A mediaeval illumination depicting the death of Edmund
In my series this month’s Saint is a very strange one. Almost nothing is known of Edmund. He is thought to be of East Anglian origin. His kingdom was devastated by the Vikings, who destroyed any contemporary evidence of his reign. As history dislikes nothing more than a lack of facts fictitious accounts of his life were written, and it was said that Edmund was the son of an obscure East Anglian ruler whom he succeeded as king when he was fourteen. In the large number of stories around his origins it was even alleged in some legends that Edmund was born at Nuremberg. Having been born and grown up in this town, it is even stranger that I have never consciously encountered his name or his story.
By tradition Edmund was tortured and killed after he refused the Danes' demand that he renounce Christ. The Danes beat him, shot him with arrows and beheaded him – in this order. Look at the picture at the top: doesn’t that remind you a bit of a hedgehog pinned to a tree? The story emerged that a wolf played security officer and shielded his severed head. When his casket was opened a long time after his death it was found that the arrow wounds were healed, the head reconnected to the shoulders, and the flesh quite fresh. Though this legend sounds rather weird and unbelievable, this story was the starting point for a popular cult of revering Edmund as a holy man. During the Middle Ages St. Edmund was regarded as the patron saint of England, and even in our time he still holds a number of patronages, one of which is ‘Patron Saint of Kings.’
Of course this is a rather abbreviated version of St. Edmund the King’s life story, but there are a few points that really jumped out at me when I looked at his significance.
There are similarities with Jesus here. Firstly, no one knows for certain who Edmund’s father was. The Holy Spirit is a bit far-fetched in this case, but his pedigree is obscure nevertheless. Then he was pinned to a tree, not by nails but by the arrows the Danes pierced him with. To make it even more exciting there is also the fact – and this is one – that St. Edmund is the Patron Saint of Kings. Of course he is not The King of Kings, but as their patron he still has a kind of overseer position. The story is also told that St. Edmund was a very just and kind king, and so he may mirror in a small way what the Kingdom of God could be like.
Other similarities also spring to mind. As he is assumed to be the youngest son of his father this reminds me of Edward the Confessor, who apparently was also a boy king. But there are even more striking parallels in the Old Testament. When Nathan goes to find the one God has chosen to become king over Israel it is not the oldest son, which would be in keeping with tradition, but the youngest who is anointed. He even had to be called in from sheep keeping business because no one expected him to be in the running. The story of Jacob and Esau in Genesis is also well known: how God permitted Esau to be tricked out of the rights and privileges of an older son.
You may ask why I have told you all this and what this has to do with our life today. For one there are the similarities between leading figures in the Bible, which makes me wonder if the stories around and about St. Edmund are not a reminder that in God’s kingdom all the known values of the world are turned on their head. As I am not British I am not quite familiar with the exact number of kings in the lineage of Queen Elizabeth II, but as I recall there are a lot, and in the world this is important. It speaks of status and privilege. Then there is age. Traditionally it is still the oldest son who inherits real estate or the larger sum of a family’s possessions, but in the Kingdom of Heaven our human rules are useless because God usually turns them upside down.
Since we approach the short season we call Kingdom tide it may be worth reflecting on what this means in the twenty first century where usually any monarchs remaining do not hold absolute power anymore. For me it also raises issues about power structures in the Church and in the corporate world, not to mention education and media. I leave it to you to take that idea further. If a king is someone who rules a country by birthright, as the Oxford Dictionary states, then who rules us? Who, or what, dominates what is going on in our lives? Do we allow work to take over; do we let our physical hunger rule what we do? What is our motivation for our daily occupations – or the lack of them? Do we dress or live according to the standards the media show us or do we develop our own?
The Kingdom of Heaven, according to Marcus J. Borg, is not some place or time in the distant future, but he thinks that Jesus wanted us to see it as something to be achieved and enjoyed right here in the present*. What does that mean? How is it possible?
Faith, Love and Charity are often seen as the marks of Christian living. Christ knew that his interpretation of the Law was quite radical, but he taught it anyway. He also knew that if anyone called him a ruler, in the religious or political sense, his life was in great danger. This did not stop him from caring for the people at the margins of society, nor was he deterred from challenging the religious leaders to put their explanation of the law into a more humane context.
The courage of Jesus is the most striking sign of leadership, and so we have a king crowned with the thorns of suffering to remind us that being authentic and living true to personal convictions never come easy. We yearn for a future when the world becomes a more just place, where people are honest, kind and loving and Christ reigns. How about finding one small action and begin now?
*Marcus J. Borg, Meeting Jesus in Mark, SPCK, 2011.