Sermon given at Matins on on the feast of the Translation of St Edward the Confessor 2013
13 October 2013 at 10:00 am
The Venerable Dr Jane Hedges, Canon in Residence
Twice each weekday when this Abbey is buzzing with tourists and visitors we offer prayers in the Shrine of St Edward the Confessor just up here behind the High Altar, and those visiting at that time are invited to join in. The prayers are in the form of a litany which gives thanks for St Edward’s life and then asks his prayers for the Church, The Queen and royal family, for the nations of the world, for the sick needy and the departed.
Many people respond to this invitation and as they come for prayers in that sacred space they are following in the footsteps of millions of pilgrims who have knelt and prayed at the Shrine of St Edward over the last 700 years.
It is the vision of the Dean and Chapter here to turn our visitors into pilgrims and during this month of October in my sermons at Matins I’m exploring what it means to be a pilgrim.
Last week we looked briefly at the history of pilgrimage and what it is that draws people to “Holy Places”.
On the last Sunday of the month as we approach All Saints Day we’ll take a look at some of the other major pilgrimage sites in Britain, at the saints associated with them and the inspiration they can offer to us in the twenty first century.
Today though on the Feast Day of the Translation of St Edward the Confessor I want us to look at the significance of his life and witness to Christ and why his Shrine plays such an important part in our day to day lives here at the Abbey.
Before I came to Westminster Abbey I knew very little about Edward because unlike some of the other kings and queens of England such as Henry VIII, Elizabeth I or Queen Victoria he was neither notorious nor regarded in popular thinking, as particularly outstanding.
However, around a hundred years after his death he was canonised ~ declared a saint ~ by Pope Alexander III in the year 1161; that tells us that in many ways his life was special, so let’s look briefly at what happened during his lifetime and what led others to honour him after his death.
Edward grew up during a very unsettled period of English history. He was born in 1005 when many parts of the land were being invaded by the Vikings and so when he was just a young boy his mother sent him across the Channel to Normandy to be cared for by his uncle. So Edward spent his formative years in France and was much influenced by the culture and traditions there.
In 1041 Edward was invited back to England by the Anglo-Saxon nobility and crowned king in Winchester in 1043.
On the whole his reign was a peaceful one, but having said that, his authority was fragile.
So although he had made a pledge that if he ever gained the crown of England he would make a pilgrimage to the tomb of St Peter in Rome to give thanks to God and pay homage to the Pope, he knew that if he did so he might well come back to find his position usurped.
The Pope therefore released him from his pledge on condition that he would build a church and dedicate at to St Peter. This is what he did. A great church in the Romanesque style was built right here and was completed in 1065 just before Edward’s death.
Building it opposite his great palace of Westminster began the close and important relationship between the crown and this Abbey.
The completion of his Abbey in the eleventh century was an important achievement in itself, but what else led to him being canonised?
When Edward died on 5th January 1066 he was originally buried in front of the high altar of his Abbey ~ the round stone in the centre of the Cosmati Pavement marks the spot. Soon his grave was being visited by pilgrims who reported miracles of healing and stories spread about the blind receiving their sight after coming to pray here.
There are also accounts though of great acts of charity during Edward’s lifetime ~ he’s said on one occasion to have given his large and precious gold ring to a poor beggar, in doing so, taking to heart the teaching of Jesus that whatever we do for a person in need we do for him.
Edward was also inclined to have visions of the future while he was at prayer. On the other side of the High Altar screen is a fifteenth-century frieze depicting fourteen scenes from Edwards’s life. One of these relates to a vision Edward had while he was attending Mass. He saw a Viking king, preparing to invade England but falling into the sea as he was climbing aboard his ship. At the end of the Mass Edward discovered that the Viking king had indeed drowned at the exact time he’d experienced his vision.
So Edward became associated with miracles, with acts of compassion and charity, he was known to be a devout follower of Christ and a peacemaker who truly cared for his subjects and as such he became an inspiration to future kings and indeed was Patron Saint of England until 1348 when he was replaced by St George.
It was in the previous century though that Henry III, one of his most devoted followers; in honour of St Edward, had this Abbey rebuilt as we see it today. In 1269, on this day, 13th October, he had Edward’s body translated into a magnificent new Shrine.
We are incredibly privileged to have his shrine still at the heart of this Abbey ~ it is unique, as it’s the only shrine in England to still contain the full body of the saint. Over the years, millions of pilgrims have knelt in its niches as they’ve asked the prayers of Edward for themselves and their loved ones.
There is plenty of evidence of their activity as over the years they have picked the shrine almost clean of its precious mosaic and warn down the stone with their knees.
Almost without exception all those who come to the Shrine today experience something special and many are moved to tears as they pray there.
But what is it that moves people in this way? I suspect that for most people they sense something which they find very difficult to put into words. However, for those who do express their thoughts, two things in particular emerge.
The first is that as they come to a historic site such as this, they are aware of walking in the footsteps of people of faith down through the centuries ~ of joining a great human chain of prayer. It is both humbling and empowering for people to be caught up in this atmosphere, where there is a palpable sense of the presence of God.
Then secondly as prayers are offered to the saint himself, pilgrims are reminded that they are part of a vast communion of people from the past and in the present, sharing the common purpose of being Christ’s disciples. Their experience breaks down the barrier between this life and the next. As we stand or kneel at the Shrine of Edward we can ask for his prayers in much the same way as we ask the prayers of our friends around us now.
On this day then, when we honour St Edward, giving thanks to God for his earthly pilgrimage and his place amongst the saints; let us each give thanks that in our pilgrimage we are not alone as we make our journey through life, but that we walk in the footsteps of countless others of faith, and have the prayers and encouragement of the great communion of saints who have gone before us.