Hipster Hate and the Bearded Man

by Aaron Alforda6f965536fdee4911834c31293bf2691

Ah, the Hipster. You are so much cooler than the rest of us. How we love to hate thee.

You love old things in a way that seems to be a finger in the air to modernity, and you have an iPhone 6 1/2.

You purchase your western shirt at the thrift store for five dollars, and the plain white v-neck underneath it at Pretentious & Co. for 50.

You smoke American Spirit cigarettes because they’re all natural, destroying your lungs with no chemicals added.

You speak passionately about societal issues without lifting a finger to solve anything.

You feel superior to everyone around you, and it shows.

And, perhaps worst of all, you wear your facial hair ironically.

The Bearded Man finds this offence most egregious, because he does not want to be perceived as one of “them”. The Bearded Man should wear the beard simply because he likes it. But the Hipster, oh the Hipster! You know that moustache looks strange on you, and you know that we know it looks strange on you, which is why you call it “ironic”. But we both also know that you kind of think it actually looks cool, in a non-ironic sort of way. It hearkens back to the time of gentlemen, but now you’ve added a self-referential awareness that no gentleman would have had in the first place. It’s all so meta it’s just exhausting.

You are pretentious and self-righteous. You are the very embodiment of everything we despise. For all of these reasons and for so many more, we are allowed to hate you. And boy howdy does it feel good to hate you.

But there’s a catch, a catch that makes us hate the Hipster all the more: Hipsters hate Hipsters!

I’m definitely not the first person to write about this phenomenon, but it would seem that, hated as the Hipster is, he is everywhere and he is nowhere. I’m pretty sure I know one when I see one, but no one self-identifies as one. If no one claims to be a hipster, then what exactly is a Hipster?

A while ago I was in the midst of a conversation about said Hipsters, light-heartedly talking about what I hate about them. I was taken aback when my friend said, “But aren’t you a Hipster?”

I was a little offended, but the evidence was there: I like old-timey styles. I wear vests. I like wearing suspenders. Sometimes I wax my moustache into a handlebar. I’ve even worn a bow tie a time or two (though my beard length makes that somewhat pointless).

“What makes you not a Hipster?” my friend asked.

I’d always thought I was styling myself after a kind of bearded CS Lewis, but suddenly I was confronted with the truth: I was a Hipster! My defence was I didn’t love these things ironically, as “they” do, but I didn’t really have an answer beyond that. My only real justification was I shop at thrift stores not because it’s cool, but because I’m actually poor.

Speaking of thrift stores, it was two days later at the local Salvation Army when a man walked up to me and said in a thick, English-As-A-Second-Language accent I couldn’t quite locate, “Escuse me, I like you style. You look bery, um, cool. Like, um, don’t be offended, um, what is the word? Hipster?”

I smiled and sighed and sunk my bearded chin into my chest. There it was. Proof positive, from his strangely accented mouth to my own ears. I was a Hipster.

“Thanks,” I said, my pride getting a bit stuck in my throat as I tried to swallow it.

This revelation got me doing some self-evaluation. What is it that I hate in the Hipster? Pretentiousness? Hypocrisy? Their sense of superior coolness? Well, let’s see.

Pretentiousness. That’s the one where you want people to be more impressed with you than they should, when you try to put forth an image that gives people the impression that you are smarter, more cultured, more important or, at the very least, cooler than you really are. Yep. Gotta admit I have that one.

What about hypocrisy? Yes, pretty sure I’ve got that one well covered, too. I’m sure I have it by the very fact that I think I don’t. First rule of Hypocrite Club? Don’t admit you’re a hypocrite!

Feeling superior? Lordy, Lordy. Never do I feel so superior than when I’m standing next to one of “those” people. Stupid Hipsters.

If you can relate to any of this, then you guessed it: you might be a Hipster, too. Just name any aspect of the hated Hipster, or any group of people you find distasteful for that matter, and if you take off your sunglasses and stare deep into their reflective lenses long enough, you will have to admit to finding it in yourself. Let he who is without pretension cast the first stone.

Biker Dude who hates Hipsters: You are a Hipster.

