A Sermon for Sunday: St. Edmund/Sunday before Advent; Revd Fr Robert Wilson PhD

Archbishop Jerome Lloyd OSJVPosted by

St. Edmund/Sunday before Advent

Today we celebrate the feast of St. Edmund, as well as commemorating the Sunday before Advent. St. Edmund was king of the East Angles from 855 until his death on this day in 869. Little is known about his reign. Tradition has it that he was a good king, but he is mainly remembered for the character of his death. Defeated by the Danes at or near Hoxne in Suffolk, he was captured and martyred. Tradition has it that, due to his refusal to renounce the Christian faith, he was tortured, shot to death with arrows and afterwards beheaded. Some accounts say that he was buried first at Hellesdon in Norfolk, and then later transferred to Beadoriceworth (later called Bury St. Edmund’s).  This subsequently became an important Christian centre, and place of pilgrimage. The evidence suggests that a popular cult developed very quickly after his death, and coins were issued in his name before the end of the ninth century. In the middle ages Bury St. Edmund’s became one of the most important towns in England. St. Edmund was England’s patron saint for many centuries after his death, before St. George was adopted as the national saint under the influence of the crusaders. Hence, though little is known about his life, the manner of his death made him one of England’s most important saints.

It is important to realise that, at the time of St. Edmund, England had not yet attained political unity. The country was made up of various tribal kingdoms such as Wessex, Mercia, Kent, East Anglia and Northumberland. These kingdoms had been formed by pagan Saxon invaders from Germany who had conquered England after the Roman legions had withdrawn at the beginning of the fifth century. The pagan tribal kings were gradually converted to Christianity in a joint enterprise partly from Rome and partly from Ireland. Hence, England achieved religious unity before it obtained political unity. The Venerable Bede could write the history of the English people because they shared a common Christian faith, even though the country was divided into different kingdoms. This political disunity made England vulnerable to attack, and this was fully exploited by the pagan Danes. Unlike the English the Vikings were still pagan and sought to obliterate Christianity from areas of the country that they occupied. It is probable that the reason why so little is known about the life of St. Edmund is because the pagan Vikings destroyed the evidence after defeating and killing him. The Vikings took over the north of England and also (after defeating and killing St. Edmund) East Anglia. Only the kingdom of Wessex, under King Alfred, held out against the Danes. But it was the kingdom of Wessex that emerged victorious in the end, defeating the Danes and finally establishing political unity in England. The Danes were converted to Christianity, as the English had been before them. Another area that the Vikings had captured and occupied was Normandy in northern France, and it was in the eleventh century that the Dukes of Normandy would themselves become Kings of England. Thus, it was not only the Saxon invaders from Germany, but also the Viking invaders from Scandinavia who played a critical role in shaping both the religious and political development of England.

But, surely, we might say, this was all in the past and has no relevance now to our country today? On the contrary it is very relevant, not simply because it is important that we know the history of our own country, but also because we seem to be returning to the same tribalism that the conversion of our nation to Christianity replaced. There is a strong tension between those who define themselves as nationalists and those who define themselves as cosmopolitans. The political nationalist sees the country as a home to which people either belong or do not belong. Outsiders can sometimes be welcomed, but they remain outsiders and there is an underlying sense that their outside status means that they do not really belong. By contrast, the cosmopolitan sees the country as more like a hotel in which different people occupy different rooms, but there is no sense that one group really belongs more than the other. Nationalism is seen as the major course of violence and conflict and the solution is to say that no one really belongs. But the underlying problem with this worldview is that most people want to belong somewhere rather than no where. Cosmopolitanism can itself become just another form of tribalism, for cosmopolitans can often be very contemptuous of non- cosmopolitans.

How can this conflict between nationalists and cosmopolitans be resolved? If we are to take the Bible seriously as our starting point a different picture emerges than either nationalism or cosmopolitanism. The Israelites were defined by their covenant with God. They were a mixed multitude of many tribes, yet Moses welded them into a unity because they all, high and low, rich and poor were bound to the covenant. They subsequently conquered a land and had a monarchy and temple like other nations, but what ultimately united them as a people was their covenant with God. They were judged according to their faithfulness to the covenant. That is why they were able to survive the loss of that land, monarchy and temple, because they were a people that “dwelleth alone, that shall not be numbered among nations”. Their identity was derived from their covenant with God.

The prophet Jeremiah looked forward to a time when a new covenant, in which sins would be forgiven, would be written on the hearts of men. The first Christians believed that this new covenant was sealed through the blood of Christ, his saving death and resurrection. The new covenant people of God, the Body of Christ, are those who have been baptised into Christ, and they are from every tribe, nation and tongue. Their life is sustained by the sacrament of the Eucharist. In this life, they will continue to render to Caesar the things that belong to Caesar, for they will belong to an earthly society, whether it is nationalist or cosmopolitan, but their ultimate commonwealth is in heaven, as they await the Saviour’s second coming and that new heaven and new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness.

The peoples of these islands come from many different tribes, but what ultimately defined them was their adherence to this faith. The English were united as one people by their faith before they obtained political unity. The same could be said of the nations of Scotland, Ireland and Wales, with their clan structures before they obtained political unity as nations. What ultimately gave them their distinct identity was the Christian faith.

If the peoples of these islands are to find a way forward out of the current crisis, it will not come from either nationalism or cosmopolitanism but from the Christian faith. Let us pray that we will follow in the footsteps of those who have gone before us and build up the Church in our land in our own time and place.

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