Radio 4 Sunday Worship On the Feast of Stephen The Revds. Ricky Yates and Petra Elsmore lead a service from St Clement's Church, close by Wenceslas Square in Prague, reflecting on the life and death of St Stephen and also of Wenceslas, tenth century Duke of Bohemia, who became known as St Václav, patron saint of the Czech Republic. With carols sung by Naši pěvci directed by Lydie Härtelová and accompanied by Lucie Nováková. Producer: Stephen Shipley Broadcast: 26 December 2010 0810-0900 Radio 4 Opening Announcement: BBC Radio 4. And now it’s time for Sunday Worship which on this Feast of St Stephen goes to Prague for a special service from St Clement’s Church. It’s led by the Anglican Chaplain, the Revd Ricky Yates. Music: Vltava – Smetana Ricky Yates:
Good Morning, Happy Christmas and welcome to Prague, capital of the Czech Republic. We’re on the Charles Bridge above the Vltava River that flows through the centre of the city, not far from St Clement’s Anglican Episcopal Church. And the music you’re hearing in the background is the Czech composer Bedřich Smetana’s depiction of the river from his symphonic cycle Má vlast – ‘My Fatherland’.
In our service this morning, we celebrate St. Stephen the first Christian martyr who, because his saint’s day falls today, the day after Christmas Day, so easily gets forgotten. Except of course when we sing the well known carol, ‘Good King Wenceslas’.
Music: Good King Wenceslas Ricky Yates:
Good King Wenceslas, who ‘looked out on the Feast of Stephen’, is the anglicised name of Václav, a tenth century Duke of Bohemia. Here in the Czech Republic, of which Bohemia is the western half, he’s known as Svartý Václav – St. Wenceslas and is revered as the country’s patron saint. His statue is in the huge square that bears his name and his tomb is in St. Vitus Cathedral within the walls of Prague Castle. In our worship today, we’ll reflect upon the lives of both St. Stephen and St. Wenceslas. However, recognising that today is also the second day of the Christmas season, the congregation and choir will sing carols in both English and Czech, celebrating once more the birth of Jesus Christ.
So let us pray:
who wonderfully created us in your own image
and yet more wonderfully restored us
through your Son Jesus Christ:
grant that, as he came to share in our humanity,
so we may share the life of his divinity;
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen Christian worship has taken place on this site for probably a thousand years. The building has Romanesque foundations and in the chancel apse, there are remains of 14th century frescos that illustrate the journey of Jesus to Jerusalem, his death and his resurrection. The Church building now belongs to the Czech Evangelical Brethren, a joint Lutheran/Presbyterian Church & the largest protestant group in the Czech Republic. Since 1990, it’s also been the home of the Prague Anglican congregation - a multi-national one, made up of people from English-speaking nations around the world, together with a number of Czechs and Slovaks, who are happy to worship in the English language.
Today we also welcome to St. Clement’s, the Czech Ecumenical Choir Naši pěvci, whose name means ‘Our voices’. They’re directed by Lydie Härtelová and accompanied on the organ by Lucie Nováková - and their first Christmas Carol is Děťátko se narodilo/A child is born.
Music: Děťátko se narodilo/A child is born (sung in Czech) Ricky Yates:
St. Stephen, whom we honour and celebrate today, was one of seven men chosen by the early Christian Church in Jerusalem, to work as deacons, overseeing the care of widows and other poorer members of the Christian community. He’s described as being ‘a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit’. But his words and actions soon got him into trouble with the religious leadership as we hear in our first Bible Reading which comes from the Acts of the Apostles, chapter six. It’s read by Camilla Entwistle, a British member of the St. Clement’s congregation who teaches in an International School here in Prague.
Reading: Acts 6. 8-15 - Camilla Entwistle
8Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people. 9Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), Cyrenians, Alexandrians, and others of those from Cilicia and Asia, stood up and argued with Stephen. 10But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit* with which he spoke. 11Then they secretly instigated some men to say, ‘We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.’ 12They stirred up the people as well as the elders and the scribes; then they suddenly confronted him, seized him, and brought him before the council. 13They set up false witnesses who said, ‘This man never stops saying things against this holy place and the law; 14for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth* will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses handed on to us.’ 15And all who sat in the council looked intently at him, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel.
