Stephen and Wenceslas


Scripture: Luke 2: 21-40.  Nigel Bunce


Two saints; Stephen and Wenceslas

Saints Stephen and Wenceslas are both relevant to December 26, although their legendary status is very different.  The feast of Saint Stephen, that’s St. Stephen’s Day, is December 26th It recalls the death by stoning of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr  Our carol tells that the good King Wenceslas looked out and saw a poor man gathering sticks for his fire on this day.

Who was Saint Stephen?

Saint Stephen was an early Christian.  The book of Acts relates how his teaching about Jesus offended the traditional temple elders. Eventually, they arranged to arrest Stephen.  Despite giving a speech in his defence, a crowd stoned Stephen death.  He was the first known Christian martyr.

It’s not very jolly story with Christmas time.  But it reminds us that Christmas is not always about gift giving, figgy pudding, and holly and mistletoe.  It never has been.  The world carries on and not always in good ways.  People are undoubtedly dying by murder, or in wars, just as I am speaking.

Presentation of Jesus at the Temple

Yesterday, I mentioned that the Sunday Gospel readings rush us away from Christmas. That’s in order to get us to Holy Week in late March or early April.  That’s why, today, we already meet the Holy Family at the Temple for the Presentation of Jesus.

That occasion was very important in Temple Judaism. It was, and is, a ritual purification. Orthodox Judaism is very strict about purity. Giving birth is a messy affair. Newborn babies have blood on them.  That makes mother and baby ritually unclean.

“Clean” and unclean people must avoid contact to prevent contamination.  Think COVID19 rules, only stricter. Or even COVID quarantine hotels.

Redeeming a first-born son back from God

The religious ceremony involved the liturgy to declare both Jesus and his mother ritually clean.  Only then, they could re-integrate with other observant Jews.  There was a cost as well. It was, and in Orthodox Judaism it still is, the father’s responsibility to pay the priest.  So Joseph paid the priest to buy live animals for a Temple sacrifice

This was to redeem the baby back from God.  According to the Exodus story, God had first claim on first-born sons in perpetuity.  This was in exchange for sparing the Israelite baby boys at the original Passover.

We can note the relative poverty of the Holy Family.  Joseph could only afford to buy two young birds for their sacrifice to God.

Simeon and Anna

While the family was at the Temple, they met two strange people.  Simeon and Anna. These people both testified who Jesus was. Simeon wasn’t a priest.  He and Anna were just righteous people who attended Temple liturgies.

Moreover, they were both old. We can assume this for Simeon. Because, when he took the baby in his arms, he said that he could now die in peace.  He had seen the salvation the Messiah: the salvation of God had prepared. Luke stated Anna’s great age: a widow of 84.

Isaiah’s prophesy

Simeon recognized Jesus as the Messiah from his knowledge of Scripture. He called Jesus ‘a light of revelation to the Gentiles. That fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy that the Messiah would be, “a light to the nations that God’s salvation may reach to the end of the earth”. [Isaiah 49: 6].

Isaiah saw that for the Jews to be God’s chosen people meant more than having their own tribal God.  That was how the early books of the Hebrew Scriptures had described their relationship with the divine. 

But Isaiah foresaw a new role for the Jewish people. They were to bring knowledge of their God YHWH to the Gentiles as well. Today’s gospel sets all this in motion.  But not among a cast of Christian characters. Instead with Jewish actors, who remain Jewish.

So much so, that Eastern Orthodox Christians call Anna and Simeon the last prophets of the Old Testament.

Two saints: Stephen and Wenceslas

Today we met two saints: Stephen and Wenceslas.  The carol we sang is a very free 19th century translation of a legend about a 10th century Duke of Bohemia, now in the Czech Republic The tune is a 13th century folk dance called Spring has come.

The legend of St. Wenceslas

In the legend, Duke Wenceslas and his young page boy were making a winter journey through the snow. “My Liege,” said the page boy, “I can’t go on. The wind freezes my very blood. I pray you, let’s return.”

“Seems it so much?, asked the king.  “Was not Christ’s journey from heaven a wearier and colder way than this? Just follow me.  Tread in my footsteps and you will proceed more easily.

Now, literary types often criticize John Neale, the hymn writer.  They dislike both his changes to the story. (The page boy became a peasant gathering sticks for his fire). Also, for the quality of his poem as mere doggerel.  “Bah! Humbug!” as Ebenezer Scrooge might have said.

Literal truth or midrash?

But for all that Good King Wenceslas remains a beloved Christmas carol.  What’s more, Jewish scholars always taken a different view towards truth than we literal-minded modern people.  Midrash is the word that describes the reinterpretation of ancient scripture to make it relevant for changing times

We do it today, even if subconsciously Just think about how our church Christmas lumps together Luke’s story about angels and shepherds with Matthew’s account of Magi bearing gifts to the Christ child. 

These are two completely different strands of early Christian tradition about the infancy of Jesus. However, we have no eyewitness accounts of Jesus’ life before he burst into human consciousness with his earthly ministry.  So those traditions are legendary just like King Wenceslas and his page.

To sum up

We should not dismiss Simeon and Anna.  They reveal that the ancient Israelites had to deal with a new vision of faith. Some thought the Messiah had not yet come.  They continued waiting.  They remain today within the tradition of Judaism.  Others saw Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ. They put into action Isaiah’s dream of taking the news of Yahweh to the wider world. Amen.