Henry reconciled and effectively dissolved Bohemia’s alliance with Bavaria. King Henry conspired with Arnulf and forced Bohemia to pay tribute to the Francia as a duchy under its control. The people of Bohemia were ill-served by Henry’s rule. Francia did nothing to protect Bohemia from raids by the Magyars. Left without allies or protection, Wenceslaus refused to continue paying tribute and was soon murdered.
The Feast of Stephen
In the carol, Wenceslas looks outside on December 26th, the second day of Christmastide, and the day when the Church observes the Feast of Saint Stephen, the first martyr of the Church. Stephen, one of the early leaders of the Jesus Movement in Jerusalem, is charged as a heretic and agitator of the peace and brought to trial, where he unloads on the council and concludes his fiery argument with this:
You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do.Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.
No wonder they wanted Stephen dead.
Setting the story on this day is an allusion to the real Wenceslaus’s faith and fate
Saint Agnes’ Fountain
When he inquires where the wood-gathering peasant lives, his page tells him the peasant lives by Saint Agnes’ Fountain. Agnes was also a real person, though the carol turns the history on its head because Agnes was a descendant of Wenceslaus. While there are a number of Agneses venerated by the Church, there is only one whose story is germane to the tale of Wenceslas.
Agnes of Bohemia lived three centuries after the time of Wenceslaus, and the political landscape has changed significantly from the 10th to the 13th century. There was peace with Hungary, and Bohemia had greater power and protection from its German sovereigns. However, Agnes was to be given in marriage to secure that political alliance, but Agnes had something else in mind.
The Church was going through its own process of renewal during the 13th century as a movement of mendicant orders sprung up led by such saints as Francis of Assisi and Clare of Assisi during the time of Pope Gregory IX. Agnes secured support from Pope Gregory and joined the order of the Poor Clares. She built a hospital on land donated by Wenceslaus, and also built a monastery. Like her ancestor, Agnes chose sanctity over power.
Sanctity and Power
This is the theme that Good King Wenceslas, with its lilting melody and moral exposition, invites us to ponder.
Let’s face it: if we look at the history of Church’s relationship to power, it’s clear that it’s better to keep religion away from the business of statecraft. But does that mean we shouldn’t expect our state officials who exercise power of office to also exercise some practice of holiness as humans and (as Dickens put it) “fellow travelers to the grave”? When we raise up leaders at the local, state, and national levels, ought we not expect them to display some evidence of kindness and charity? More importantly, how would we know if they were? The media cycle feeds on scandal, anxiety, and gossip.
It’s up to us, you and me and everyone with a camera built into their phone, to record moments of compassion and generosity. It’s up to us to practice the art of attending to kindness, of giving attention to works of mercy and goodness that reveal the sanctity of a higher way all around us. Only then will we begin to see rulers appear who earn our trust, admiration, and love the way young Wenceslaus, Duke of Bohemia, once did.