Redneck-and-Proud Dude who hates Hipsters: You are so very a Hipster.

Guy Who Runs a Website About Facial Hair: You’re so Hipster it hurts.

It seems there has always been someone in society we love to hate. Before the Hipster, there was the Yuppie. Before the Yuppie, the Hippie. Before the Hippie, the Beatnik. And before the Beatnik… the Hipster. It all comes full circle. I suppose it doesn’t take too much digging to figure out why there’s always somebody to look down on. I don’t have to deal with my own flaws if I think that someone else’s are worse than mine. What was it That Guy said about splinters and logs?

Speaking of That Guy, he did exactly the opposite of what we are so prone to do. Rather than labelling people and finding reasons to despise them, he saw their individual humanity and loved them. More than that, he happily accepted the derogatory labels others put on him: Drunkard. Glutton. Sinner. He let himself be hated to the point of accepting death.

So, it would seem that the moment we hate someone, or feel disgusted by a certain cultural group, or merely look down on someone, that is the moment they look exactly like Jesus. Conversely, it’s only when we can admit our own hypocrisies and failings that we can be delivered from them.

Does this mean we can never have a laugh at how ridiculous the Hipster can be? Perhaps not, as long as we have the humility to admit we’re laughing at ourselves. Because, Lord, help us, we’re all Hipsters in need of a Saviour.

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The Gospel Life: A Path to a Scary Place (why you might not want to follow Jesus)

by Aaron Alford

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Recently I had a conversation with a young man who was eager to get his feet wet in missionary work. He was passionate and knowledgeable about what he was getting into, and eager to really do the work of a missionary. He was not interested in the kind of “missions as tourism” trip that is becoming more prevalent in the Church these days. He wanted to go where there was real need, and real darkness, with a mind to pursuing missions as a long-term vocation.

His parents, however, who are Christians themselves, were not so excited at the prospect. When he told them of his dreams of missionary work, he was met with baffled confusion.

“Why would you want to go somewhere dangerous?” they said.

“Why wouldn’t I?” was his response.

I would like to be gracious with his parents. No parents want to see their child, even their adult child, in danger, but their response really got me thinking. It seemed to me that their response was indicative of a common attitude in North American Christianity, one that I can’t say I’m immune from myself, and that is the desire to stay safe. But as I look more closely at that desire, I realize it’s completely incompatible with the Christian faith.

Really, if the goal of your life is to remain safe and secure, why would you ever choose Christianity as your religion? Why would you put your faith in a God who offered himself to torture and crucifixion? Especially when that God says, “Take up your cross and follow me”? Why be part of a movement which is, arguably, most effectively spread through the martyrdom of its adherents?

I mean, there are plenty of other religions of which you could be part, should you desire to live a safe life. Buddhism is pretty rad. They’re generally pretty zen. There’s plenty of self-improvement, and a strong inclination toward letting go of the worst aspects of yourself. You don’t even have to be a full-on Buddhist. I know people who, though they wouldn’t call themselves Buddhists, follow some of the principles of Buddhism, and they’re great people. People I want to learn from, even. There are probably plenty of Christians who would make excellent Buddhists.

I’m no expert in world religions, but I’m pretty sure Sikhism doesn’t involve following a god to his violent death. They’re monotheistic, they have a strong moral code, with an emphasis on selflessness and hospitality. They even practice baptism. All of that, and they have amazing food! Definitely a plus on the food side, if you’re a fan of curry.

There’s also Islam. If you love Jesus, you get to keep him in this one. You even get to keep the idea that Jesus will return someday. Muslims believe that Jesus was a great prophet, they just don’t believe he was actually crucified. Most Muslims believe he was taken up to heaven before the crucifixion, so that he would not have to suffer. Consequently, it might be easier to follow a Jesus who didn’t actually suffer when he says, “Take up your cross and follow me.”

