Homily for the 900th Anniversary of the Martyrdom of St Magnus

‘I tell you most solemnly, unless a grain of wheat falls on the ground and dies, it remains only a single grain; but if it dies, it yields a rich harvest.’

Christ’s words could not be more to the point. This was the Gospel reading that would have been sung at the medieval Mass and Office for St Magnus developed in this very cathedral. It is given for the two annual feasts of his martyrdom and translation in the Aberdeen Breviary of 1510, Scotland’s first full-scale printed book. And it brings our pilgrimage to its climax. Yesterday, some of us were on the island of Egilsay, the scene of his martyrdom in 1117, others were at Birsay where he was buried until some twenty years later his remains were transferred, first to the church of St Olav in Kirkwall, and then to this cathedral. And how this image of the single seed becoming a multiple harvest fits this extraordinary place, built to honour God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and his servant, Magnus Erlendsson, Earl of Orkney! Here is this sign of Orkney’s 12thc. Renaissance, the creation of St Rognvald and his father and the masons of Durham, the ‘light in the North’, a wonder of red and yellow sandstone, of multi-coloured Romanesque. Here is a first fruit of Magnus’ magnanimous deed; or, we might say, the barn where the first reapings could be gathered.

At this highpoint of our pilgrimage, I would like to reflect on the ‘harvest’ of St Magnus: on what has sprung and still springs from his Christ-like act on Egilsay nine centuries ago.

George Mackay Brown called the martyrdom of Magnus ‘the most precious event in Orkney’s history’. Ernest Marwick wrote: ‘It was an unheard-of thing for a man of such proud and honoured birth to choose to die as Magnus did.’ And he quotes a Norwegian writer, Alf Högh: ‘The manner of his death is not only the high point of the Orkneyinga Saga, it is entirely unparalleled in Norwegian history. Earl Magnus was a child of his age, a saint before his time, and by his life and death a living witness to Christianity’s power to transform mankind’ (E.W.Marwick, An Orkney Anthology, Vol. 1, pp. 389-390). Under Christian influence, Viking culture was already beginning to change. The terrible, wasting raids were losing their appeal. Magnus helped the process on decisively. To quote Mackay Brown again, ‘he was the first Orkney man of rank to take the new religion seriously.’ We do not associate the Scandinavians of today with axe-wielding horror (at least outside their crime novels!), but with peace-making, peacekeeping, with the Nobel Prize, with the Raoul Wallenbergs and Dag Hammarsjkolds of this world, with gestures like the Oslo Accord. Is it too much to say that when St Magnus refused to fight the Welsh ‘because he had no quarrel with any man there’, and when, some years later, he bowed to the axe that he was drawing out the poison of violence from a whole society? He was showing another way.

‘Unless a grain of wheat dies, but if it does…’ ‘They go out, they go out full of tears, carrying their seed. They come back, they come back, carrying their sheaves’ (PS 126). Magnus, the man who died in the sowing time of spring, comes back through the centuries carrying his sheaves. In Mackay Brown’s Tryst on Egilsay, the islanders pray: ‘Return to us Magnus, laden with cornstalks.’ As Ron Ferguson said, he ‘can still be our teacher.’

So what was and is the harvest of Magnus? I’d like to mention three things.

The first was, indeed, the making of peace. Magnus was a clear-sighted man. He could see that the system of joint rule of Orkney, by two earls simultaneously, all too easily opened the way for civil war. And his first offers to his fellow-ruler, cousin Hakon, were simply to step aside: to go away on pilgrimage or south to the Scottish court or even, maimed, to prison. Here was a man ready to undergo deep forms of self-loss for the sake of the common good. It wasn’t enough for the power-hungry men around Hakon. They preferred the final solution. The grain must fall and die. And with that death, the unwise political system died too. And the first unexpected place of harvest was the heart of his brutal, power-loving cousin. In time, it was he who went on pilgrimage, seeking absolution for his sin from the Pope in Rome, going on to the Holy Land and plunging himself in the River Jordan. He then returned and built a replica of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre at Orphir. Was it meant as a symbol of his own resurrection? Best of all, as the Saga says, ‘he grew to be a fine administrator and brought firm peace to the land, making new laws for Orkney which the farmers found they liked much better than the ones they’d had before. That was how his popularity began to grow and, in time, the people of Orkney would have no one but Hakon and his offspring to rule over them’ (OS 52). St Magnus offered his life for the peace of his people, and it came. ‘Blessed are the peacemakers; they shall be called the children of God.’

