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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Saturday, 4 August 2018

St Oswald: the king who shared his bread

In today’s gospel the crowd does what crowds always do: follow the leader who promises bread.  Jesus has just fed them with the five barley loaves and two fish.  Now they follow him across the lake, still hungry and expectant.  The appetite of crowds is never satiated.  ‘Amen I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs but because you ate your fill of the loaves’.  In the unfolding of Jesus’ awareness of his vocation, this is a milestone.  Last week’s gospel reading told us how, after the distribution of the loaves, Jesus realised that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, so ‘he withdrew again to the mountain by himself’.  Later when Jesus has taught how he is the living bread from heaven, John says: ‘many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him’.  Crowds are fickle barometers of favour.  From popular acclaim to the loneliness of ridicule and contempt is a short journey. When the thousands have vanished and only the disciples are left Jesus faces them and himself with an awful truth.  ‘Did not I choose you the twelve? Yet one of you is a devil.’  The shadow of betrayal is felt.  This king has come to die.

The king who gives bread and dies for his people is celebrated in one of the saints of this place whose feast falls on Wednesday.  The king who feeds the poor is how Bede lovingly depicts St Oswald.  One Easter Day, he and Bishop Aidan sat down to feast.  ‘A silver dish was placed on the table before him, full of rich foods.  They had just raised their hands to ask a blessing on the bread when there came in an officer of the king, whose duty it was to relieve the needy, telling him that a very great multitude of poor people from every district were sitting in the precincts and asking alms of the king.  He at once ordered the dainties which had been set up in front of him to be carried to the poor, the dish to be broken up, and the pieces divided amongst them.  The bishop, who was sitting by… grasped him by the right hand and said: ‘May this hand never decay’.  In a thirteenth century missal there is a charming image of Oswald’s charity.  Under the table where he and Aidan are sitting are two poor men crouching like dogs, pathetically lifting up their hands to catch the crumbs falling from their masters’ table.  Oswald holds the precious vessel he is about to break up, a symbol, perhaps, of how he will give up his own life. On the table are bowls with loaves and fishes.  The meaning is plain: Oswald is like Jesus.  He gives bread to the hungry.  He gives himself to his own. 

I wonder if Oswald is the neglected saint of Durham.  His head had been interred with the relics of St Cuthbert and carried brought to Durham with the Lindisfarne Gospels by Cuthbert’s community, finally to be laid to rest in the shrine behind the high altar.  There in the feretory there is a thirteenth century statue of Cuthbert.  He has lost his own head in some violent act of the Reformation or civil war.  But he has kept Oswald’s head, which he holds in his left hand, which is how Cuthbert is often portrayed in medieval iconography.  Once there would have been a statue of Oswald, like Cuthbert, flanking Blessed Mary in the central, most prominent niches of the Neville Screen above the high altar.  You can see him in stained glass, in Thetis Blacker’s striking banner in the feretory and, maybe, in a wall-painting in the Galilee Chapel.  Of all our saints, Oswald is the one whose relics appear all over Europe as a true catholic martyr.  Given his vital role in the unification and Christianisation of Northumbria, and therefore the Christianisation of England, he deserves our recognition. 

What do we know about him?  He was not the first Christian king of Northumbria: that honour belongs to Edwin.  But it was he who decisively led his nation into embracing the gospel.  He had been exiled on Iona as a young man and had been baptised there.  After Edwin’s death, he inherited a weak and divided kingdom threatened by native British rulers.  Famously, Oswald set up a cross at the place we now call Heavenfield, above the Tyne near Hexham, and ordered his soldiers to pray for victory against the British king Cadwallon.  This established both Oswald’s kingship and his faith.  From Iona he summoned Irish missionaries to preach the gospel in his kingdom, from where Aidan came and founded his monastery on Lindisfarne as the base for the Northumbrian mission.  Oswald often travelled with Aidan on his journeys, translating the message into English, caring for the poor and building up the church.  He was both parent and midwife of a project that changed the face of England. He died in battle in 642 at the hand of the pagan king Penda of Mercia, ‘slain by the heathen fighting for his fatherland’ says Bede, not just for Northumbria but for a kingdom not of this world. 

Oswald is a potent model of the Christian statesman.  Bede portrays him as the ideal king, a new David who unites his kingdom against the threats it faces, establishes a secure capital, promotes religion, dispenses justice, cares for the least of his people as well as the greatest, and finally gives himself up for their sake.  The synergy between the two cities, sacred and the profane, church and state, is symbolised by the geography of the sites associated with the Northumbrian royal court.  Oswald’s capital at Bamburgh and Aidan’s monastery on Holy Island were within sight of each other.  It was a reminder to this world’s ruler of his divine call and accountability: ‘knowing whose minister he is and whose authority he hath’ as the Prayer Book puts it.  For Bede, the politics of God and of mortals serve the same end, that justice, truth and peace should be established in the nation.  He is saying something that we may not always welcome: that God works through institutions as well as individuals.  This is why we have organised religion embedded in the structures of society, part of the glue that holds it together. 

If Aidan is a model of mission, Cuthbert of sanctity and Bede of wisdom, Oswald is an inspiring image of leadership.  No doubt public life today is infinitely more complex than the 7th century, but that does not mean it is more exacting or difficult.  Yesterday I led a pilgrimage of Cathedral Friends to the wondrous Saxon cross at Bewcastle deep in the Cumbrian fells.  The church is dedicated to Cuthbert, so perhaps Cuthbert’s body and Oswald’s head rested there on their long journey.  The cross dates from Cuthbert’s time, the generation after Oswald.  You can see a replica of it in the Cathedral dormitory.  As I gazed at the intricate knot-work chequers and vine scrolls on the shaft, I thought about complexity and order. It’s as if the artist is saying: this world is puzzling and chaotic.  How do we chart our voyage across it?  And how, in particular, does any leader negotiate the hazards of public life in the face of difficulty and threat?  The answer is: by going to the source of pattern and order, God the Creator and Saviour of the world, and by emulating this ordered life in how we live out our humanity.  And given that this is a churchyard cross, it is also saying to us: the clue if self-giving, service, sacrifice.  

I have been reading a remarkable new book called Good Value: reflections on money, morality and an uncertain world.  Its author, Stephen Green, is Chairman of HSBC.  He is writing about globalisation and the question the economic crisis is putting to us.  We can assume that in his role, to negotiate the economic, political and societal challenges of today is a daunting assignment.  But he is not only an economist but an ordained Anglican priest.  He is not afraid to speak about what is demanded of us in these difficult times, how we need to live according to wise, ethical and humane values that are not simply based on than the impersonal market forces of price and profit.  He is keen on altruism and on doing something for posterity instead of falling for the Faustian bargain of selling our soul for the pursuit of gain.  He calls for a style of leadership ‘whose essence is not psychological dominance, but which seeks to share itself, to set an example, to instil the instinct of leadership in others, and thus to serve the common endeavour…. Seen as domination, leadership impoverishes both the leader and the led; seen as service… it enriches both, and is more enduringly effective.’   He might have been writing of Oswald sharing bread, giving himself for the people.  Bede would certainly have approved. Our leaders should be paying attention.  So should we.    

Durham Cathedral, 2 August 2009 (John 6.24-35)