Oswald - A Model For Political Leaders

This week-end northern Bishops hit rivers, streets and churches in a mission to people who live in the shadow of  England's Northern saints. Archbishop John Sentamu will baptise people in the river Glen and celebrate at St. Aidan's Church Bamburgh, where Oswald, King and Martyr, was based. Recently I preached there on Saint Oswald's Day. Here are some extracts:

Oswald spent the first twelve  years of his life here, running on the beach, riding across the fields, wrestling inside the fortress, playing with his elder half brother Eanfred, and with his sister and five brothers from their mother Acha, learning the arts of a Saxon  ruler, talking with his mum,  perhaps fearful of his Dad, King Ethelfrith, who was so frequently away on his long marches, massacring monks and killing warriors of  kingdoms he betrayed rather than befriended,  as far away as the Welsh Marches.

 And then at that seminal age of twelve his father was killed, and replaced by Acha’s brother Edwin, who, determined to secure his dynasty, would have killed Ethelfrith’s heirs. And so the whole family fled. But where could they find sanctuary in those cruel and bloodthirsty Saxon kingdoms?  They fled north to the Christian Irish, who had colonized an area we now know as Argyll and the Isles, which they called Dalriada. Its headquarters was, like Bamburgh,  on another Rock, Dunadd (near today’s Kilmartin).

 Perhaps the most influential people in this kingdom were the monks who had a base at Iona, but who doubtless also served the king’s spiritual needs at Dunadd.  They made some kind of treaty. Dunadd’s king gave them free accommodation and fosterage: they served as his warriors. There they became disciples of Christ.  Some brothers were more nominal than others. Oswald fell truly in love with Christ. He rose early in the morning. Showing great trust, for no Saxon warrior would let his hand move far from the hilt of his sword, he prayed, child-like, with the palms of his hands open to heaven.

 Dr. Frank Lake taught us to think of a four-legged wooden chair as an image of adolescent formation.  A chair that is properly put together has the four legs of trust, autonomy, initiative, and industry; it has identity as its seat, and intimacy as its back rest.  If it is not properly put together the chair collapses when weight is put upon it. It seems Oswald had good mentors among those Christian brothers and courtiers and grew in wholeness.

 When the two kings of northern and southern Northumbria were slain, one of whom was his elder half brother, and Northumbria became blood-soaked killing fields, Oswald sought to defeat the invading tyrant and reclaim his rightful throne. He came with a small number of warriors, and monks, the prayer warriors, and with faith in Christ the Saviour of the world,  to confront his invading opponent, who had far greater forces, at a place near the wall built by the Roman Emperor Hadrian. At Iona he had been enthralled by stories of its founder, the saint Columba, anointing a king in the name of Christ, and sending bad-doers packing with prophetic prayers telling how they would reap what they had sown. The night before the battle he dreamed that Columba came to him and said ‘You will win this battle for it is in a just cause’.  He raised high a wooden cross and  asked his warriors to kneel in prayer. Then he shouted: ‘Let us all kneel and pray for the almighty, ever-living and true God to defend us in his mercy from the proud and fierce enemy, for he knows ours is a just cause for the preservation of our people.' And so they won against all odds. 

Churchill said ‘In defeat, defiance: in victory magnanimity’ Oswald was magnanimous, The first thing he did to express his gratitude, and his vision that his kingdom should be God’s kingdom, was to re-name that field Heaven’s Field, and to plant that large cross in the ground. Innumerable miracles of healing followed, transmitted through fragments or moss from the  cross.

Oswald invited Iona to send a mission to convert his people to the ways of Christ. The first failed, but the second, under Aidan, became one of the most fruitful missions in the history of Christianity. When I was writing my novel, Aidan of Lindisfarne: Irish flame warms a new world I walked to the top of Bamburgh rock and imagined I was Aidan standing beside Oswald. They surveyed the large swathes of top quality agricultural land. ‘Choose which area you want for your base’ said Oswald. But somehow, nothing had that divine click to it. So eventually Aidan looked behind them to the sea. In the distance he saw a high promontory. What is that he asked?  He learned it was a tidal island, and chose that for his monastic mission base.  Oswald sent workers to erect huts, and so Lindisfarne became a holy isle, where perhaps the first school for English boys was established.

 Oswald had the humility accept Aidan’s refusal of his offer of a horse. And to walk beside him acting as his translator for the period of Aidan’s induction in the English language.

 Oswald was the first English ruler to appoint an officer to look after the needs of the poor. At an Easter Day banquet at Bamburgh, when he, Aidan and other guests were enjoying rich food on silver plates, his officer for the poor announced that many hungry people were begging outside. Oswald ordered that their own food be taken to them, and that even the silver plates be broken up and the silver distributed to them. Aidan was deeply moved. It is thought this is the origin of the English monarch giving silver coins to deserving people at a cathedral on Maundy Thursday each year.

We are a royal priesthood: as Oswald raised his hands to bless and give to the poor, so let us raise our hands to bless the needy.

 Oswald’s reign was short but God-inspired, bold, energetic and civilising. He fought decisive battles, but he made more alliances. He made an alliance with the West Saxons, and was sponsor of its King at his baptism.

Kingdoms speaking four different languages, British, Pictish, Irish and Anglo- Saxon, were linked together for the first time under his influence. He provided breathing space  for perhaps the most significant mission to the English people ever to get under way. He became the Bretwalder, the first among equals of all the English kings.

 On August 5 642 Oswald was slain in battle near Oswestry, and his arm was severed from his hand. But on that occasion when he had given his silver and food to the poor, Aidan, prophetically had raised the arm and said it would never perish. A warrior stole back to the battle field and brought that arm back here.

 Following the Viking raids Oswald’s head was placed alongside St. Cuthbert in the travelling shrine. The monks walked to so many places with that holy shrine, for they knew that the church is a pilgrim church and that the inspiration of their saints can make holy any place.

 Oswald’s personal influence continued after his death. The Life of Oswald caught the imagination of peoples of Europe who were looking for models of God-inspired leaders, and many churches in the European Union are dedicated to him. In German-speaking lands, legends and romantic stories were written about him, rather like the fables written  about Arthur in Britain and France, and these became vehicles of high ideals of love and chivalry. Fiction such as the twelfth-century Regensburg poems, portrayed Oswald as wanting his future bride to be both intimate and equal in all respects, and climbing always to a higher plane. These stories retained attributes of the real Oswald such as his reliance on God’s help when confronting enemies, his charity to the poor, and his zeal to win pagan youth to Christ.

 Oswald’s aunt Osthryth, queen of Mercia,  sought to move the bones of her uncle about 679  to Bardney Abbey. However, when the body was brought to the Abbey the monks refused to accept it, because the Abbey was in the Kingdom of Lindsey, which Oswald had conquered. The relics were locked outside, but during the night a beam of light appeared and shone from his bier reaching up into the heavens. The monks declared that it was a miracle and accepted the body, hanging the King's Purple and Gold banner over the tomb.

 A  boy dying of plague, along with some of the monks in  Bardney monastery had a vision in the night. St Oswald assured him that God would take him peacefully to the bliss of heaven, and that no more monks would die of plague. This came to pass.  Let us consecrate our sleep to the God of the night visions.

 The monks are  said to have removed the great doors to the Abbey so that never again would Oswald’s shrine be excluded.  So if someone said "do you come from Bardney?", it meant that you had left the door open. Could that be God’s message to us, too?  Leave the door of our hearts open. For you never know what God will do.






Posted at 07:37am on 31st August 2018
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