A second thing too began to happen after Magnus’ death. It’s an aspect of the story on which we might tend to turn a sceptical eye, or overlook, but to our loss. Put simply, people began to be healed. They experienced the touch of God when asked for through the intercession of their murdered earl. These were ordinary people. In the language of historians, the origins of the cult of Magnus were popular. Folk felt he had been on their side during his life, and that he still was, more effectively even. There was Bergfinn Skatason, the blind farmer from Shetland, and his two crippled friends, Sigurd and Thorbjorn. South to Birsay they went, and found healing. ‘There was a farmer in Orkney called Thorkel, who fell from the top of his barley rick right down to the ground, badly injuring one side of his body. He was carried to the shrine of blessed Earl Magnus and there he recovered his health completely’ (OS 57). And so the Saga goes on, with stories of Sigurd from the Faroes, Thord Dragon-Jaw from Shetland, a mainland Orkney woman called Groa, even an Englishman! It’s hard not to be touched by these tales of ancient suffering. Even the suspicious Bishop of Orkney, William the old, had to yield to the evidence, when he was healed as well. There’s more than the commonplaces of medieval hagiographers here. ‘Return to us, Magnus, laden with cornstalks.’ What these stories convey is that, through the sacrifice of Magnus, a positive healing force had been released. The ancient prayer for the feast of St Magnus speaks of the passage of time never going by ‘without the comfort of the saints.’ Suddenly, the people of Orkney and Caithness, of Shetland and the Faroes felt this fresh wave of comfort breaking on the shores of their pain. Their society was, in any case, becoming ever more integrated into Western Christendom. What the stories of healing suggest is still deeper levels of connection and wholeness. Ordinary folk felt that, thanks to Magnus, Christ himself was closer. The Saga speaks of the ‘succour and mercy, peace and rejoicing’ flowing from Christ, as it had flowed in Galilee a thousand years before. A darkness and hopelessness were being gently lifted from their lives. Their spiritual ecology was turning benign. The Communion of Saints had embraced them. They were whole within a greater wholeness.

And so a third thing came, and keeps coming: an unleashing of creativity. How much the Magnus story has inspired! The Orkneyinga Saga itself is a great work of narrative art, and when it tells the tale of Magnus almost rises to the level of Greek tragedy. This life and death inspired other Sagas and literature too, poetry and prose in Icelandic, Latin and Gaelic. Out of the Magnus story came the miracle of this cathedral, and with it a liturgy and with a liturgy a music. We will hear the hymn Nobilis humilis shortly. Throughout the Norse world and beyond, churches were built and dedicated to St Magnus, even a cathedral on the Faroes. This didn’t altogether die with the Reformation, and from the late 19thc. has returned in mediums ancient and new. In 1919, in the pillar to my left, what seem to be his bones were rediscovered. He even has an oilfield named after him, and a beer, and is the password for the WiFi on Northlink Ferries. Seriously, though, it is striking how the awareness of St Magnus has been rekindled. The early literature began to appear in critical editions, biographies were written. There is a very serious, academic study of his cult published in 2007. Dramas, operas, pageants, stained glass, tapestry, poetry, novels, music… To Peter Maxwell Davies and George Mackay Brown we owe the beginnings of the St Magnus Festival, now flourishing forty years on. How striking that the last line of George Mackay Brown’s Autobiography, For the Islands I Sing, was, ‘I say several times a day, “St Magnus, pray for us”’ – and that he should have died like Magnus close to Easter and been buried on St Magnus’ day, after a Requiem Mass in this Cathedral. There is more than coincidence here. This is harvesting. These are cornstalks. Ron Ferguson is another who sensed this. How good now to have the St Magnus Centre and the lengthening St Magnus Way. There are many ways, new and old, to keep the memory of saints alive. It is a great, comforting thought that the figure and story of Magnus can still unite a community and inspire so much.

So, the harvest of Magnus has been one of peace, of bodily and mental well-being, of artistic creation. Christ, and Christianity if it keeps the plot, give life. Here are pointers to a culture worthy of humanity. A culture of peace-making, of a full, wholesome healthcare and the making of beautiful things. Why not put aside war as a means of self-aggrandisement or resolving disputes? Why not respect bodily human life from conception to natural death? Why not allow the imagination to orchestrate themes of redemption, rather than degradation? A culture needs its ‘icons’: many and good. St Magnus is one such: Orkney’s gift to Scotland and beyond.

And the last thought is this.

It’s clear that Magnus was a man struck by the lightning of the Gospel. ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, blessed are the peacemakers’: these words had ‘shafted’ him. He had interiorised what Christ did on the Cross and seen the resurrection and grace that flowed from it. Fuelled by that, inspired by that, he hadn’t buckled when the violence washed over him. He saw his dedication through to the end. He turned evil into good. He went forward, as the Saga says, ‘as cheerful as if invited to a feast.’ His death became the climax of his life. He committed his soul to God, asked forgiveness, and offered himself as a sacrifice, a source of reconciliation. Anger fell from him, and his last word was to assure poor Lifolf of the mercy of God (cf OS 50). He saw his life as a gift and gave it, freely, willingly, moved by love for the people he served. Here is a pattern of a dedicated life. Here is Christ re-enacted.

‘How far that little candle casts its beams’, says Portia in The Merchant of Venice; ‘so shines a good deed in a naughty world.’ Magnus’ magnanimous act – ‘the most precious event in Orkney’s history’ – was a Christ-like flash of spirit in a dark world, and the light still burns. ‘Unless the grain of wheat dies, but if it does…’ If we could do with our lives something of what Magnus did with his, we would do well.

Kirkwall is small as cities go. It’s hard to get lost here, but if we do, we can usually see the spire of the Cathedral, tall and erect, and find our bearings again. It’s a metaphor for St. Magnus and all like him, those who freely and voluntarily give their lives for others, as Pope Francis has recently highlighted. Such people help us find our own moral bearings again. And they’re the seed-bed of a new and better culture: in ourselves, our families, in education and healthcare, in business and government, everywhere. ‘O Magnus – goes the Gaelic poem – …remember us…give growth to grass, and corn, and sap to plants…O Magnus of fame…on the crests of the waves, / On the sea, on the land, / Aid and preserve us. Amen.’

(St Magnus’ Cathedral, Kirkwall, Orkney, 30 July 2017)


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