Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Warming the Winter of Our Hearts -- A Homily for the Feast of St. Stephen

Homily for the Feast of St. Stephen
Tuesday, August 4th, 2009 (translated from Aug 3)
The Convent of the Sisterhood of St. John the Divine.
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Acts 6:9-7:2a, 51c-60.

Good King Wenceslas looked out on the Feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even.
Brightly shone the moon that night, though the frost was cruel,
When a poor man came in sight, gathering winter fuel.

Perhaps we might experience some incongruity at the sound of these words in the early days of August. Granted, our summer has not been one of exceeding warmth, but we are at a distance from the cruel frost of winter. Good King Wenceslas is, of course, a carol about an event on the feast of St. Stephen, and perhaps the words make much more sense when that feast day was celebrated under the old calendar on 26 December. However, it may be important for us to consider the words of this old carol (which comes from the pen of that great Victorian hymn-writer John Mason Neale), because the lesson it seeks to teach may indeed seem distant in the warm days of summer. As we rejoice in the warmth of the sun, the poverty of a long cold winter and the poverty of our spirits may seem distant indeed.

“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.”

Amidst the great feasts of our lives and the abundance of an opulent society there are those who walk amongst us, apparently nameless and without status. They are in our midst, and we see them daily, but choose to avert our eyes. Their poverty frightens us. It frightens not simply because we are either helpless or selfish, while these may be the words we give to our fear, rather, it frightens us because it makes us confront the poverty of our own souls and the winter cold within us that seems a sort of perma-frost that ever threatens to take hold of our entire being.

“Bring me flesh and bring me wine, bring me pine logs hither,
Thou and I will see him dine, when we bear them thither.”
Page and monarch, forth they went, forth they went together,
Through the cold wind’s wild lament and the bitter weather.

The apostles appointed seven individuals to care for the poor and needy. The apostles appointed seven to go into the cold frightening places that we would rather not go. The apostles appointed seven individuals who, in Christ, could face down the frigid temperatures of their own souls and extend loving, warm hands to the poor and those in need. And how tempting is it to leave it to the deacons, those in deacon’s orders and those who seem to naturally take up that diaconal call, ordained or lay. How easy it is to turn away when we know others seem so much better fitted for the task. I have often wondered if the apostles who appointed those seven individuals had in some way abdicated the opportunity to melt away the ice of their own poverty. But in Christ, rich or poor, slave or free, male or female, we are called to gather our pine logs, bring flesh and wine, and brave the winter of our fear and the cruel frost of our spiritual poverty, leaving the warmth of the electric blanket or hot water bottle that will never melt the ice inside us, and make the journey to St. Agnes fountain and dine with friends we never knew we had.

“Sire, the night is darker now, and the wind blows stronger,
Fails my heart, I know not how; I can go no longer.”
“Mark my footsteps, my good page, tread now in them boldly,
Thou shalt find the winter’s rage freeze your blood less coldly.”

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to leaving the warmth of the castle of our comfortable lives is indeed the fact that our frozen spirits have not the warmth to carry us on the journey. Even if we stir up the courage to take the journey, seek to protect ourselves from the elements, the winter within is still too great a foe that will impede our efforts. The night within us brings fear, the cold wind within causes our hearts to fail, and we feel that we cannot go on. But somehow, in the example of the Christ-like Wenceslas, that young page carries on, in spite of his inner fear, his inner poverty, and inner frost, he carries on filled with the warmth of the bright Sun of Righteousness.

Is their story not the story of blessed Stephen? Do we not recall how Stephen in the midst of great adversity was filled with grace and power. This grace and power came not from his own spirit but from the Spirit of God, and so he stood before the Sanhedrin because he stood with his master, and ours. He could speak because Christ warmed his heart against the wind and frost of an unbelieving chorus of voices. And he could go to his death forgiving those who executed him, “do not hold their sin against them,” because the warmth of Jesus passion and Resurrection became his own.

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.

St. Stephen trod in his master’s steps, in a cold and heartless world, but found his heart strangely warmed. Is that not the way of the Christian faith, that when we journey together on the road, we will meet our sacred companion who will warm our hearts as we share his footsteps? Is it not the way of the Christian faith that as we sup together and break bread, his radiant transforming love becomes known to a cold and languishing world? Is it not the way of the Christian faith that our Lord melts not only the ice around us but within us?

Thus, in our master’s steps, we go. We journey forth in a winter that rages about and within, yet like a fabled king whose faith in Christ warmed his heart, like a young page who nearly gave way to the winter and yet found his path illumined, like the blessed proto-martyr Stephen, who faced a violent death but with a radiant soul and angel’s visage, we travel and meet our challenging gospel mandate not because we can face the winter’s rage, but because Christ Our Lord can.

Copyright 2009 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Good King Wenceslas -- written by John Mason Neale (1818-1866)


peter said...

"Nice work," said the unordained M.Div., somewhat uneasily.

I hadn't realized that the CofE had moved the date of St. Stephen's commemoration from December. The Odox still celebrate his feast on Dec 27th, but this past Sunday we commemorated the discovery of his relics and their transferral from Jerusalem to Constantinople.

The Rev. Daniel Francis Graves said...

Thanks Peter. I always appreciate your thoughtful comments. Not sure of the the rationale for the new date... I'll have to look it up. I've preached on St. Stephen's day a number of times because my family's parish in Rosseau is St. Stephen's parish. I often happen to be there for their patronal festival and have been invited to preach. The same thing is true of St. Thomas' day which has also be transferred to the summer. Two of the congregations in that parish are dedicated to St. Thomas.