Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Saint Aidan and the Gift Horse

On August 31st, Saint Aidan's Church celebrates the memory of our patron—a 6th century Irish monk from the Scottish monastery of Iona who carried the Gospel to Northeastern Britain at the request of the local king, Oswald.

Saint Aidan's ministry was mainly one of renewal. The Northumbrian people had converted to Christianity in the 4th century, but with the invasion of the Anglo-Saxons a century later, had lapsed back into paganism. King Oswald, himself newly converted to the faith, gave Aidan the daunting task of bringing the Northumbrians back to the faith that they had largely lost and forgotten. In this, he faced a challenge similar to the Church's contemporary effort to renew the faith of a 21st century, post-Christian, secular culture...

Perhaps the most famous story of Saint Aidan’s life was that of the gift horse. After King Oswald died, his successor Oswin, gave Aidan a fine horse to carry him on his journeys around the diocese. Aidan humbly accepted the gift, only to sell it and give the money to the first beggar he passed. Oswin was offended. “My lord bishop,” he cried, “Why did you give away the royal horse which was necessary for your own use? Have we not many less valuable horses which would have been good enough for beggars without giving away the one which I had especially selected for your personal use?” In response, Aidan replied, “What are you saying, Your Majesty? Is this child of a mare more valuable to you than this child of God?”

This story does more than just demonstrate Aidan’s charity and generosity, though it certainly does that. The horse was status symbol, a marker that set the owner apart from everyone else. Riding a horse—and a royal one, no less—marked the difference between rich and poor, powerful and weak, aristocrat and peasant, and even clergy and laity.

By selling the horse and giving the proceeds to the beggar, Aidan did something truly revolutionary. He overthrew a worldly culture based on dominance and control, and declared victory for the Gospel of a God who emptied Himself of all claims to power and glory to enrich our weak and lowly humanity with His divine nature. By giving the riches of an earthly king to a poor man, he declared that every poor man was in fact an heir of the Heavenly King. As St. Maximus the Confessor put it: “God is the poor man.”

Renewing the faith of our surrounding culture means renewing in ourselves a genuine encounter with God in our neighbour. Saint Aidan asked King Oswald whether a horse was more valuable to him than a child of God. We might ask ourselves a similar question: are the trappings of our worldly culture more valuable to us than our neighbour, and especially those neighbours who reveal God to us most transparently in their nakedness and poverty? What barriers do we raise against a real and immediate encounter with other human beings, in all their weakness and brokenness? Do we uphold our wealth, our status, our political affiliations or even our religious Orthodoxy against the intimacy of knowing and loving another person?

Having asked ourselves that question, we must choose to give up those worldly trappings of power and status, education and moral superiority, get off the 'high horse' of our pride and strive to meet our neighbour on the ground and engage with them in simple conversations based on the mutual weakness of our shared humanity.

The kings of this world will be offended at our choices. They will even fight to prevent us from overthrowing their claims to power. But if we are going to truly show them and the rest of the world what it means to meet God in the poor man, we must be courageous above all. Saint Aidan was not afraid to trade in the gift of a king that he might preach his Gospel with power. By his prayers and God's grace, we can do likewise and so demonstrate beyond all doubt the love of God who gave Himself up for the life of the world.

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