March 1 is the Feast of Saint David, the patron saint of Wales and the Welsh people. On this Sunday, March 1, 2015, St. David's Lutheran Church of Philadelphia is dedicating a gorgeous stained glass window depicting the sixth century Celtic abbot after whom the church was named some sixty-five years ago. I have to wonder how a Lutheran church—a denomination not inclined to hagiology and filled with very traditional Americans of mostly German and Scandinavian roots—could come to name itself after a fairly obscure ancient Welshman who is patron of a country roughly the size of New Jersey. Nobody at St. David's Lutheran seems to know the answer to this.
So I guess it doesn't matter.
I've been asked to be the preacher at the dedication service, however, because I am of Welsh heritage and St. David's Day has always been a holiday for me. I'm very proud to be a Welsh-American. We are a noble, Christian, poetic, musical, and darn attractive race of people.
(For that last adjective, just check out Catherine Zeta-Jones and Ioan Gruffudd if you don't believe me. Oh..! And don't forget Tom Jones and Katherine Jenkins. God may not have made the Welsh a mighty nation, but He gave us plenty of good looks!)
But, as usual, I digress.
Before going into the life of St. David (about which virtually nothing is known with any historical accuracy) it might be helpful to take a refresher look at the way Lutherans view the saints. That is, how we view the canonized or otherwise recognized Christian heroes who have gone before us. In the Augsburg Confession, Philip Melanchthon wrote:
“...our people teach that the saints are to be remembered so that we may strengthen our faith when we see how they experienced grace and how they were helped by faith.” (CA. XXI)
The article goes on to explain, however, that Christians need not call upon the saints for aid as Jesus has already been the true mediator between God and humanity (see 1 Timothy 2:5). Subsequently, Lutherans have tended to be a little on the cool side where saints are concerned. Lutheran churches bearing saints' names tend to choose such names from the New Testament only, and saints like David get very little attention.
But, if the stories of the saints strengthen our faith, I for one would still like to hear them. I personally think David is a great example for this Second Sunday in Lent. In our gospel lesson today, Jesus tells his followers,
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:34b)
The life of Saint David was certainly filled with a great deal of self-denial. The legend goes that David's mom, variously known as Non, Nonna, or Nonita, was a really pious Christian girl living in the semi-barbaric Wales of the late fifth and early sixth century. This was just about the time that the Roman Empire was collapsing. Part of ancient Britain had already embraced Christianity, the Empire's official religion, but the fledgling faith was facing a serious threat from invading hordes from which the dwindling Romans could not protect them. Subsequently, Christian Britain migrated into the peninsula we call Wales today. This mountainous country provided a natural defense against the invaders.
Alas for poor Non, she was raped by a Druid chieftain known as Sant, and conceived a baby who would become David. Although the chieftain agreed to take her as his wife, the good girl vowed to remain chaste, and gave herself over to a life of poverty and good works.
There's a story that a Christian preacher, approaching the pregnant Non, was struck mute. He believed this to be a sign that the child she was bearing would be a greater preacher than he.
The little boy was destined to a life of service to Christ. He learned to read by reading the Psalms. He also adopted his mother's love of poverty and simple living. He became a vegetarian. Later, as an abbot and founder of monasteries, David insisted his Christian brothers refrain from the eating of meat or fish. In fact, he was so respectful of animals that he refused to allow the monks to use oxen to pull their plows or carts. The brothers were to pull these vehicles themselves.
All in all, David spread the Christian faith through the founding of twelve monasteries. His rule emphasized self-denial and abstinence. Monks were not allowed to have personal possession, and were frequently enjoined to periods of silence. In addition to the “no meat” rule, David's monks also refrained from wine and beer, and spent weekends without sleep in prayer and contemplation. They were also instructed to study scripture and to write spiritual works. Subsequently, David is honored as the patron saint of poets and vegetarians.
This, I would think, would be quite enough for one lifetime, but when David was about sixty years old he was called upon to put out a theological fire within the church. It seems that some of the Welsh Christians had adopted the teachings of a heretic named Pelagius. If Pelagius were around today, I don't doubt he'd have a mega church and his own TV show since he preached what people love to hear. His basic message was this: Since we are all made by God, we have a little bit of God's perfection in us. This gem of God's light enables us to know right from wrong and evolve to a higher spiritual state. We are all basically good, but the gospel serves to inspire us to a more Godly life. Christian Scientists and Scientologists would be nodding in agreement.
Unfortunately, Pelagius' doctrine falls flat in the face of obvious evil and selfish wickedness in this world. We are all created by God, but the scripture teaches us we all fall short of God's glory.
Some time around 560 CE, David was called to place called Brefi to address this false teaching. We don't know what he said on that day, but we do know that his preaching of the scriptures converted the Pelagians back to orthodoxy. Perhaps he reminded them of their state of selfishness, wounded pride, disappointment, envy, and covetousness. He might have exhorted them to repentance by showing them that, no matter how they strove to keep God's law, they always fell short and relapsed back into sin. Maybe he preached to them that they had not chosen for God to love them, that they had not asked Jesus to take on human suffering and degradation, that they had not brought about the miracle of Our Lord's death and resurrection, promising forgiveness to all by God's grace through sinners' faith. Doubtless he told them that the road between God and humankind is a one-way street which goes only from God to us and never the other way around. He might have comforted them by saying that their salvation had nothing to do with their own good merits, but only with God's love. They would be free to be helpless, erring, and contrite. But they would also be comforted by knowledge that it wasn't all about them. “Deny yourself,” he might have said, “and take up your cross to follow Him.”
A thousand years later, Martin Luther would be preaching the very same thing.
Legend says that while David preached, the Holy Spirit rested on him in the form of a dove on his shoulder, and the ground upon which he stood rose below his feet to become a small hill. This enabled his voice to ring through the valley and be heard by all. So powerful was his preaching that the archbishop of Wales, Dubricius, immediately relinquished his see and presented his crozier to David.
A further legend has it that it was David who instructed Christian Welsh soldiers to wear leeks in their headgear in order to distinguish themselves from invading pagan Saxons while in the heat of battle. To this day the leek remains a Welsh national symbol (used as the collar insignia of Her Majesty's Royal Welsh Guards) although it's connection to David is probably apocryphal.
Besides his blow to the Pelagians, David is chiefly remembered for moving the see of the Welsh church to a spot on the south west coast of the peninsula which today bears his name and the cathedral dedicated in his honor. It is a lonely spot where pilgrims can go to shut out the world and get in touch with their longing for God. We might call it a “Lenten” spot.
So. Thinking of David on this Second Sunday of Lent, let's not put our minds on the things we want, since all we can do is cater to our own selfishness. Let's do the “little things” (as David would say) of praying, fasting, finding quiet time, and contemplating all that God does for us.