St Edmund’s Day

The embroidered image of St Edmund on the chasuble the Abbot will wear at Mass today.

Slowly I am emerging from a nasty dose of ‘flu. Appropriately my first full, if woozy, day back on deck will be that of the Solemnity of our patron at Douai Abbey, St Edmund, King and Martyr. Two years back I posted something on the good young king. For this year’s feast, falling as it does in the Year of Faith, one element of the story of St Edmund’s passion is worthy of particular note. It comes from Abbo’s Life of St Edmund:

Eventually it happened that the Danes came with a ship-army, harrying and slaying widely throughout the land, as is their custom… Soon afterwards he [ie Ivar, the Danes’ chieftan] sent to King Edmund a threatening message, that Edmund should submit to his allegiance, if he cared for his life. The messenger came to King Edmund and boldly announced Ivar’s message: “Ivar, our king, bold and victorious on sea and on land, has dominion over many peoples, and has now come to this country with his army to take up winter-quarters with his men. He commands that you share your hidden gold-hordes and your ancestral possessions with him straight away, and that you become his vassal-king, if you want to stay alive, since you now do not have the forces to resist him.”

Then said King Edmund, since he was completely brave: “This I heartily wish and desire, that I not be the only survivor after my beloved thegns are slain in their beds with their children and wives by these pirates. It was never my way to flee. I would rather die for my country if I need to. Almighty God knows that I will never turn from worship of Him, nor from love of His truth. If I die, I live.”

After these words he turned to the messenger who Ivar had sent him, and, undaunted, said to him: “In truth you deserve to be slain now, but I will not defile my clean hands with your vile blood, because I follow Christ who so instructed us by his example; and I happily will be slain by you if God so ordain it. Go now quickly and tell your fierce lord: ‘Never in this life will Edmund submit to Ivar the heathen warlord, unless he submit first to the belief in the Saviour Christ which exists in this country.'”

King Edmund, against whom Ivar advanced, stood inside his hall, and mindful of the Saviour, threw out his weapons. He wanted to match the example of Christ, who forbade Peter to win the cruel Jews with weapons…

Young St Edmund seemingly had two choices: to submit to bondage to the heathen Danes and so preserve the earthly lives of his Christian people (perhaps! – the Danes were not foremost in keeping their word), or to resist against overwhelming odds in the hope of winning a pyrrhic victory for honour and Christian liberty at the cost of his peoples’ lives.

The king however found a third way.  It was an evangelizing way. He would witness to faith in Christ first by imitating His non-violence, and secondly by offering to submit to Ivar if Ivar would submit in his turn to Christ. A masterstroke: a non-violent way of upholding the primacy of faith in Christ. The fault then became doubly that of Ivar: he not only slaughtered an innocent and unarmed man, but did so explicitly rejecting Christ. In the midst of his cruelties Ivar was offered the chance to repent and believe the Gospel. St Edmund set before him life and death, and Ivar chose death; not merely the physical death of St Edmund, but his own spiritual death.

The boss of St Edmund in the roof vaulting of Douai Abbey church.

In the modern context St Edmund’s example is a reminder that Christ comes first, not least Christ crucified: whoever would follow Christ must, at some stage at least, carry the Cross with Him. No Cross, no glory. St Edmund’s death is a reminder too that non-violence is most truly the Christian response. This is not to reject the morality of self-defence. Yet in a gun-saturated world obsessed with retaliation in the face of wrong, the only certain way of ending the cycle of violence is for one party finally to repent of violence, even to the point of death. How much of Himself would Christ see in the gun-toting, gun-loving minority of Christians in the USA?

Which brings us to the last lesson of St Edmund’s passion and death: that physical life must yield in importance to spiritual life, and that our sufferings now are as nothing compared to the glory that awaits those who stand firm in Christ. St Paul puts it better:

The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.
(Romans 8:16-18 ESV)

Happy feast!

St Edmund, King and Martyr – pray for us.

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