Perhaps the ultimate death-free religion is one that barely qualifies as an actual religion at all. This one’s founder didn’t have to meditate for hours or endure undue hardship. Instead he wrote science fiction pulp novels and died in secrecy while living on a big ranch in Southern California. Before that, he spent several years sailing around the world on his private yacht. So maybe Scientology might be a better fit for you. They too have a strong focus on self-improvement and feeling good, so that’s nice. (I wouldn’t recommend this one if you’re poor, however. All that self-improvement can cost a lot of money!)

So if you just want self-improvement but aren’t really into suffering or being in scary places, why on earth would you be a Christian? Especially when you have all these other options? With that in mind, I would urge you, if you’re just not that into self-sacrifice unto death, or suffering in general, to please consider another religion. At the very least, please feel free to stop attending Church services and instead sign up for an enrichment class at your local community college. Really.

Even Jesus himself would beg you to reconsider following him. In the Gospel of Luke, chapter Nine, he says:

“If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.”

Later, in chapter fourteen, he is being followed by a great many people, and it seems he decides to thin the herd:

“Now great crowds accompanied him, and he turned and said to them, ‘If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.’”

Christ himself would urge you to really give all of this serious consideration before committing to following him. He would ask you to make sure you get a good look at the big picture before you put that “NOTW” bumper sticker on your car.

Because if you’re not going to follow Jesus to the cross, then guess what: You’re not following Jesus at all. You may possibly be on the path he walked, but you’re sitting in the middle of it, having a nice little picnic, and probably getting in the way of the more serious hikers.

If your Christianity does not include the option of pain, of actively pursuing self-sacrifice, if it does not include a mandate to go into dark and dangerous places, then your Christianity is devoid of Christ himself, and you should probably consider aligning yourself with a more comfortable belief system. To paraphrase Jesus: Don’t take up residence in a house you’re not going to finish building.

If, however, you would like to be swallowed up into an infinite, wildly dangerous Love, then follow the One who is not safe, but who is Very Good. Follow the One who will demand absolutely everything from you, the One who will call you to suffering and death. Follow the One who will set your soul ablaze with an all-consuming fire, with a Love which will indeed burn, burn, burn. Follow the One who will lead you to lay down your life for the lowest of the low. Follow him when he leads you into suffering. Follow him when he leads you to share in the pain of your neighbour. Follow him into death. Because here’s the other part of suffering: The joy you will experience will be much greater than, but directly linked to, the amount of sorrow you let in. That’s true not just for the next life, but for the one you’re living now. So take up your cross, and follow him not just to death but also to resurrection. Follow him into unspeakable joy.

Wherever he leads you, following Jesus is always a path to a scary place. Why would you want to follow a God so dangerous as this? Indeed, why wouldn’t you?

The Gospel Life: A Holy Family

by Aaron Alford

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“A Quiet Moment”, by Timothy Schmalz

Recently I heard a message that made me think of something I’ve always taken for granted. Christians accept that Jesus, as the Son of God, was incarnate of the flesh and born of Mary as a human being. But how much thought have we given to the life he chose to lead after his birth and before his public ministry?

As we look through the Old Testament, we see many prefigurements and foreshadows of the miraculous birth of Christ. In the book of Judges, an angel appears to a barren woman and proclaims to her, “Though you are barren and have had no children, yet you will conceive and bear a son.” Her child, Samson, is dedicated to God even before his birth, and is raised according to the vows of a Nazarite.

Hannah was also thought to be barren when she prayed for the gift of a son. God heard her prayer, and she gave birth to Samuel. In gratitude for such a miraculous birth, Hannah gave her child to the Lord’s service, and Samuel, who would become one of Israel’s greatest prophets, grew up in the Temple.

In the New Testament we see John the Baptist, another child of remarkable beginnings, whose mother Elizabeth was well past the age of conceiving. He too is dedicated to God, and lives a life quite apart from the world. Most scholars agree that he would have been part of the desert monastic community of the Essenes.

Yet Christ himself, the most miraculous of all miraculous births, dedicated to God though he was, did not grow up in the Temple, nor did he take the vows of a Nazarite or live a life of monastic asceticism. As far as we know he did not spend any significant time as part of a community such as the Essenes. It certainly would have been a valid choice for him to be set apart in such a way, and perhaps would even have been an asset to the ministry he would begin later in life.

