Good King Wenceslas: An Allegory of Advent
One Advent night in 1982 we attended a Christmas choral concert in the Bristol Cathedral in England. Though I knew the “Good King Wenceslas” carol, I had never paid attention to the lyrics. That night the majestic orchestra, joined with the cathedral choristers and choir, dramatized the Wenceslas lyrics in such a way the joy and awe of the Gospel message transfixed me. As we share verse by verse this carol’s allegory, rejoice this Christmas season. God entered His world to rescue helpless souls like you and me!
Good King Wenceslas look’d out, On the feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round-a-bout, Deep and crisp and even.
Brightly shone the moon that night, Though the frost was cruel,
When a poor man came in sight, Gath’ring winter fuel.
On the Feast of St. Stephen’s, the day after Christmas or “Boxing Day”, the celebrations of giving and receiving continue. King Wenceslas is comfortably settled in his great castle. Fifteen-foot Christmas fir trees grace the palace drawing rooms with their candlelight and royal baubles. Holly and berry swags adorn huge fireplace mantels. Golden candelabras throw flickering warmth across the hall. The king’s fireplaces blaze with forest logs. His vast tracts of woodlands and forest supply against the coldest winter nights. The king’s massive palace radiates with family cheer and contentment. He lacks for nothing.
Good King Wenceslas embodies God. Sovereign of worlds seen and unseen, He commands seventy sextillion known stars. He is Monarch of more shining, heavenly spheres than ten times the grains of sand on earth’s deserts and beaches. The earth is His and “everything in it, the world, and all who live in it.” “For every beast of the forest is mine,” says the Lord. Wenceslas’ kingdom is the cosmos resplendent with light, order, and plenty.
The St. Stephen’s winterscape captivates the eye – at least from the sovereign’s side of the window pane. Contented after a day of festivities, King Wenceslas looks out. The snow is “deep and crisp and even” glistening in the moonlight. The idyllic picture is betrayed by the fierce cold. No one dare venture out on a night like this; yet, against the snow a dark figure intrudes into the king’s gaze. What’s that man doing out there on a night like this? Rummaging for wood on the holiday? Why does he not have wood? Was he slack in stocking up in the summer? Now he is come to trespass on the king’s property?
This poor man rummaging for wood on a frigid night is every person’s ill state. Prophets painted our picture gloomy: “Cursed is the ground…Through painful toil you will eat…and the pride of men humbled…There is an outcry in the streets for lack of wine…all the merry-hearted sigh… people loved darkness … because their deeds were evil.” Ignorance of our blindness and rebellion against God cover like darkness. Human life is lived under sin as “far as the curse is found”. Pitiable and bound to self and fleshly passions the “flood of mortal ills” and evils overtake us. Under the power of sin, ruin and misery overtake our paths. We are the desperate man come into sight scrounging every which way to survive against the cruel winter’s wrath.
‘Hither, page, and stand by me, If thou know’st it telling,
Yonder peasant, who is he? Where and what his dwelling?’
‘Sire, he lives a good league hence, Underneath the mountain,
Right against the forest fence, By Saint Agnes’ fountain.’
“Come, here, page,” says King Wenceslas to his attendant. “Yonder peasant, who is he, where and what is his home?” Little does the poor peasant know he is being watched, even by the king himself. “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” said Henry David Thoreau. “God will never see,” they say. “The universe is dumb, stone deaf, and blank and wholly blind.” Oh? Are not “the eyes of the Lord… in every place”? Is not “his eye…on the sparrow?” “Where can I flee from your presence?” asks the Psalmist. Under Pharaoh’s whip, Israel was unaware God was witnessing their misery. “I have observed the misery of my people…I have heard their cry… I know their sufferings,” said the Lord.
King Wenceslas is not gawking. The monarch is moved by the poor man’s need. “I have surely seen the mistreatment of my people…I have heard their groaning,” the Lord God said.
“Bring me flesh, and bring me wine, Bring me pinelogs 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.
One would think the king would snap his fingers, issue a command, and servants would rush to the poor man’s aid. What? The monarch himself is going? “You and I will see him dine, when we bear them thither.” “No sire, this is contrary to protocol. The Royal Court does not enter the peasant’s world.” “My subject’s welfare is my own. Forgo the Court’s couch...leave the velvet slippers and bring me snow boots.”
Incognito the king goes into the furious night. He takes no retinue of riders, carriages, and security guards. This is no “photo op” for the 6 o’clock news. This is not to win the peasant’s vote.
The poor man’s predicament reveals the God who pities our human condition. “He doesn’t forget the cry of the afflicted…As a Father pities his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him…But you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious”. Rich King Wenceslas becomes the poor peasant. The punishing night is now his. “Though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, so that by His poverty you might become rich.” Christ who was God gave up everything to enter our world. “The Word was God…And the Word
became flesh and lived among us….”
See the Lord of earth and skies
Humbled to the Dust He is.
And in a Manger lies.
The Creator comes into his own universe. The King enters His own woods. Unheralded and unknown He came to his own home, yet the world did not know Him. He leaves heaven and submits Himself to our sinful existence. He even dies unjustly on a cursed cross to save trespassing sinners. He did it incognito…disguised…rejected…as just another commoner abroad on a foul night.
“Sire, the night is darker now, And the wind grows stronger;
Fails my heart I know not how; I can go no longer.”
“Mark my footsteps, my good page, Tread thou in them boldly;
Thou shalt find the winter’s rage Freeze thy blood less coldly.”
In stanza four, the king’s page comes to the fore in the story. He is accompanying the king on the mission. Jesus called disciples to accompany Him. They go with Him to join in His mission of salvation. As they go, they encounter opposition. The night grows darker. The winds blow stronger. Opposition intensifies. Inspiration grows weak. The servant can go no further. “Sire, the night is darker now, And the wind blows stronger, Fails my heart I know not how, I can go no longer.” Ever felt you can go no longer? Sighing you say, “Lord, I have had enough.”
The fleshly servant is not up to his Master’s task. Nonetheless, in his/her weakness, the disciple discovers God’s strength. The Master’s greatness is manifest. The King will save the poor soul…and bring His weak disciple along with Him. The Sovereign’s grace, solace, help, encouragement, and strength reveal themselves under affliction. “Mark my footsteps, my good page, Tread thou in them boldly, You shall find the winter’s rage, Freeze thy blood less coldly.” Our Master is ahead of us trodding down the snow, cutting a path, and forming our steps for us. The Master’s very footsteps heat up we servants’ cold.
In his master’s steps 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.
Indeed, the “Good King Wenceslas” carol dramatizes poignantly our Christian responsibility to the poor and disenfranchised. Nevertheless, I see a deeper allegory. The King forgoes his palace to enter a fierce world in order to rescue a helpless man. Christ Jesus leaves heaven, empties Himself, becomes flesh, and suffers death on a cross to save helpless humankind. The Master calls His servants to go with him in His mission of bringing abundant life to endangered sinners in this dark, rude world. We offer Jesus Christ and ourselves to helpless sinners in a frightful world. As we go, He goes with and before us treading out our path.