On 1st November each year, we celebrate the feast of “All Saints”. We might perhaps, when we hear the term, instinctively picture a stained glass window in a cathedral portraying a substantial crowd wearing halos and gazing up longingly into heaven. But what does the word “saint” really mean?
According to the New Testament every Christian is a saint. As he concludes the second of his letters to the church in Corinth, Paul brings them greetings from “all the saints”, clearly referring to the whole church. The word “saint” denotes someone who is “holy” or “set apart” by God, and Paul understood that because of the death and resurrection of Jesus, all Christians have been “made holy”: not because they are intrinsically better than other people (as in the dreaded phrase “holier than thou”) but because Jesus has washed their sins away and made them clean (something symbolised in the waters of baptism).
However, over twenty centuries of Christian history, there have been a number of truly exceptional Christian people whose lives stand out as an example and inspiration for all those who follow Christ. Norbury Church is dedicated to “Saint Thomas” who began his career as the doubter but went on with great courage to found the “Mar Thoma Church” in India – reminding us surprisingly, perhaps, that Christianity in India has a much longer history than it does in Britain!
The Church’s calendar recognises these inspirational people as “Saints” (with a capital “S”) giving them an annual “feast day” on which to remember them and thank God for their lives. St Thomas’s Day is on 3rd July (it isn’t a coincidence that Norbury Church was consecrated on 2nd July 1834). This month, on 16th November, we remember St Margaret of Scotland. Those readers who have visited Edinburgh Castle will have been into St Margaret’s Chapel, its oldest building (and in fact the oldest building in Edinburgh) which dates from the 12th century, having probably been built by her fourth son David and dedicated to her.
Margaret was born in 1046 and was directly descended from King Alfred. A substantial part of her early life was spent in exile and she received much of her education in Hungary. She was just twenty when Duke William of Normandy invaded England successfully, a disaster for the Saxon nobility to which Margaret belonged. Cutting rather a long story short, she eventually found refuge in Scotland, married the king (Malcolm III) and had eight children.
Margaret’s life was one of prayer and service. A cave on the banks of Tower Burn in Dunfermline (which today, despite being 86 steps below a municipal car park, can still be visited) was her special place of devotion and she would often spend entire nights there in prayer. She was deeply generous and gave daily gifts of food, money and clothing to the poor and destitute. She was conspicuous in her care for refugees from England who were fleeing from the Norman conquerors; many of them found their way to Dunfermline (where she and Malcolm held court) precisely because of her reputation for almsgiving. Margaret’s faith was austere and it was partly as a result of her constant fasting that her health became fragile. She died at the age of 47 soon after hearing of the death of her husband and eldest son in battle.
In somewhat stark contrast to her life of prayer and piety, her husband Malcolm spent a great deal of his time fighting the Norman invaders (greatly to the detriment of the people of Northumbria who were caught up in the middle of it all). It’s a sharp reminder of the fact that the world in which Margaret lived was often violent and life was for many nasty, brutish and short. However, she stands out as a person of compassion, generosity and Christian devotion. Her austere spirituality may not provide us with an exact blueprint for our devotional lives (although the fact that she took prayer very seriously should be a challenge to us); even so, her abundant acts of kindness and generosity evidently touched many lives and still resonate in Scotland today, where numerous churches are dedicated to her.
There is an echo here of the lovely biblical story of Ruth which took place, we are told, “In the days when the judges ruled”. That particular era was marked by considerable lawlessness and brutality; yet the beautiful story of Ruth tells us that human love, seen in the care and compassion of Boaz, was alive and well. This love, of course, is a reflection of the love of God which we see mostly clearly in the face of Jesus Christ.
This month, we remember other times of conflict and the sacrifice of the many millions who died in two world wars and in subsequent hostilities. We do so with a deep longing in our hearts for the world to be at peace. This elusive peace was something that Margaret worked and prayed for all those centuries ago.
So let’s remember Saint Margaret on her feast day and, in particular, how her faith, humanity and compassion for others weren’t destroyed by the conflict-strewn age she lived in. Saints help us to see life from a different place; we remember them as people who not only “talked the talk” but also “walked the walk”. For Margaret, life was about living for others rather than for herself. What a wonderful example for us to follow! Why not put a note in your diary for 16th November “remember St Margaret” as a prompt to spend a moment thanking God for her example and asking him to inspire us to share his generous love as she did.