Thursday, 26 December 2019

On the feast of Stephen
or on the feast of
Good King Wenceslas?

The Stephansdom, or Saint Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna … what name do you give to 26 December? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

Many decades ago, after leaving school, I began training as a chartered surveyor with a large property company based in London and Dublin, and studying estate management at the College of Estate Management at Reading University.

That company assembled and managed property portfolios for investment funds, developers, life insurance companies, shopping centres and a number of very large landowners – in terms of their portfolios rather than their girth.

As a trainee surveyor, I was being trained in valuation, property and estate management and surveying. I visited sites, learned to draw plans, compile reports and deal with a very interesting range of clients. Some of my daily tasks could seem mundane and boring; but others opened me to a world that I could never have imagined; and they were often tinged with amusement.

The BSc in Estate Management would lead to recognition from the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) and qualification as a chartered surveyor. But looking back on those years in my late teens, I know my heart was not really in a career such as this. And like every late teen starting out in the workplace, I also fell victim to the usual office pranks.

One morning, I searched furtively but fruitlessly for a file before visiting one particular site that was being assembled in Dublin by a developer. You could say I was looking in vain for the portfolio of the portfolio.

I was anxious to prove myself, but eventually I had to admit defeat: we were due soon on the site, but the file was missing.

‘Look under G. I filed it away under G,’ I heard another trainee and colleague in background.

The file should have been under ‘S’ for ‘Saint Stephen’s Green. But he had filled it under ‘G’ for ‘Green.’

He joked later his alternative place was ‘T’ for ‘The Green.’

But it his sense of humour, and he was never the sort of person to have called in ‘Stevenses Green.’ He is now dead, and his late father, who was a leading Chartered Surveyor, had twice been chair of the St Stephen’s Green Club in Dublin.

There are three sorts of people in Ireland: one group call today ‘Saint Stephen’s Day’ or even ‘Stephen’s Day’; the second group call today ‘Stevenses Day’ … they also refer to ‘Stevenses Green’ and ‘Dr Stevenses Hospital’; and both groups unite to condemn the third group who dare to call today ‘Boxing Day.’

It became a major point of discussion on the Ryan Tubridy Show on RTÉ earlier this month, and seems to be one of the defining parts of Irish vocabulary in the English language.

Stephen is a family name: my grandfather, father, eldest brother and a nephew were baptised Stephen. But my reasons for insisting on retaining the name of Saint Stephen’s Day is theologically important to remind ourselves on the day after Christmas Day of the important link between the Incarnation and bearing witness to the Resurrection faith.

Saint Stephen the Deacon is the Protomartyr of Christianity. The Greek word name Στέφανος means ‘crown’ or ‘wreath’ and the Acts of the Apostles tell us Saint Stephen earned his crown at his martyrdom when he was stoned to death around the year AD 34 or 35 by an angry mob encouraged by Saul of Tarsus, the future Apostle Paul.

The ‘Feast of Stephen’ is inextricably linked with Christmas through the English carol ‘Good King Wenceslas.’

King Wenceslas has become a symbol of resurgent Czech nationalism and his statue dominates the main square in the centre of Prague.

When I was visiting Prague earlier this year, I was told how it is said in Prague that if the Czech Republic is in danger his statue in Wenceslas Square will come to life, Good King Wenceslas will raise a sleeping army and he will reveal a legendary sword to bring peace to the land.

I prefer John Mason Neale’s ending to this carol:

Ye who now will bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing
.

Saint Stephen’s witness to the faith and King Wenceslas’s care for the poor are reminders that the Christmas Spirit should not be confined or limited to Christmas Day.

‘Good King Wenceslas’ … an image on a ceiling in the Old Town Hall in Prague (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Good King Wenceslas

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,
Gath’ring winter fuel.

‘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’.

‘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 rude wind’s wild lament
And the bitter weather.

‘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, good my page,
Tread thou in them boldly:
Thou shalt find the winter’s rage
Freeze thy blood less coldly.’

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.

King Wenceslas depicted on a façade in the Old Town Square in Prague (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

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