But this was not the path he chose for himself. Instead he lived most of his life in complete averageness in the unremarkable town of Nazareth. For thirty years (give or take), he lived a quiet life among family and friends who knew him simply as Jesus, son of Joseph the carpenter.

Why?

Of course we cannot know every reason, but I believe one reason is that he came to show us just how holy and beautiful a thing a family is. Christ was not made holy by being separated from a family, but instead made the family itself holy by becoming part of it.

Not only did he become part of a family, but in his infinite humility he subjected himself to all that being a son entails. He learned to walk by holding Joseph’s pinky finger and wobbling toward his mother. He learned to talk from staring into his mother’s eyes and listening to the strange sounds coming out of her smiling mouth. Perhaps he learned patience by watching his father at work, carefully crafting his wooden creations, smoothing out each line and correcting each corner. Perhaps he learned grace by watching his mother bring a warm meal to the family down the street who had fallen on difficult times. Joseph was not a priest, and Mary was not a prophetess, but Jesus’s first earthly experience of love came in the embrace of Joseph and Mary. Perhaps he learned to love, just as he learned to walk and talk, by watching the way Joseph and Mary gave of themselves to one another.

“He went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them; and his mother kept all these things in her heart. And Jesus advanced in wisdom and age and favor before God and man.” -Luke 2:51,52

In the life he chose to live, in his obedience to his earthly parents, Jesus assures us of the sacred calling that being a mother, a father, and even a child is. Mary too, in pondering “all these things in her heart” points to the high calling of parenthood.

There are many exceptional people and Christian saints who overcame less-than-perfect and even horrible childhood and family situations to become great examples of love and faith, but there are many more who were able to become exactly who God intended them to be because of the families in which God placed them. It’s in a family where we learn virtues such as sound morals and Christian doctrine, and perhaps these are some of the first things that come to mind when we think about what we want to teach our children. The most important thing, however, the first and best among anything else a child can learn, is love, for love is the source of all that is holy. Not only must we teach children honour and courage, but we also have to live out grace and humility before their watching eyes. When Joseph fell short and asked his wife’s forgiveness for an unkind word, little Jesus was watching. It is in seeing this day-to-day vocation to love —the calling of every family— that children remember the delectable scent of holiness. They will remember it just as warmly as your home made cookies, and they will want to live in it. That kind of love can make a saint out of anyone. So what saint may you be raising?

As a parent, you have been given the highest and holiest of callings: to teach another human being to love. Don’t be intimidated, and don’t back down from the task. God himself has assured us not only of the sacredness of the vocation, but his faithfulness to meet us there. He will give you the grace to live it, if you have the humility to accept it. No family is perfect, but love can make any family a Holy Family.

The First Day.

by Aaron Alford

(photo: The Garden Tomb, Israel)

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No light could be seen from inside the cave. The cold air held the scent of rock and moss and the lingering odour of bitter herbs. The silence was palpable, hovering in the tomb like the Spirit on the face of the deep.

A body lay on the stone shelf, its unnatural stillness betraying any illusion of sleep. For all the beautifying shrouds so carefully wrapped around it, and the precious blossoms placed upon the swaddling cloths, this was a corpse. His friends had done their best to dress the wounds, in some unreasoning and unspoken hope that even in death these wounds might heal, but the reality remained, and they were gruesome. He looked as though he had been mauled to death, and the truth was not far from it. It had taken hours to dress his wounds, long enough for tears to give way to silence and the quiet business at hand. Finally, his mother had wiped the blood from his face. She caressed his pallid brow, placed the last shroud upon his head, and kissed him through the veil.

There was evening and there was morning, and evening and morning. The third day.

The cold air of night lingered inside the tomb, and the ground was cool to the touch. All was still, but for the movement of a beetle, and so silent that its footsteps could be heard as it skittered across the wall.

Then in that silence, a breath.

Light filled the cave like lightning, and for a moment cast a deep, black shadow beneath the feet of the beetle.

