When I was baptised and confirmed, I chose St Oswald as my confirmation Saint, and took his name. (Fred continues with the second part of his blog post on St Oswald.) Sitting where I do, in the play area of St Chrysostom’s with my children, Oswald has watched over and aided my conversion from pagan to pious from his window on the rear north wall, as he watched and aided the same conversion of his own people. Often, when I felt my most apprehensive, confused or anxious, I would catch his eye as he confidently held the cross of Heavenfield. At moments when the numinious had burst its banks I knew he was there, behind my left shoulder as I felt the presence of God at the Mass.
What stands out most, however, is the closest thing to a conversion moment (and it was much more of a realisation or recognition of a conversion already happened), when I was reading the entry on Oswald in St Bede’s “History of the English Church and People”.
I should explain that I have a nuanced approach to saints and their miracles that centres on a lengthy treatment of the meaning of ‘reality’ and ‘existence’ which I shall not go into now,(though I certainly think the majority of the Church of England doesn’t recognise the Church’s heroes as it should). Whether Oswald’s immortal arm, or his skull, still housed in Durham cathedral, can literally heal the sick is not, I feel, as important as whether his life can heal our lives, by example and inspiration. That is, to what extent does his life evangelise the lives of Christians today.
Even here there is room for debate. The extent to which Oswald is a martyr, in the accepted sense, is questionable in the extreme. His wars with Penda were more like worldly border disputes, land grabs and cattle rustling raids than crusades, as evidenced by the presence of the Christian Britons fighting against Oswald. And to what extent Oswald really was outnumbered and doomed to lose the battle of Heavenfield (without divine intervention) is simply impossible to confirm.
However, it is not what he did then, but what he has done since that matters. His firm faith at Heavenfield has been an inspiration to untold numbers of Christians fighting all manner of ‘battles’, both literal and figurative, througout history. His feast of the poor showed how a Christian king should act towards his people, humbling himself and setting the poor first (he insisted St Aiden rode his horse while he walked, like a servant). And as to the martyrdom? Well, one does not need to die ‘because’ of Christ to die ‘for’ Him. The latter is about making sure we go to God in humility and faith, and with as clear a conscience as we are able to achieve, given our human limitations.
What the legend of Saint Oswald shows me, is that a Christian is not just a confessor, who says the creeds and reads the Bible. A true Christian is one who’s life is transfigured by Christ; who can stand facing the Enemy knowing that God is with them (the symbolic value of the Heavenfield Cross), and will be no matter what they do. Who knows that even death has been beaten, and so even Penda, who won at Maserfield, really lost in the end, and Maserfield was just as much Oswald’s victory as Heavenfield. A Christian knows that one can’t preach the gospel without living it, and the true act of piety is the feeding of the poor and the redistribution of wealth; that the real conversion is not the creedal statement, but the active life. A true Christian knows that a Christian kingdom is a kingdom of love. This is what fired generations of Christians with after Oswald, Aidan and Bede among them; and it is in this sense that St Oswald is my patron and protector.
This sentiment is very much made clear in the Collect from the Mass of King Saint Oswald, on which I will end:
Lord God almighty, who so kindled the faith of King Oswald with your Spirit that he set up the sign of the cross in his kingdom and turned his people to the light of Christ: grant that we, being fired by the same Spirit, may always bear our cross before the world and be found faithful servants of the gospel; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen