The Feast of St. Stephen
Searching for a theme on which to talk this morning, my thoughts naturally turned to the day and the date for inspiration. Surely there must be matter for discourse on such a day. Boxing Day gained its name, so I am told, because by custom this was the day on which tips, or Christmas boxes, were given to employees or workmen, as a reward for past diligent service. Why it should be the day after Christmas Day that such gifts were customarily given I do not know. I should have thought the day before the 25th December was more appropriate than the day after, but no doubt there is a good explanation.
A minor confusion has arisen in a part of our social circle, stemming from the fact that this year the 26th December falls on a Sunday. Some maintain, and as I am part of this faction I naturally am sure that this is the correct interpretation, that today is Boxing Day. The fact that tomorrow is declared a public holiday does not entitle it to be called Boxing Day. Others, quite mistakenly in my view, insist on referring to 27th December 1993 as Boxing Day.
Among our friends, invitations to a meal on Boxing Day had been given and accepted, but fortunately the two different interpretations have come to light before the actual occasion, and thus considerable embarrassment avoided. To avoid any possibility of confusion here, not to say argument, I shall use the alternative name to describe this day, that of the feast of St. Stephen.
Stephen, later to be canonised as St. Stephen is credited with the honour, if honour it be, of being the first Christian martyr; stoned to death because of his beliefs which were regarded by those who failed to share them, as heretical. According to a well-known Christmas carol, it was on this day that a king set out through the snow, accompanied by a young boy, in order to bring succour to one of his poor subjects. The King of course was Wenceslas.
I looked the carol up in the Oxford Book of Carols, and was a little surprised by a critical footnote printed beneath. In it appear the words “confused narrative”, “doggerel” as a comment upon this well-known carol. The author goes on to say that the tune was originally set to a spring song, and he hopes that Good King Wenceslas will fall out of use and cease to be printed in carol books as being unworthy of inclusion, and that the spring song will then be restored.
The footnote must have been written about seventy years ago, and still there is no sign of the carol falling out of use, or of the revival of the original spring song.
One notes that the Sunday following Christmas, except when Christmas Day itself is a Sunday, whether it is Boxing Day or not, is the last Sunday of the year. The end of any period, whether it is the end of an epoch or simply an anniversary, tends to be a time for reminiscence and stock-taking. Is it there that my theme should lie?
So it was, when thinking of what to talk about today, I considered how these disparate thoughts on 26 December could be brought together into one theme.
Let’s take the last Sunday of the year for a starting point. Some of us will look back over family events – births, marriages and deaths are usually prominent in these histories, along with reunions, celebrations and periods of stress or anxiety. So we look back with thankfulness and occasionally with relief, that the year is over and a new year is nigh.
Nationally and internationally, over the last twelve months, horrors have made news, with all too many examples of inhumanity, cruelty and unspeakable suffering. But additionally, more palatable reports have also surfaced, leavening the mass of ill-news by hopeful, if fragile, signs that peace in some long-standing disputes may replace conflict. Arab and Jew, South African black and white, the groups in the Irish community, are among the parties in our thoughts at this time. Not all has been doom and gloom, for shafts of sunlight have broken through. Only a blind optimist could describe the year as an altogether good one, but it would be too trite a judgement say all was bad.
Then turning to Good King Wenceslas in my search for a common theme. Poor verse and doggerel it may be, but it has not been discarded, and remains as part of the Christmas repertoire. And it remains because, however indifferently the words may express it, therein is contained a message that is valued. A message of weak being protected by the strong; a message of destitution being relieved where the those with plenty are prepared to have less in order that those without may have a little; a statement that this principle is a central part of Christian faith.
The scene described in the carol is of a bitter landscape, inhospitable and bleak, pressing down upon those venturing within it. And the contrast is the warmth of human spirit, determined to survive and not to lose hope, bringing optimism as a counter-weight to the surrounding pessimistic outlook.
Is it a happy coincidence that the tune to which the carol is sung, is taken from a song of spring, the traditional season of hope, a time when the bleakness of winter is replaced by the new prospect of renewal.
Here then is perhaps the beginning of a link between a carol set on St. Stephen’s Day, a tune from a song of spring, and the last Sunday of the year, on the brink of a new year with all its future hopes for renewal and an optimism that news will reflect rather more good than evil.
But I sought also a link with Boxing Day, the day we are told is associated with a Christmas box (a title which has an old-fashioned ring and seems to have largely dropped out of use) or a present of money.
There is a difference, is there not, between this type of gift and a Christmas present. If I digress for a moment, I am ever intrigued by the subtle shades of meaning of the words we use. A smile and a grin, a laugh and a chuckle, though similar carry different meanings. A frown is not to be confused with a scowl, any more than is speaking the same as stating. But to return to Boxing Day.
Christmas boxes have a suggestion of a duty payment, and a present is a gift freely given. The one suggests obligation, the other love.
An older meaning of the word “charity” is akin to love. Faith, Hope and Charity in the older translations of Paul’s well-known letter, have been more recently been represented as Faith, Hope and Love. Charity has moved away from love nearer to duty, obligation, but even worse to what is derisively called “hand-outs”.
So Boxing Day might serve as a day on which we remember that though we have duties and obligations to others, our faith requires us also to pay service, and not merely lip service, to a spirit of love, of compassion, of sympathy and understanding. Charity is to be restored to its older meaning, and more modern, less noble associations rejected.
Then to St. Stephen’s Day, the day a man was horribly slaughtered by stoning because of his beliefs. Surely a reminder of what the human race at its worst is capable of. We perhaps fear ideas and beliefs different from our own above all things. And in our fear, we attack and kill. The weapons we use may change, but the endeavour to stamp upon that which is different by violence rather than to persuade by reasoned argument, remains the same.
I spoke earlier of the last day of the year being a time of reflection on twelve months that have passed, and of hopes for a year yet to come. Assuredly St. Stephen’s Day is an appropriate day on which to do this, for Stephen reminds us of how readily we do seek to abolish dissent, or new thought, by furious reaction. But it is more than that. The beliefs which Stephen held were not extinguished by his death, but grew in strength and spread throughout the world. Ideas live on, like flames which are not blown out adverse winds, but fanned into greater ferocity.
And so it is that I now see the uniting idea which I sought at the beginning. A theme to unite the last Sunday of the year, on a day known as the feast of Stephen, which may or may not, be called Boxing Day, when Wenceslas set forth with his page, or so a carol sung to the tune of a spring song tells us. There is a thread which runs through all these separate events.
And the theme is that of the Christian ideology itself. A doctrine of charity, that is of love; an awareness of human fallibility but linked to a confidence in the ultimate triumph of goodness; a sense of duty to others, but not taken from a position of supposed superiority, but out of humbleness and a true feeling of equal value of all humankind; and lastly christianity proclaims that the words we speak, which may well be confused doggerel, are of lesser value than the deeds which we perform.
There is the old joke about the small boy who when asked about the subject of the sermon, said the preacher preached about sin, and he was against it.
I have attempted this morning to speak of christianity, and I am for it.
C.J. Rosling 26 December 1993
Fulwood 26 December 1993