Alfred the Great, King of the West Saxons, is one of the saints of the church that has special meaning for me. His feast day was three days ago, October 26, the day of his death. Mary Magdalene, Thomas a Kempis, and James the Apostle are three others. It is because the special events of my life have happened on their feast days. I was born on Mary Magdalene’s feast day, July 22, baptized two days later on the feast of Thomas a Kempis, married 20 years later on the feast of James the Apostle, July 25, and received into the Episcopal Church the same year on the feast of Alfred the Great. At the time of each of these events I was unaware of the feast days that the church was celebrating at the time. It was only years later as I came to know more about church church history and the calendar of the church that I came to think of these things and make these associations. But that has not lessened the affinity I feel for these particular saints and to have a special intention for them on these anniversaries of my own.
Alfred the Great, the only English ruler to be known as “the Great,” died in 899. England in his day was one continuous time of “battle, murder, and sudden death” according to “Holy Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Lives of the Saints.” He contended with the aftermath of the viking invasions and won a decisive victory over the Danes in 878. Remarkably he even persuaded the defeated leader of the Danes to accept baptism. What political leader today would even think that way; to care for the immortal soul of a just-defeated enemy? He greater achievement though was in the field of education, which had suffered from the years of the viking invasions. He supervised the work of scholars that he enlisted from Wales and the Continent in translating the classics of theology and history. The collect for his feast day incorporates one of his comments: “He seems to me a very foolish man, and very wretched, who will not increase his understanding while he is in the world, and ever wish and long to reach that endless life where all shall be made clear.
Reading the lives of the saints keeps us reminded that not all saints are in the religious life but that the work of the church is carried out just as much by lay people, and not just in the caring ministries of feeding the hungry and tending the sick but by being just, wise, and strong rulers, even warrior kings.
“O Sovereign Lord, you brought your servant Alfred to a troubled throne that he might establish peace in a ravaged land and revive learning and the arts among the people. Awake in us also a keen desire to increase our understanding while we are in the world, and eager longing to reach that endless life where all will be made clear; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”
Ron Hicks, Parish Verger, St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Washington DC, 29-October-2013.