Music: Sanctus from Ryba Christmas Mass Ricky Yates:
Sanctus from the Christmas Mass by the Czech composer Jakob Jan Ryba.
We also welcome today the Revd Petra Elsmore, better known to the St. Clement’s congregation as Petra Hanova. Petra was born in Prague and worshipped at St. Clement’s for a number of years before being sponsored by the Diocese in Europe for ordination training in the Church of England. She’s now an Anglican priest working in the Diocese of Liverpool.
Reflection – Petra Elsmore As we’ve heard, St Wenceslas is the patron saint of the Czech Republic and in the English-speaking world, he’s immortalised through the words of the famous Christmas carol we sang earlier. The image of the bold King striding through the worst of winter weather to bring charity to a poor peasant, while his frozen page is saved from death by treading in the warm footsteps of the saint is a picture adorning many a Christmas card, as familiar as robins, camels and donkeys. But there’s more to the good king than this legend... behind the legend there’s a historical figure... Wenceslas, was the Duke of Bohemia, born around the year 907, the son of Vratisav I. He ruled Bohemia from around 925 until his death 10 years later. He lived through turbulent political times, Bohemia and the rest of Europe was a cauldron of power struggles. In the year 929 Bohemia was attacked without warning by the alliance of Arnulf of Bavaria and Henry the Fowler. Wenceslas was faced with a decision – should he find a compromise with these aggressive states, or should Bohemia fight to the death... Wenceslas, a king of deep wisdom and compassion for his own people decided to compromise and in so doing attracted mortal enemies among his own clansmen – not least his own brother Boleslav who vowed to kill the good King.
Boleslav took his chance some years later when Wenceslas was invited to spend a festival with him. The legend tells us that during his stay, Boleslav’s men tried three times to attack Wenceslas, but each time failed to find the courage to act against him. The next morning, on his way to church, Wenceslas came face to face with his brother, again Wenceslas escaped with his life, forcing Boleslav to put down his sword, but in the end on the very doorstep of the church, Wenceslas was set upon by Boleslav’s men and killed.
Wenceslas may have died, but the legends about him grew like wildfire. Stories of miracles and compassionate good works grew up around Wenceslas. No doubt many were invented, but they kept alive the memory of a compassionate king who always tried to keep the best interests of the ordinary people of his kingdom close to his heart.
Even today, in a nation which has been largely without religious faith for many years, it fascinates me that many people still hold on to these powerful stories and to the memory and intercession of our national saint.
When I moved to England it was amusing to find Wenceslas so well known, through this Victorian carol extolling virtues of good citizenship but the legend of the carol, while it may not be strictly historical, nevertheless contains something very important from the essence of the saint – St. Stephen - we are remembering today.
Music: Cherubinic Song - Dmitrij Bortnyanskij (sung in Russian) Petra Elsmore:
Cherubinic Song by Dmitrij Bortnyanskij reminding us that Stephen’s face was like the face of an angel.
So back to Good King Wenceslas who looked out on the feast of Stephen. He’s not one for lying in bed on Boxing Day! Far from it, he’s keen to celebrate the feast of St Stephen – and not by spending another day eating and drinking! He’s keen to emulate Saint Stephen, Christianity’s first Martyr, whose ministry was that of giving to the poor. Just as the page boy in the carol follows in Wenceslas’ footsteps, so Wenceslas is following in Stephen’s footsteps in giving to the poor and helping the needy.
And both, of course, are following in Jesus footsteps. The one who fed the hungry at the lakeside, the one who shared food with the poor and the needy, the one who said when you feed the hungry you are feeding me…
The carol takes us on a journey with the Good King, a journey from his window to his store room through winter storms and treacherous conditions finally to reach the poor peasant to whom he gives a feast literally fit for a king. Wenceslas follows Stephen’s example of charity and kindness to the poor. The actions of both men remind me of a saying of Gandhi “to the poor man, God can come only as bread”. In all of the world’s religions, compassion for the poor and needy is one of the major outward signs of the inner transformation which faiths bring to their followers. For Stephen and for Wenceslas, worshipping God and helping the poor are one and the same thing.
The Church today is full of different roles and job titles. Ministers, Priests, Archdeacons, Chaplains, Bishops… but it has always struck me that the first of these special jobs and roles in the New Testament is that of Deacon – the servant of the poor... Stephen’s job title. And I think it is significant that the one who became the Church’s first martyr was a deacon, whose life and work were taken as a direct threat to the established order.
First Jesus, then Stephen and in our carol, Wenceslas, knew that the heart of faith is compassion for the poor and the hungry…. We live today in a world where over a billion people will go to bed tonight hungry… There would be plenty of work for Jesus, Stephen and Wenceslas to do here in the 21st century…
Stephen didn’t mince his words when he was seized and brought before the Sanhedrin. Sean Miller, an American who works as a translator here in Prague, now reads from chapter seven of the Acts of the Apostles.
Reading: Acts 7. 51-60 – Sean Miller
51‘You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are for ever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. 52Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. 53You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.’
54 When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen.*55But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!’ 57But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. 58Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ 60Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ When he had said this, he died.
Music: Studně nepřevážená/Well of God´s mercies – Comenius Petra Elsmore:
Studně nepřevážená/Well of God´s mercies sung by Naši pěvci to a folk tune arranged by Jan Comenius.
Stephen couldn’t keep his mouth shut. His speech to the Council goes on and on – covering two pages in my Bible. And towards the end, it becomes a bit of a rant – “You stiff necked people,” he says. “Are your ears full of wax? You worship the law, not the living God”…Enraged, they take up stones and the first Christian martyr is killed.
His words might seem to us now to be inflammatory perhaps. Luke’s story leaves us with an uncomfortable feeling when seen from this side of the Holocaust. But Stephen’s extreme language was born of an extreme time – here was a new branch of the faith struggling to discover its own identity and rebelling against its parent… perhaps it’s helpful to see Stephen’s anger in that light.
Like so many Martyrs, Stephen’s trouble was that he made a nuisance of himself – he spoke out rather than keeping silent. Stephen, like Jesus, like so many who have been killed for their faith since then, died not for the beliefs in his head, but for the actions and the words which flowed from those beliefs. His passion for Christ led him in the end to share his master’s fate.
Here in the Czech Republic, during the days of communism, speaking out could get you locked up in prison, you could lose your job, you could be placed under heavy surveillance and constantly intimidated…. But courageous individuals spoke out again and again throughout those difficult years… people who paid the ultimate price because something in them just had to protest against the injustice and inhumanity of those in power. It takes extraordinary courage to be the one person in 10,000 who is willing to put their head above the parapet and take a stand. In the Czech Republic, often the individuals who did so were artists, writers, performers, poets and musicians. Vratislav Brabenec, a member of the underground band “The Plastic People of the Universe” said "We weren't political, man. We were just trying to be poetical." Asked why the band would not accept government control, he answered: "That's freedom, man, I'd die for that."
Faced with injustice, most people keep their heads down and prefer not to get involved. We like a quiet life, we worry about our reputations, we conform to comfortable social norms. Speaking out always carries a price. And in the West or even in post-communist Czech Republic, it may seem that there is little to protest about… but when we open our eyes to those at the margins of society and to those who struggle to feed their children in a wealthy society, we might think again.
The root meaning of the word ‘martyr’ is to be a witness. Are we willing to take a stand like Stephen, when our faith and sense of justice demands we act or speak and make a nuisance of ourselves for what we believe in?
Music: Narodil se Kristus Pán/Christ the Lord is born (sung in Czech) Ricky Yates:
Narodil se Kristus Pán/Christ the Lord is born – let us rejoice. The most popular Czech carol often sung at the climax of Christmas services.
The Gospel reading set for St. Stephen’s Day predicts what happened to the saint. It comes from St. Matthew, chapter 10 and it’s read now by David Hellam who like our first reader, also teaches in an International School here in Prague.
Reading: Matthew 10. 17-22 – David Hellam
Jesus said, “B17eware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; 18and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles. 19When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; 20for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. 21Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; 22and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved”.