The lungs which had sat silent since Friday resumed their interrupted rhythm of rising and falling. The man sat up on one elbow as the white cloths fell gently from his body. He took a deep draught of crisp, cold air, and smiled. The scent of the cave delighted him, especially the scent of myrrh emanating from his burial shroud. He stood, and he seemed to be clothed in robes made of light itself. He turned and looked at the burial cloths. He smiled again, noticing the faint imprint his form and that flash of light had left on them. The shrouds were wrinkled from the absence of his body, and he remembered something his mother had told him about making his bed. He folded them neatly and placed them on the stone shelf. The blossoms which had adorned the edges he arranged in an impromptu bouquet. The beetle came to inspect them. He held out his finger and the bug crawled on, and he surveyed the beetle as the beetle surveyed his scars. The marks, which had seemed so horrible only an hour before, practically glowed now with beauty.

He set the beetle back down, turned to the sealed mouth of the cave, and walked through it.

His face welcomed the sun, and his eyes took in every bright colour of the garden. Each leaf seemed to be the purest idea of the colour green. Each flowering blossom’s morning dew shone with the glow of a newborn. Even the ground beneath his feet seemed to blush with the ruddy warmth of a new mother. The world was alive, re-created, resurrected.

And as he walked from the tomb, in the cool of the morning, the stone rolled back from the crevice of its own accord, and the sun stole into the cave like the dawn of the first day of creation. And he looked, and saw that it was very good.

Beards In Action: We Really Did It!

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One January day a few months ago, I said to my friend and fellow YWAM worker Chris, “I’ve been thinking… What if we hosted an outreach team from the Bearded Gospel Men community?”  “Let’s do it!” said Chris (who immediately began to let his beard grow). We had a specific week we’d need to slot it into, and it would be short notice to pull a team together, but we figured if we even got just a few guys out, it would be worth it.

So I put out the call (and kept harping on you guys!), and two friends came out to join us: Jacob Johnson from Portland (aka Beard Central) and Josh Seehorn from Athens, Georgia. We spent a week together serving people from the low-income and street community here in Modesto, and in a word, it was awesome. There are so many stories to tell from this time, and over the next couple of weeks you’ll hear some of them. For now, suffice to say that it was extremely cool to see new relationships form between our volunteers, us, and the people we serve.

Although we called it the ‘Beards In Action’ week, we wanted to let this week be focused not just on the actions of serving, but on making those actions opportunities to engage people in relationship, to get to know their stories and who they are. It’s a very good thing to serve people, but real change comes to both parties when we get to know one another. And that’s what has been great to see this past week. 

It was cool to see Josh, who just completed running and hiking across the entire country, engage people wherever he went. He loves meeting folks and beginning conversations, and his openness and friendliness with people was great to see. It was also a true blessing to see Jacob’s warmth and gentleness with each person he met and in each situation in which he served. Both of these Bearded Gospel Men are awesome guys, and it’s been a pleasure getting to know them.

I also want to give some thanks to someone who was not able to join us, but  who was present nonetheless.  Doug at CanYouHandlebar (www.canyouhandlebar.com) graciously sent us the gift of several of his excellent products, along with a whole bunch of his Wisdom and Initiative Beard Oils to give to bearded friends we met along the way. It was so cool to be able to tell a friend who wouldn’t ordinarily be able to have the luxury of something like beard oil about my friend back in Michigan who wanted to send along his greetings and a gift. I think in particular of our new friend “Grizzly”, who is currently homeless. When I gave him some oil, he got the biggest smile on his face and said, “Wow, man. You really made my day!” So thanks for that, Doug!

We were able to partner with several ministries throughout the week, and you should go check them out. Advancing Vibrant Communities (www.vibrantcommunities.org), The Vine House (www.lovemodesto.com/less-fortunate/vine-house-ministries), and Love Modesto (www.lovemodesto.com) are all doing truly inspiring things in our city, and it was a pleasure to work alongside each one of them. I’d encourage you to find out what may be happening in your own city, and see if there are some opportunities to serve.

