Homily for the Feast of St. Edmund-the-Martyr
Friday, November 20th, 2009
Convent of the Sisters of St. John the Divine
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: 2 Kings 23.21-25, 29-30a
A Story of Three Kings --
--not the three kings we normally think about in Epiphanytide, but rather three kings from different times and places, but all united under the banner of faithfulness and self-offering.
The First king – Josiah
Following a period of faithlessness, turmoil and confusion, a new king arises, a faithful king, one that we are told loves the Lord with all his heart, soul and might. One who returns to the Law of the Lord. We are told that in his time, the Passover is celebrated again for the first time in many years. The portion of the text we do not read today reminds us that the Lord’s wrath was still kindled against Judah for its sins. Our text then picks up again and we then learn that Josiah perishes in a battle with the Egyptians. His servants carry him back in a chariot, the throne of a great king, to be buried in Jerusalem amidst great honour. In a time of turmoil, faithlessness and broken humanity, the Lord raised up a faithful king, unlike any before or since, we are told, to be a sign to his people. The image of Josiah is a powerful one, an image appropriated throughout the ages of the faithful monarch who reforms a broken society. Diarmaid MacCulloch, a historian of sixteenth century Church History suggests that the boy king, Edward VI, was a new Josiah, bringing restoring true religion and piety to his people.
The Second King – The Christ
Then comes another king, the King of Kings, upon whom so much expectation is placed. As we approach the eve of the celebration of his reign, of his enthronement as king of kings and lord of lords, we are constantly called to remember that his throne is a cross and his crown a crown of thorns. He rides not on a warrior’s chariot, but on a lowly donkey; his birthplace is not a palace but a stable; his followers not a courtly retinue, but a rag-tag band of itinerants who have chosen unemployment over the honour of riches. Yet in this king’s reign, restoration is accomplished – restoration and reconciliation, the very heart of true religion. Faithfulness and self-offering, not the grasping of power and authority are the things that transform a broken world. He is incarnation of faithfulness and self-offering that Josiah could only embody in “type” and “sign”. The Christ is the fulfillment of the type and sign of faithful Josiah.
The Third King – Edmund the Martyr
In 870 in East Anglia, we meet our third king, Edmund, whose feast day we celebrate today. Should we seek the details of horrific and sensational death we shall find them in Edmund’s martyrdom – tied to a tree, scourged, pierced with an arrow, and finally decapitated by Viking marauders. The cause of his martyrdom was simple – he refused to renounce his faith and his fealty to his Lord and master. He would have been allowed to live had he renounced his faith and ruled as a vassal king to Viking overlords. Yet, Edmund knew that he could only serve one Lord and master, and it wasn’t the Vikings. Consider his death – scourged, tied to a tree, his body pierced. He took up his cross indeed and followed in the footsteps of his Lord and King. Another legend tells us that he was decapitated and his head thrown into the woods. His followers began looking for the head and calling out to it, “Father, where are you!?” To which the lost head beckoned back, “I am here, my sons!” They searched and searched and followed the voice until it was found under the watchful eye of a starving wolf. The wolf had not eaten the head but had protected it. Edmund’s followers retrieved the head and reunited it with the body. The wolf, sent by God, disappeared again into the forest. Edmund was buried in the place that is now known as Bury St. Edmunds. We are told that one hundred years later Edmund was exhumed and his head had reattached to his body with only a thin red line on his neck to indicate his martyrdom. His skin and flesh were soft and pure as the driven snow.
In his wonderful book, Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination, Peter Ackroyd speaks about the literature of this period (in particular Beowulf, but certainly this could be applied to such legends as that of Edmund) as an act of the historical imagination. Surely such stories of Edmund, rooted in the fact of his martyrdom speak to the more profound realities of faithfulness and self-offering, and the yet more profound reality of resurrection. I would venture to say that in the gift of imagination, God grants us the ability to deepen the understanding of our eyes of faith but what was true about Edmund was not simply that he followed in the footsteps of his Lord and Master amidst the reality of a brutal, broken world, but the reality that though his body was brutalized his spirit could not be destroyed. The metaphor of pure soft skin and a re-attached head speak to the spiritual reality that violence, anger, brutality and hate cannot destroy us. Death will not and never shall have dominion over us. This is what the Reign of Christ means to us. The sting of death has been swallowed up in the faithfulness and self-offering of Love Divine.
c. 2009 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves