July 16, 2021
Categorised in: Sermons
The Legend and Life of St Swithun
There are many contexts in which to interpret scripture. Till recently our sights have been fixed on the pandemic – how can we behave and believe in the wake of that? But having been immersed in summer sports for the last few weeks, maybe there’s something for us to learn from this context, as Jesus offers us his easy yoke under which to grow in wisdom, this St Swithun’s Day.
We all know that Swithun is a shadowy historical figure, a secular cleric whose name and bones were used by Bishop Aethelwold to reform the Church in Winchester. Those who want to find out about him as an individual who died 863, the ninth century, will be disappointed. They will find accounts written a century later, designed to promote Aethelwold’s 10th century monastic foundation, which ironically involved the expulsion of secular clerics just like Swithun from the then cathedral, Old Minster. We know far less about the historical Swithun than we do about the historical Jesus.
This is where the football, cricket and tennis come in. Sportsmen and women have their stories and, thanks to social media, we know them in fine detail. Their relationship with their grannies and their pets is endlessly fascinating click-bait. But what is much more important than their factual lives is what these individuals represent. Firstly of course, their country, which is why many Scots, though sad about Andy Murray were just delighted for Italy.
Sportspeople also represent their society. Though I believe that Mr Rashford may not quite have sneaked in his pen, he still has an MBE for his services to vulnerable young children during the pandemic. He shows us the best of British. Indeed, the England team mirrors to us the diversity that I believe a majority are coming to value and celebrate more and more over the whole of the United Kingdom, despite the poisonous comments of a minority.
It’s because individuals represent wider bodies that their lives are written up beyond the facts. They become the mirror of our present values, and if they can’t be, then they are shattered, as we have seen rather graphically illustrated in the case of the slaver Edward Colston.
But today I want to concentrate of the positives of this process. Swithun’s reputation was burnished because he was taken to exemplify the virtues of the new monastic community. His prestigious burial place between the west front of Old Minster and the bell tower became in
the 10th century PR a place of humble repose, on which the rain could fall and over which his brethren could tread. Swithun became a figure of aspiration, deserving of greater honour inside the Minster, and housed in a magnificent new reliquary given by King Edgar himself.
We take legend to mean un-factual, but legends often reflect our profoundest hopes and values. If they adhere around a historical figure, that figure still has something to teach about what we might aspire to today. And who better that the supposed tutor of King Alfred to remind us of the importance of the pursuit of wisdom?
Jesus says, ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’
Matthew is presenting Jesus here as the teacher of wisdom, in fact, the embodiment of wisdom, so that obedience to Jesus, taking the yoke of Jesus, receiving all that Jesus has to offer in person, is the way to a deep refreshment of spirit and the easing of our burdens.
There’s talk in the Church of England about growing humbler, simpler and deeper, and I’m all for it provided that these words to not become another cunning plan to achieve growth. Growing humbler, simpler, deeper means doing less of the stuff that stems from the anxiety of institutional death. Frankly, Anxious Church deserves to die, as it’s the enemy of the fulness of life promised by Jesus.
It’s OK to be fearful, but Humbler Church lets faith into our quaking hearts and cautious communities. It involves admitting our fear and receiving the easy yoke of Jesus, learning our wisdom from him.
Swithun the tutor, Swithun the bridge-builder, Swithun the defender of the widow, Swithun the gentle and humble bishop, remind us that wisdom in each of us will bear fruit in many different directions. If you can manage to do the right thing on the hoof, the good thing on the hop and the vital thing on the stretch, then you are wise indeed.
But godly wisdom does not come cheap: Swithun stands for everyone who answers Christ’s invitation to come to him. The invitation is inclusive in the sense that it extends freely to all the weary and heavy laden – all we
need is our basic human limitation. But it’s exclusive in the sense that the yoke really does need taking.
If we never take the yoke, we shall never be like Swithun, we shall never be wise or free from anxiety. The invitation is not compulsory and there are plenty who make their excuses and, as Matthew’s later parable has it, leave the tables at the wedding banquet unfilled.
But for us, the weary and heavy laden who have responded, there is an ease to be discovered, over a lifetime and even beyond a lifetime; because the most essential thing about saints is not what they once did on earth but what they do now in heaven, among the communion of all God’s people and in the presence and power of Jesus Christ, their resurrection.
There’s much more attested to Swithun after his death than in his life. His relics, before their sad dispersal in the 16th Century, were well attested for their sacramental healing power.
And if you put any Protestant, critical scruples aside, what this witness is saying is that wisdom can pitch her tent in us to such an extent that his life can dwell in our souls and bodies and we can know God in wisdom.
Remember St Benedict’s prayer begins, ‘Give us wisdom to perceive you’ – not give us the wisdom to look around for you rather than not bother looking around, but give us the wisdom by which we shall perceive you as you are, as you give and reveal yourself to us, so that we can grow in kinship with you as we grow in wisdom.
Swithun’s cult grew after his death, but so evidently did Christ working in and through him in the communion of all God’s saints, as prayers to him were answered.
So today let’s think less of Swithun-in-history and more of Swithun-in-heaven and how all God saints show us that if we come to Christ and take his yoke upon us, then the future is not simply an easing and resting of our earthly burdens but a raising of our whole selves into God through Christ, in service and adoration – which is the abandonment of individualism and the beginnings of a grounded and gracious common life and an ever-deepening, everlasting communion with Him; to whom be the praise and glory, now and forever. Amen.