A sermon by the Rev. J. Mark Worth
1. From Luke 1:51-53, a portion of Mary’s song, “The Magnificat“
The Lord has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
- From the hymn, “Good King Wenceslas,” words by John Mason Neale adapted from a Czech poem.
“Therefore, Christian men, be sure, wealth or rank possessing, ye who now will bless the poor shall yourselves find blessing.”
Hanukkah came early this year; the last night of Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights, began Sunday, Dec. 6.
We are in the Christian season of Advent. In the Middle Ages, Advent – a time of preparation for the birth of Jesus on Christmas Day – was seen by the Catholic Church as a very serious time of the year, and the use of the liturgical color purple, the same color used for Lent, is one sign of the serious nature of the season.
In the modern age the Advent season has been largely replaced with the holiday shopping season, when many people spend a great deal on Christmas presents. I believe that the emphasis on spending, borrowing, and consuming can make the modern Christmas season feel joyless and shallow. So with the commercialization of Christmas in mind, let us talk about the message the Advent season has regarding wealth and poverty.
Christianity struggles with “the Old Religion” ~
Let’s start our discussion of wealth, poverty, and spending, with the legend of Good King Wenceslas. Good King Wenceslas himself wasn’t actually a king, and he wasn’t named Wenceslas, but I will assume he was good, for the legends about him assure us he was. His name in the Czech language is Svaty Vaclav, which translates as “Saint Wenceslaus,” and he was the Duke of Bohemia, in what is now the Czech Republic. I’m told that Vaclav (pronounced VHAT-slav) is William in English. The story surrounding “Good King William” takes place during the transition to Christianity in Central Europe. Vaclav, or Wenceslas, was born in 907, just around the time the Old Religion of the Bohemian people was giving way to Christianity. His parents were Duke Wratislaw, a Roman Catholic Christian, and Dragomir, who is said to have been a “heathen” or a “Pagan.” What does it mean to say that she was a Pagan?
The traditional religion of the Bohemian people, who had come to Europe from the Black Sea region, was a version of Zoroastrianism, based on the teachings of the Persian prophet Zarathrustra. There was a Zoroastrian temple in the center of what is now Prague. So this may have been the religion followed by Dragomir, Vaclav’s mother.
Judaism and Christianity apparently borrowed several ideas from Zoroastrianism, including heaven, hell, the cosmic struggle between good and evil, the expectation of a messiah, and the idea of
an eventual Judgment Day. The Zoroastrian religion also had a communal meal, and a divine triad or trinity – and one of the members of the Zoroastrian trinity, Mithra, the god of the rising sun, is said to have been born on December 25.
Was Dragomir a Zoroastrian? Maybe. Another possibility is that Dragomir, who was born near what is now Berlin, may have followed the nature gods and goddesses of ancient Germany. Whatever she was, the stories and legends agree she was not Christian.
When Vaclav’s father, Wratislaw, died, Vaclav became Duke. But he was only 13 years old – so his mother, Dragomir, ruled as regent. It is said that when she assumed the regency and gained custody of Vaclav, she tried to convert him and his brother, Boleslav, to the Old Religion. Both of her sons, however, grew up to be Christians, like their father.
And when Vaclav came to power at age 18, he sent his mother into exile. Next, faced with immediate war, he defeated a rebellious duke. Then he set out to build a church inside Prague Castle. The church he built was dedicated to a Christian saint, St. Vitus, or in the Czech language, Svaty Vid, a name that sounds almost exactly like Svante Vit, the Slavic god of light. According to the story, Vaclav – that is, Wenceslas – tried to build peace between the Pagan and Christian communities in Prague by building a church dedicated to a personage who might be understood to be either Christian or Pagan. And, in fact, two religious populations, the increasing Christian population, and the decreasing Pagan population, lived together in relative peace in Prague for another hundred years.
Duke Vaclav was murdered on his way to church on September 28, 935, when he was only 28 years old. His murderers were a group of nobles allied with his brother, Boleslav, who is remembered as Boleslav the Cruel.
Vaclav never married, and died young. He is remembered for building a church, reforming the judicial system, and reducing the number of death sentences. Two hundred years after his death a chronicler wrote of Duke Vaclav that “he went around to churches and gave alms generously to widows, orphans, those in prison and afflicted by every difficulty, so much so that he was considered, not a prince, but a father of all the wretched.”
He was considered a Christian martyr (although he had been murdered by other Christians), and soon after his death he was named a saint by the Catholic Church, and was made a king posthumously by the Holy Roman Emperor, Otto I. So he is remembered as Saint Wenceslaus, or as Good King Wenceslas, even though he was only a duke during his lifetime.
Today his statue, on horseback, is in Wenceslas Square in Prague. And there is a story about him that sounds much like the Arthurian legends. For it is said that there is a magic sword hidden under a stone in Charles Bridge, and when the Czech people need him most, Good King Wenceslas will return, seize the magic sword, and rescue the Czech people from oppression.
