When anything extraordinary happens, whether good or bad, and the media turn up to interview local people about it, you can guarantee that someone will say that “you don’t expect things like that to happen around here…” We are always somehow surprised when a local person becomes an international sporting success or film star. We are just as surprised when some dreadful crime is found to have been committed by someone who lives around the corner from us. We just don’t expect it to happen in our own backyard. That is equally true of the saints that populate Christian history. We’re not surprised to find saints in Rome or Canterbury, but we probably don’t think that the place where we live is likely to grow saints of its own. In our case, though, if that’s what we think, we’d be wrong. Just down the road in Kemsing is the place where one of the most famous saints of the Anglo-Saxon church was born and grew up. Since Kemsing and Seal were one parish until 1874, I think that means we can claim her as ours too…
She is known as St Edith of Wilton, since she ended up at Wilton Abbey, but this is the place where her early faith was formed. There was a very significant shrine dedicated to her in Kemsing in the Middle Ages. It was a stopping-off point on the pilgrimage route to Canterbury. The sacred well dedicated to her is still there, of course, by the Post Office. It was known as a place of healing, particularly for diseases of the eye – I don’t suggest you try it now… The Reformation stamped out many of the traditions associated with such shrines, but Edith has never been forgotten – our local girl made good.
It’s hard to be sure of all the historical details of her story; it has been much embroidered over time, but we do know that she was the daughter of an Anglo-Saxon king, known as Edgar the Peaceable. The name makes him sound like a fine upstanding chap, but actually he was anything but. He was only called Peaceable because there were no major wars during his reign. In fact he was a bit of a lad. As a young man of about 18, having come to the throne a couple of years earlier, Edgar took a fancy to a noblewoman called Wilfrida. She was living in what was effectively a boarding school attached to the abbey at Wilton, schooled by the nuns there. Depending on which version of the story you prefer he either eloped with her or abducted her – it probably doesn’t make much difference though, since I doubt she had much choice in the matter. Having made off with her, though, he installed her in a royal residence which happened to be in Kemsing. There was no chance he would marry her; she wasn’t important enough for the dynastic marriage he would need to make. But that didn’t seem to bother him. Very soon she was expecting his child, and Edith was born in 961. Mother and daughter stayed at Kemsing through Edith’s childhood, but eventually Wilfrida managed to persuade Edgar to let them both return to the abbey at Wilton , where they both became nuns – Wilfrida was eventually abbess there.
Edith soon gained a reputation for her goodness and piety, and evidently made a deep impression on those who knew her. Legend says that Edgar wanted her to become abbess of some other important convent, so he could spread his family’s influence around a bit, but that she refused. She wasn’t going to be used as a political pawn. Sadly she died very young at about 23, but very soon there were moves to have her declared a saint. Dunstan, the archbishop of Canterbury was all for it. But by this time Edgar had died too, and King Canute was on the throne, and the story goes that he was much more sceptical about this young woman’s sanctity. He had known her father, Edgar, and knew the kind of life he’d led – Wilfrida wasn’t the only woman he had had his wicked way with – he had at least one other illegitimate child. Canute declared that he couldn’t imagine that any child of Edgar could ever be holy enough to be a saint. To settle the argument he ordered that Edith’s body be dug up, since it was believed at the time that if you were a saint your corpse would be preserved intact.
Down they dug into the grave until they came to Edith’s body. Miraculously it did indeed look as fresh as the day it was buried. Canute leant into the grave to get a better look, at which point, says the story, Edith sat up, punched him on the nose and then lay down again. Canute got the message!
So that’s our local saint .
The last part of the story might not be true…but I think it says something about Edith which probably was. This was a woman who had been born in circumstances that were far from ideal, the unplanned result of what was probably a rape, but Wilfrida had no chance of making a good marriage after this. It’s a good job she evidently felt a call to convent life, because if she hadn’t it is hard to know what else she could have done.
It would have been easy for Wilfrida and Edith to have been consumed with bitterness, but they weren’t. They decided not to let their past dictate their future – our history doesn’t have to fix our destiny. Instead they found within the difficulties of their lives real and living faith in God which enabled them to serve others and make a difference to the world around them. They chose to make their own lives, and what lives they made. Wilfrida was also made a saint eventually.
The truth is that those who we call saints are often people who at the time would have seemed to those around them unlucky, awkward, cursed rather than blessed, people with no obvious success or attractiveness to recommend them. Jesus’ words to his disciples in today’s Gospel reading sum that up. The disciples had seen the crowds flock to Jesus, needy people, battered people, “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” as the Bible puts it. I can just imagine the disciples rolling their eyes and tutting as yet another leper, yet another woman hysterical with grief because her child was ill, yet another man whose life had gone off the rails, yet another prostitute stretched forward their grubby hands to try to touch him. What was the point of helping these people? What use would they be to God’s mission? Surely the chaos of their lives was proof that God wanted nothing to do with them? Surely they should be written off, as people were probably inclined to write off Wilfrida and Edith.
But Jesus takes his disciples aside and calmly, cooly overturns all those unspoken thoughts in the words we now call the beatitudes. Blessed are the poor in spirit, he says, the meek, the mournful, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Blessed are those who don’t play the power games of the world – the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, those persecuted for righteousness’ sake. In them God is doing a holy thing, he says. In them, the kingdom is at work. The rewards he talks about aren’t some arbitrary prize they are given after death. They grow out of the situations they face. When we are poor in spirit we don’t have the security that comes from wealth and status, but that means we value much more the loving support of others and the loving support of God. It is impossible to be comforted unless we truly mourn. Being hungry and thirsty for righteousness, knowing we need it, is the first step on the road to justice and peace. Jesus knew the truth of this because this was his experience.
In John’s Gospel he says “I am the Way – no one comes to the Father but by me”. Being a Christian isn’t a matter simply of praying the right prayers or believing the right things; it is about following a way, the way that Jesus walked before us, which led through the squalor, hardship and shame of the cross. Yet in that suffering, not despite it, hope was born. Our first reading, from the book of Revelation echoes that truth. It starts out sounding like a fairly standard image of an earthly court rank on rank of loyal subjects, waving palms and cheering, a glorious throne surrounded by triumphal music. But who is on the throne? The sacrificial Lamb, that symbol of the crucified, humiliated, powerless Christ.
Our natural sense is that when things are falling to pieces around uswe must be doing something wrong, but God doesn’t see it that way. That is the message of Jesus’ beatitudes, and the message of his life too. When Wilfrida found herself pregnant, unmarried, ripped away from her own family down the road in Kemsing, I doubt whether she felt blessed. When Edith was growing up, illegitimate, dependant on the whim of a father who might or might not support her, I doubt whether she felt blessed either. And yet they discovered the blessing of God in their vulnerability. It taught them things they couldn’t have learned any other way. And that meant they could become blessings to others.
“Beloved” says the letter of John, “We are God’s children now”. Now when we are in a mess. Now when our lives have gone awry. Now when our plans seem to be backfiring. “We are God’s children now” he says, but then he goes on, “what we will be has not yet been revealed.” History doesn’t have to determine destiny. The things that have happened to us, the things we have done, are not the last word. God has that word, and whatever it is, it will be a word of love.
So let’s thank God for our local saints, for Wilfrida and Edith. Their lives remind us that the things that seem like the end of the world can, in fact be a new beginning. Others may think we will never amount to anything. We might think that others will never amount to anything. But God sees us all as his beloved children, heirs of his kingdom, and if we can see that too we are truly blessed.