Sermon at Evensong on the Feast of the Translation of St Edward the Confessor 2019

The warrior and the saint, on the same axis, West and East

The Reverend Dr James Hawkey Canon in Residence

Sunday, 13th October 2019 at 3.00 PM

At his burial service, a guard of honour was formed by 100 holders of the Victoria Cross; a military guard stood at the spot whilst thousands of mourners filed slowly past; the grave was filled with sandbags of earth from his original resting place, the battlefields of northern France. I speak not, of course, of St Edward, but rather of the Unknown Warrior, perhaps the most famous burial here in Westminster Abbey at the far West End of the Church, just by the Great West Door. Brought here in 1920, his grave became a site of pilgrimage for all those who had lost loved ones during the Great War of 1914-18, and remains a kind of icon of Remembrance for people from all over the world. It is a reminder of the heroism of self-sacrifice, but also with its blood red poppies, of the cruel futility of war – a feature of our fallen world which almost trips us up as we enter this holy place, marked by the body of that single individual, whose name and identity is known only to God.

Today’s remembrance is, of course, focussed on another re-burial, that of St Edward whose mortal remains rest behind the Altar at the very site designed to house them at the centre of Henry III’s church. Unlike the Warrior, he is not buried in the floor, rather his body is raised up, as a sentinel around which are clustered monarchs and their consorts.

This holy place, where thousands are buried and memorialised – which contains the “memorials of many generations”, as Dean Armitage Robinson put it – a site of both Church and State, a witness to so much of our nation’s varied history, has these two poles. At the west, a man slain in war, a life perhaps simultaneously stolen and laid down, and at the east a pious king who died after a relatively long if often tumultuous reign, who was soon recognised as an exemplar of royal holiness.

The warrior and the saint, on the same axis, West and East. As we entered the Abbey this afternoon, we passed that permanent reminder of the darkness that fallen humanity is capable of imposing. But as we moved through the Church we were drawn Eastwards, away from the violence and pain that human beings so frequently inflict upon another, and into worship, in which we glimpse a future of sanctity, rest and fulfilment, as together we join in prayer and praise. The presence of St Edward encourages us on, and reminds us of the relationship and dignity for which we were made.

For some, it may seem strange to speak of human remains in this way, except that if Christianity is good news about anything, it has to be good news about real life and real death. It is not a religion of escapism, promoting reincarnation or a future life which is solely spiritual. Our faith is not a mystery cult, in which all the soul needs to do is somehow escape from the prison of the body. Rather our physicality, our bodily self, is fundamental to how we perceive the mystery of faith. We learn the faith in our minds and memories, we draw inspiration from our senses and our imagination, we encounter the rhythm of our Christian life in our bones, muscles and sinews. Our life will be a Christian life if it cashes out in what we do, think, say. The late-second century Church Father Tertullian described the flesh as “the hinge of our salvation”[1] and although the life of the world to come is surely much more than the resuscitation of our corpse, our humanity is in no way incidental to our life in eternity. The presence of so many burials in this and every church remind us that although “in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive,” as the inscription on the Warrior’s gravestone insists.  In Christ’s incarnation, God’s becoming truly human, human flesh itself became shot-through with the promise of resurrection. His was the birth which “lifts earth to heaven, stoops heaven to earth”, as the 17th century poet Richard Crashaw put it.

So we move from the warrior to the saint. We know that our progress in sanctity is not always strictly linear. We grow, surely, but during that growth we stumble, re-group, re-assess. But from the moment of our baptism, we are metaphorically drawn towards the East, our eyes raised towards Jerusalem, a pilgrimage imaged in the architecture of this and so many church buildings. We are encouraged, attracted even, by the beauty of holiness, as we are inspired by those who have gone before us, whom we believe participate in the perfect worship of heaven now whilst the whole church awaits the final consummation of creation at the end of time.

It’s this vision which St John the Divine lays before us in the Book of Revelation: the river of the water of life flowing from the throne, with trees which have fruit and leaves for healing. Earlier in the Bible, in the prophecy of Ezekiel, there is a similar vision upon which St John clearly draws. But there are several differences. In Ezekiel’s vision the river comes from the Temple. In the vision of Revelation, there is no Temple, for the New Jerusalem itself is the temple, which needs no light or sun, as the Lord is its light. Secondly, John adds two words to explain the leaves which are for healing. He tells us, they are for the healing “of the nations.” Who are these “nations”? Do they include the powers which, we are told elsewhere in scripture, have been disobedient to God’s reign? Very probably. Here we have a universal vision of healing and restoration. Paradise regained, as the fruits of God’s harvest are gathered in, and conflicts healed.

St Edward encourages us towards that world, the new Jerusalem, which lies ahead of us to the East. This will be the final realisation of the unity of the human race, of which the Church is the sacrament: the sign and servant of the coming Kingdom. What will be raised up is an incorruptible body, but a body which will just as much be ours as these bodies, for nothing will be wasted in the great ecosystem of Christ’s victory.

This great Church, consecrated 750 years ago is a national Shrine, certainly; but it is not built around a flag or a debating chamber, rather it is a site of worship initially built around a body. This is a site which is able to deal with national memory, in its complexity and grief, because it tells the truth about the human person, fallible and fragile, capable of great violence, yet made for glory and renewal. The Shrine of St Edward stands as a silent reminder to us all of the reality of mortality and judgement, yet his holy remains are a silent and insistent witness to the hope that is set before us.

Before Edward was a king, he was a disciple. And he encourages us to lift our heads high, and look towards the East.

[1] Tertulluian, de Res. 8, 2: PL2, 852