And of course, I couldn’t talk about the Bearded Gospel Men ‘Beards In Action’ week without mentioning the Third Annual Northern California Beard and Mustache Competition! This was a fun night (even if it did go a bit long, with too few chairs!) of celebrating all things beardy, and meeting some really interesting people. Josh and I both entered the competition, and although our beards are big, there were beards even more impressive than ours! But we had a good time with each other and the people we met, and that’s really what it’s all about.

So what began as a little idea to get a couple guys together from the BGM community turned out, in the end, to be even better than I could have hoped. Which of course means you should stay tuned and be ready for the Second Annual Bearded Gospel Men ‘Beards In Action’ week next year!

 

Beards and Burritos: The Plan Comes Together.

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Do you long for action? Excitement? Burritos?

Well get ready, cuz here it comes! The Bearded Gospel Men “Beards In Action” outreach experience is happening!

You may have read last week’s blog entry about the idea for this project, and I’m happy to say that things are starting to come together for this unique outreach experience. We have set the dates of the trip for Sunday, March 30th through Sunday, April 6, 2014.

If you’re hearing about this trip for the first time, let me bring you up to speed. The BGM ‘Beards In Action’ trip will be a one-week trip focused on outreach to the street community of Modesto, California. It will be hosted by Youth With A Mission (YWAM) Modesto (this is who I work for when I’m not creating funny pictures of beards). YWAM Modesto is focused on reaching out to, and building relationships with, the poor and homeless. We’ve hosted dozens of teams over the years, and participants have often told us that this was one of their favourite outreach experiences ever.

So what will this week look like?

Because we’re focused on building friendships, your outreach experience will be oriented toward creating meaningful points of contact with people. We create these opportunities in a variety of ways. We usually begin the week with a good ol’ fashioned cookout on Ninth Street, where much of our ministry as YWAM Modesto happens (For an extremely cute description of our ‘Ninth Street Café by my friend Chris’s little girl, click here!).  This is a fun, relaxed way of connecting with people, and I can honestly tell you that some of the relationships that began with an outreach team hosting a Ninth Street cookout have been long-lasting and truly life-changing, for both team members and residents of Ninth Street.

Throughout the first half of the week, we begin to get to know specific people from the street community, and as the team gets to know their stories and their needs, we provide opportunities in the latter part of the week to re-connect and serve them in practical ways. This looks a little different with each team, and is often a chance for the team to get creative in how the team can serve. In the past this has included repairing a disabled man’s trailer and its dilapidated roof, working on someone’s car, or simply treating someone to a “day out” who would otherwise have no means of taking break from the street.

We also make sure you get to experience some of the cool things that our part of California has to offer. This may be a day trip at the end of the week into San Francisco, or Yosemite National Park. Whatever it is, it’s always a fun day spent together.

Of course, because this is a Bearded Gospel Men trip, we have to make ‘Beard Life’ part of the experience! On Saturday, April 5, we’ll be attending a beard competition in Sacramento! This is sure to be a fun night, and you will have the option of entering the competition yourself and representing the Bearded Gospel Men team!

Of course there’s another crucial element that will be a big part of this week, which will be experienced each day of the outreach. This part of the trip is what previous teams have dubbed “The Modesto Food Tour”. This involves places like Modesto’s unique Taco Truck Row and its world famous burritos (For more on these burritos, click here!) We will do our best to help you gain at least five pounds on this trip! (That’s the YWAM Modesto Weight-Gain Guarantee®!)

As for the cost of the trip, we will be looking at various ways of fundraising in order to lower the cost for each participant. At this point however, with no extra fundraising, the cost is only $340 per person for the full week. This includes two “in” meals a day, an “out” meal each day, accommodations, ministry supplies, fuel and other expenses. There’s just no better value for your buck!

We are aiming for at least 5 participants, and we’ll be capping the team at 10. So far we have two confirmed participants, including the inimitable beardsman and cross-country hiker Mr. Josh Seehorn.

If any of this tickles your beard, or if you have any questions, please drop me a line at beardedgospelmen@gmail.com. Remember, your beard longs for two things: adventure and burritos. The BGM Beards In Action Outreach experience will bring you both!

