Sunday before Advent 2004:
Christ the King; Saint Edmund, King and Martyr
What do these three people have in common? Margaret Hassan; St. Edmund; Jesus?
- Since mid-October, when Margaret Hassan was abducted in Iraq, people around the world were hoping that she would somehow escape death. We saw her pleading for her life; how could anyone fail to see what a good person she was, how much she had given to the people of Iraq. Surely even her kidnappers would realise this, and find a way of releasing her? Surely traditional Muslim respect for women would safeguard her against violence?
But it wasn’t to be. None of these things, in the end, were to save her. Maybe it was the American assault on Fallujah which made her captors decide they could not keep her alive any longer – we will probably never know. But we are left with the sense of outrage that not even the fact that she had devoted so many years to charitable work for the people of Iraq, and not even the fact that she was married to an Iraqi, and had become a Muslim – were to make any difference to her fate.
- Let’s turn now to the second of the three people I mentioned earlier: Saint Edmund – whose feast day was yesterday. St. Edmund is not one of the more well-known saints. He was born in 841 and became king of East Anglia at a young age. He was known for being a wise and good king – the earliest account we have of his life says that “he was not proud or arrogant, but was kind to poor people and widows, just like a father. He guided his people always towards what was right, restrained those who were cruel, and lived happily in the true Christian faith.” This was the time when the Vikings were making more and more frequent attacks on the people of England. In 869, a force of Vikings under the chieftains Ivar, known as “the boneless”, and his brother Ubbi, prepared to attack East Anglia. Ivar sent a messenger to King Edmund, telling him that he must surrender to him and hand over his lands. King Edmund, however, sent the messenger back to Ivar with the words, “Never in this life will I surrender to Ivar the heathen war-leader, unless he submit first to the belief in the Saviour Christ which exists in this country.” Ivar then told his men to search for King Edmund and to seize him. When they found him, the King threw aside his weapons, wanting to follow the example of Christ, who did not resist his enemies. Ivar’s men tied him to a tree, whipped him, and then shot spears at him, as if it was a game, until he was entirely covered with their missiles. Then they beheaded him.
King Edmund’s act of self-sacrifice, together with the belief that miracles came to be associated with his grave, resulted in him being made a saint. Eventually St. Edmundsbury cathedral, at Bury St. Edmund’s, was built in his honour, and many churches around the country were named after him – including our own, at Fenny Bentley.
You are probably beginning to see the connection between the three people I mentioned at the beginning of this sermon. The third person, you will remember, was Jesus. It may seem strange that as we approach Advent, today’s gospel reading is about Jesus’ crucifixion. But the choice is deliberate. For today, in the Church’s calendar, is the feast day of Christ the King. Christ the King is a relatively new feast. It was introduced in 1925 by Pope Pius XI, as an antidote to what he saw as the destructive forces of the world – such as the Bolshevik revolution in Russia in 1917, the rise of fascism in Italy in the 1920s, and the rampant materialism of the so-called ‘roaring twenties’. The feast of Christ the King reminds us that the kingship of Christ is not like that of an earthly king or ruler. God’s power is not like earthly power. Jesus’ kingship is spiritual rather than earthly: indeed Jesus specifically chose to avoid the temptations of ruling like an earthly king, as we see in the story of the temptations in the wilderness.
So is the answer to my opening question clearer now? What is it that connects Margaret Hassan, Saint Edmund, and Jesus? All of them were faced with some of the worst examples of earthly power. But all of them steadfastly continued to do what they believed was right, and refused to compromise even in the face of fearsome opposition. Margaret Hassan could have left Iraq while there was still time, but she preferred to keep working for the people who needed her. King Edmund could have surrendered to the Vikings, and put his own safety before his Christian ideals. Jesus could have asked his heavenly Father to send a legion of angels to take him down from the cross.
Someone said to me last week that King Edmund should have fought the Vikings instead of becoming a martyr. Someone else said they wondered what the point of Margaret Hassan’s death was, when she might have been able to do more good by withdrawing to safety and coming back when the situation was more peaceful. But this is to think as the world thinks, not as God wants us to think. If Jesus had masterminded an uprising against the Romans, instead of going to his death on the cross, he would have been just another failed revolutionary. If King Edmund and his armies had tried to resist the Vikings, history would see him as just another vanquished regional ruler from the Dark Ages.
We cannot say how Margaret Hassan will be regarded in generations to come. But we can say that through the ages the hearts of millions have been inspired and given new courage by the self-sacrifice of Jesus and of saints like Saint Edmund. We ourselves may not be called to go so far as dying for our faith or for our principles. But the three people whose lives and deaths we have thought about today remind us that we don’t have to go along passively with the majority in the things that we do during our lives. For sometimes the better path is the more costly one. So let us pray that God will give us the resolve to make that choice, and to bear that cross, when these are presented to us.
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