Saint Margaret of Scotland
Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
Sunday, November 19, 2023
+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
At first glance today's observance of the feast of Margaret queen of Scotland might seem a little out of place here in Saint Mary's church in downtown Kansas City in the year of our Lord 2023. After all, outside of Scotland Margaret is not particularly well known, and apart from a beautiful window in the gallery to my left there is little historical connection between St. Mary’s and St. Margaret. So, who was St. Margaret of Scotland and what does she have to say to us today?
Margaret was the granddaughter of the English king Edmund Ironside, but because of dynastic disputes she was born in Hungary, in the year 1047. She had one brother, Edgar, and a sister, Christina, and many people in England saw her brother Edgar as the rightful heir to the throne. In 1054 the parliament of Anglo-Saxon England decided to bring the family back from Hungary so that they could inherit the throne when King Edward the Confessor died, as Edward had no children. So, Edgar, Christina and Margaret were brought up at the English court under the supervision of Benedictine monks and nuns, who trained the young people according to the Benedictine ideal of a life of work and prayer.
Eventually King Edward the Confessor died, and soon afterwards William the Conqueror invaded England in 1066 and claimed the throne for himself, so Margaret’s brother Edgar didn’t become king after all. Edgar and his sisters were advised to go back to Hungary for their own safety, but on the way their ship was blown far off course by a fierce gale. The trio was shipwrecked at the Firth of Forth in Scotland, a place that to this day is known as St. Margaret’s Hope. It is there that King Malcolm III gave them a warm welcome to his kingdom. …His court at Dunfermline was undoubtedly rather primitive compared to the English court that the family had known, but they were glad of his welcome and the hospitality and safety he offered them.
Margaret was now about twenty years old; King Malcolm was forty, and unmarried, and he soon became attracted to young Margaret. However, she took a lot of persuading; as she was more inclined to become a nun, and Malcolm had a stormy temperament, despite his other virtues. It was only after long consideration that Margaret agreed to marry him, and their wedding took place in the year 1070, when she was twenty-three. In the end, although she was so much younger than him, she was the one who changed him; under her influence, he became a much wiser and godlier king.
Although Margaret was now in a high position in society, and very wealthy according to the standard of the day, she lived in the spirit of inward poverty: nothing she possessed really belonged to her, but everything was to be used for the purposes of God. As Queen, she lived an ordered life of prayer and work that she had learned as a child. She was only the wife of the king, but she came to have the leading voice in making changes that affected both the social and the spiritual life of Scotland. She had this influence because of the depth of her husband’s love for her. Malcolm didn’t share his wife’s contemplative temperament, but he was strongly influenced by her godly character, so he tended to follow her advice a lot – not only for his own life, but also for the life of the church and people in Scotland.
Margaret would begin each day with a prolonged time of prayer, especially praying the psalms and attending Mass. We’re told that after this, orphan children would be brought to her, and she would prepare their food herself and serve it to them (this is displayed in the painting of St. Margaret which is now hanging in the back of St. George’s Chapel.) It also became the custom that any destitute poor people would come every morning to the royal hall; when they were seated around it, then the King and Queen entered and ‘served Christ in the person of his poor’. Before they did this, they sent out of the room all other spectators except for the chaplains and a few attendants because for Malcolm and Margaret this act of charity was not about show but about service.
Throughout most of history them majority of the women remembered as saints by the Church have been martyrs or monastics far removed from the demands of the world and the pressures of family life. Margaret, however, is remembered as having a happy family life. She had eight children, six sons and two daughters. Her oldest son Edward was killed in battle, Ethelred died young, and we’re told that Edmund didn’t turn out too well. But the three youngest, Edgar, Alexander, and David, are remembered among the best kings that Scotland ever had. David I, the youngest son, had a peaceful reign of twenty-nine years in which he developed and extended the work his mother had begun. The two daughters, Matilda and Mary, were both brought up under the guidance of Margaret’s sister Christina in the Abbey of Romsey, and both went on to marry into the English royal family. All of them we’re told, were imbued by their mother with a deep faith and a desire to follow Christ first.
Margaret was not yet fifty when she died. As she lay dying, her son Edgar brought her the sad news that her husband and her oldest son had been killed in battle. Despite this grief, we’re told that her last words were of praise and thanksgiving to God, and her death was calm and tranquil.
Margaret died on November 16th, 1093. A member of the aristocracy, she came into a position of great influence as Queen of Scotland, but she didn’t think she’d been given that position in order to lord it over others. Instead, she’s remembered as a person who spent her life serving others.
It is here, in the fact that she is remembered for serving others that I think St. Margaret has something to teach us because despite being literal royalty Margaret was willing to give it all away for the pearl of great price that is a relationship with Jesus Christ. Everything she was and had was spent on building that relationship and the good works that flowed out of it.
Margaret spent hours of her day in prayer. Like our Lord in his earthly ministry Margaret would withdraw to a deserted place to pray. Is that our habit? Do we make time to pray regularly, both in community at Church and on our own in a deserted place? For some people, the ‘deserted place’ might be a room in their house; for other people it might be a quiet office early in the morning; for others, it might be a quiet walk at some point during the day. For some it will be alone, for others it will be together with a spouse, or with the family as a whole. Regardless of how we do it…. is spending time in prayer deepening our relationship with Jesus, our pearl of great price, a priority? Margaret teaches us that if we want to be holy if we want to make a difference in the world this is where we must start.
Because from that prayer flowed Margaret’s countless acts of service, her gifts of charity, her feeding of orphans and widows and the houseless they all came out of the love she had for God and for God’s people because that time with Jesus changed her. Although she was the Queen of Scotland, she saw no contradiction between being the Queen and serving at tables for the poorest of the poor. She understood herself first of all as a servant of Christ; everything else followed from that.
Although I have no proof of it, I can't help but wonder if maybe that is why our predecessors in the faith here at Saint Mary's chose to honor an obscure Scottish Saint, with a beautiful stained glass window because they hoped that they and we like Margaret might be so changed by the relationship with Jesus Christ that is begun and nurtured in this place that our love would overflow in service to all those most in need around us. Are we living up to their hope? Are we giving everything to know Jesus and to serve God and his people?
If the answer to those questions is no, then I encourage you here today to come to this altar to receive Jesus, the pearl of great price, in the sacrament of his body and blood and to recommit yourselves to nurturing your relationship with him in daily prayer so that you might be changed like Margaret and so that like her you might change the world.
St. Margaret, Pray for us.
+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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