 

(To donate toward the trip, click here:

https://www.paypal.com/cgi-bin/webscr?cmd=_s-xclick&hosted_button_id=7USJFAFL2U5J6)

Good King Wenceslaus and the True Meaning of Boxing Day

by Aaron Alford

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Much has been made in the media about this supposed “War on Boxing Day,” and it’s time someone addressed it!

Okay.  No one has mentioned anything at all about a war on Boxing Day, and most people in the United States have never even heard of it. Still, I feel we need to be reminded of just what the true meaning of this oft-neglected kid-brother of Christmas really is. Let’s keep the box in Boxing Day!

If you haven’t heard of it, Boxing Day is celebrated in Britain and Canada (The Proprietor’s home and native land) and most Commonwealth countries.  For us Canadians, Boxing Day is kind of like the Canadian Black Friday.  (However, Canadian retailers started doing Black Friday sales a couple of years ago, too, so I suppose it’s kind of like Black Friday II: Electric Boogaloo.) It’s the day for big sales and super deals on all your electronic/useless crap needs.  But this wasn’t always the case. Boxing Day used to have much more meaning than that.

Boxing Day has its origins in a practice that used to take place in Britain, in which employers of servants and other tradesmen would give gifts to their employees, often in the form of a box full of presents and bonuses for them to take to their families. The name may also refer to a box traditionally placed at the back of a church on Christmas day to collect offerings for the poor.  In either case, these gifts for servants and for the poor were given on the day immediately following Christmas, which also happens to be the feast day of the first martyr of the Christian Church: Saint Stephen.

And here’s where Good Duke Wenceslaus comes in.

Yes that’s right, “Duke”.

Wenceslaus, you see, was a Bohemian Duke who lived in the early 10th century.  He was a good man, a Gospel man if you will, who was famous for his Christian devotion and especially for his charity to the poor.

A chronicler of Wenceslaus’ life wrote this about him:

“But his deeds I think you know better than I could tell you…. (N)o one doubts that, rising every night from his noble bed, with bare feet and only one chamberlain, he went around to God’s 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 the father of all the wretched.”

Unfortunately, not everyone around the young duke was such a fan, and his own brother conspired against him. He was assassinated at about the age of 30.

These stories and legends about Wenceslaus endured, however. So renowned was he for his love and compassion that his example gave rise to the medieval concept of the “rex justus” or “righteous king”.  It was Emperor Otto the First who later conferred on Wenceslaus the title of “king”, several years after Wenceslaus’ death. These stories later inspired Anglican priest and hymn writer John Mason Neale to write what is technically not a Christmas carol, but a St. Stephen’s Day hymn in 1853.

You’re familiar with the tale he tells, in which the Good King looks out on the snow covered land on “the Feast of Stephen”, or Boxing Day.  When he sees a peasant gathering wood, he sets out to bring the poor man a feast of choice meat and fine wine.  His servant travels with him, but in the blustering cold and wind, the servant becomes faint.  He finds his strength, however, when Wenceslaus tells him to walk in his footsteps in the snow.  The ground itself seems to warm with the footprints of the saint.

And here we come to the true meaning of Boxing Day.

On Christmas day, we celebrate the birth of the eternal and omnipotent God taking flesh and becoming an utterly helpless child. On St. Stephen’s Day, we remember the first martyr of the Church Christ founded. It is interesting to note that young Stephen was himself a deacon of the Church, and his primary role involved distributing the goods of the Church to widows and orphans. It would seem that the day after Christmas was meant to be a day to, in one way or another, remember the poor and the “least of these”. We see that in the examples of Stephen and Wenceslaus. Just as the Christ Child forsook the riches of heaven to bless us, we are reminded to forsake our own riches to bless those around us. As we walk in the footprints of saints such as these, who themselves tried to follow the footsteps of Christ, we find warmth in the ground on which they trod.

So maybe it’s time to reclaim the righteous origins of Boxing Day.  Where are the poor among you?  Who is facing difficulty today? Who is facing hardship in “gathering winter fuel”?  Perhaps we can find a box of blessing for them, and, like Wenceslaus the righteous king, we may ourselves find blessing.

*Special thanks to my friend Sam Tweedle for the title and inspiration behind this piece!