Stephen was the Church’s first Martyr. Throughout the next 200 years the Church would experience wave after wave of persecution. Christians were fed to the lions, forced in to gladiatorial combat, crucified, burned alive and in many other ways tortured and killed for their faith. Throughout the first 300 years of the Church, however, even in the face of this persecution, one principle remained clear. Christians never took up arms. Like Stephen, they accepted their fate. Like Stephen and like Jesus before him, often their words to their persecutors were at the death, words of compassion and forgiveness. “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do”. The idea of Christians taking up arms to defend themselves was a contradiction in terms for the early Church. Jesus’ words to Peter “Put away your sword” were taken very seriously by a movement whose whole life was based in the idea of peace. The message is there in the birth stories about Jesus which are celebrated and retold every Christmas – “He will be called the Prince of Peace”.
What we know of St Wenceslas too, reminds us that he was a peaceful monarch. In his foreign policy, we know that he was against the idea of starting a war for political gain and glory. In his own conduct, we see him refusing to retaliate against his brother’s aggression ...Stephen and Wenceslas were both men of peace who followed in the footsteps of one who was destined to bring “Peace on earth, good will toward men”.
Neither of them could be called soft or easy going. The Stephen who rails against his persecutors in our reading and the Monarch who strides so purposefully through the scenery of the familiar Christmas Carol were both people of forthright view and a commitment to action... but action which stopped at breaking the Christian practice of peace.
The Jesus movement was born in sharp contrast to the Roman Empire which ruled at that time. The proclamation of peace on earth was in stark contrast to the imperial proclamation of the Pax Romana which meant peace imposed through brute force of arms and continuing oppression.
Gathering in Wenceslas Square in 1989, under the statue of St Wenceslas, the young people of my generation again asserted the right of peaceful protest which has been so brutally crushed in 1968 by the Soviet invasion and in a few short months, the seemingly impregnable bastion of the communist state with its secret police and party machine was gone. All without a shot fired.
As the American social activist Abraham Muste once said, “There is no way to peace, peace is the way.”
Music: Čas radosti, veselosti/Time of joy and cheerfulness (sung in Czech) Ricky Yates:
Čas radosti, veselosti/Time of joy and cheerfulness, another Czech carol to a traditional tune.
Our Intercessions this morning are led by Jack Noonan, an Irishman who has retired to the Czech Republic.
Intercessions – Jack Noonan Almighty God, Father eternal, strengthen us in the power of the Holy Spirit that we may pray according to Your will. Thank you for the assurance that where two or three are gathered in Your Name, You are there amongst them.
We here in St Clement's Prague join in communion at this time with all those calling on Your name throughout the world.
LORD HEAR US...........................Lord graciously hear us. We thank You Gracious Father for this opportunity to gather together and celebrate the birth of the Lord Jesus our Saviour. May it be a time of reunion for us all, a time of celebration and recommitment to the joy of living out our lives in your service. We raise before You the governments of the world and especially President Klaus of the Czech Republic. Guide and direct all in authority that they might foster peace, justice, respect for law and the social prosperity of all citizens.
Protect us Holy Father from those who would use their power corruptly or selfishly.
LORD HEAR US........................... Lord graciously hear us. Holy and Triune God we thank You that we are free to worship You in spirit and truth. We remember this day St. Stephen who died rather than deny You. We thank You for his life, faith and example.
As a communion of saints we lift up before You, in our prayers, all those believers who are not allowed to assemble together and praise You.
MERCIFUL FATHER........accept these prayers, for the sake of your Son, our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen
As our Saviour taught us, so we pray
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins
as we forgive those
who sin against us.
Lead us not into temptation
but deliver us from evil.
For the kingdom, the power,
and the glory are yours
now and for ever.
Amen. Ricky Yates:
It’s been a great joy to have you with us this morning for our celebration of St. Stephen and St. Wenceslas. And we hope that if you’re visiting Prague, you’ll come to St Clement’s Church and join us in worship.
May God the Father keep you in all your days.
May God the Son shield you in all your ways.
May God the Spirit bring you healing and peace.
May God the Holy Trinity drive all darkness from you
and pour upon you blessing and light. Amen. Music: Ding dong merrily on high Organ Voluntary: Allegro (Mendelssohn) Radio 4 Closing Announcement: Sunday Worship ‘On the Feast of Stephen’ came this morning from St Clement’s Church in Prague. It was led by the Revd Ricky Yates with the Revd Petra Elsmore. The choir was directed by Lydie Härtelová and accompanied by Lucie Nováková. The producer was Stephen Shipley.