The carol ~
Duke Vaclav of Bohemia is a footnote to history, but as Good King Wenceslas, his memory survives in the famous Christmas carol written by a 19th century High Church Anglican, John Mason Neale. Neale liked the music of the Middle Ages, and is remembered for translating and popularizing the ancient Advent carol, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” He also wrote “Good Christian Men Rejoice.” His music for “Good King Wenceslas” came from a 16th century tune – Tempus adest floridum, “It is Time For Flowering,” a 13th century Springtime carol. The lyrics Neale wrote are a translation of a Czech poem.
“Good King Wenceslas” tells the story of a king who goes out to give alms to a peasant on the Feast of Stephen, the “second day of Christmas,” December 26. They set out to help a peasant who lives “right against the forest fence, by Saint Agnes’ fountain.” Saint Agnes of Bohemia lived a couple hundred years after Duke Vaclav, and so John Mason Neale was writing of something that existed in his own time, but not in the time of “Good King Wenceslas.” But Saint Agnes herself was an Abbess
of the Franciscan Poor Claires, and was a friend of the poor who took care of the lepers and paupers of Prague. So her inclusion in the story is fitting.
During the journey to Saint Agnes’ Fountain, the page is about to give up the struggle against the cold weather, but the good king tells the page to follow his footsteps, and the king’s footprints in the snow miraculously give off heat as the page follows. The carol concludes, “Therefore Christian men, be sure, wealth or rank possessing, ye who now will bless the poor shall yourselves find blessing.”
The Magnificat ~
The Christmas theme of generosity is a great tradition, with deep roots in the Gospel of Luke’s story of the nativity. In her song, “The Magnificat,” Mary describes God as one who “has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
According to New Testament scholar Helmut Koester of Harvard Divinity School, Luke’s story of the nativity contains “a political message.” Although the Roman Emperor called himself “the Son of the God Caesar,” and proclaimed his own “gospel” or “good news” of “peace on earth” brought about by force of arms and imperial power, Luke’s story of the birth of Jesus turned the propaganda of Rome on its head. In Luke’s version of the nativity, the Son of God is born in a stable, and is visited by poor shepherds.
Luke the Evangelist, in fashioning his story in the way he does, is saying that it is not the reign of a wealthy and powerful Roman Emperor that ushers in an era of peace for all nations, but instead, it is the birth of a child in a humble stable in Bethlehem, an unimportant town far away from the center of political and military power.
And the peace that this baby brings is fundamentally different from the peace brought about by war and weaponry. It is not a peace that comes from those who are mighty and rule, but from those who are poor and seem unimportant. It is not the proud and powerful whom God favors. Mary says that God has “scattered the proud … He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
With these words, Mary’s song echoes earlier statements in the Bible telling us that God will establish justice on earth by disturbing the peace that the rich and powerful have imposed. The birth of the messiah as a poor child in a stable proclaims a new social order, a peace that brings justice and fairness for everyone.
A season of miracles ~
I believe that those of us who have enough have a responsibility to help those who are less fortunate. Frankly, I understand that am privileged because I am American, white, male, heterosexual, educated, middle class, tall, physically able, and not even bald. I benefit from privilege, and the more privilege we have, the more responsibility I believe we have to advocate for those who don’t have the same advantages – we have responsibility to speak out on ethical and moral issues that affect racial, ethnic, and sexual minorities, those who are poor, and those who are underprivileged.
And so, as Unitarian Universalists, our tradition is to give the minister a free pulpit where she or he can take stands to support unpopular causes. And this congregation also gives back to the community in the form of the Glean Team, the work of the Social Action Committee, sharing the plate with good causes, the Minister’s Discretionary Fund, projects that our youth participate in, the work of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, and so much more.
December is a season of miracles – of Hanukkah, of the Winter Solstice, of Christmas. So let us, today, celebrate the miracles of this season:
Not the miracle that people tell ancient stories, but the miracle that we dare to live our own stories.
Not the Solstice miracle of the returning sun, but the miracle that we light our own lights so that we can grow brighter.
Not the miracle that, on that first Hanukkah, one day’s worth of oil burned for eight nights, but the miracle that the people of Israel had the courage to win their freedom and light the lamps.
Not the proclamation of the Roman Senate that Augustus is the “Son of the God Caesar,” but the miracle of the birth of a poor baby in a manger in a stable.
And not even the miracle of a virgin birth, but the miracle that “each night a child is born is a holy night,” because each child has the potential to make the world a better place.
Not the miracle that peace is possible, but the miracle that peace does not have to depend upon empires and armies.
Not the miracle of building a church in Prague, but the miracle that people of differing faiths can live together in peace.
Not the miracle that a good king can leave warm footprints in the snow, but the miracle that a rich person can understand that wealth brings responsibility to help those less fortunate.
Surely not the commercialization of Christmas, not the shopping season, nor the modern credit card – but the miracle that generosity still tugs on our hearts.
Happy Holidays! Merry Christmas! Amen.