In this season, the Church especially encourages the veneration of Saints. — Lesser Feasts and Fasts. The Episcopal Church. Readings: II Esdras 3: 42-48; John 20: 1-15.
The Saint and Martyr whom we honour today died on Easter. Born Magnus Eriendsson in 1075, Saint Magnus was a Viking, the son of two Vikings who jointly ruled the beautiful Orkney Islands where he was born. Christianity, introduced to Orkney some three decades before, existed side by side with Norse religion. Early on, the hearty Magnus took up the calling of a pirate and was quite successful. Sometime later, he was converted to Christianity and became, therefore, a pacifist like his Lord. Not long thereafter, he was captured by Barefoot, King of Norway, who compelled him to conduct raids along the coast of Britain. When that led to the Battle of Anglesey, he simply refused to fight, stayed aboard his ship, and read psalms. Later, he escaped to the court of Malcolm III, King of Scotland, who let him live as a religious in a bishop’s house. When Barefoot died, Magnus returned to his beloved Orkney.
As Earl from 1106, he shared rule of the islands with his non-Christian and very ambitious cousin Haakon, but their relationship deteriorated by 1115. They agreed to settle their issues by meeting Easter Day, 1116, on the island of Egilsay, each to be in the company of two ships with an unarmed crew. Alas, Haakon arrived with eight big ships full of armed men. Seizing that opportunity to become sole ruler of Orkney, Haakon ordered his cook Lifolf to murder Magnus, which he did with a single powerful axe-blow to the head. just before being despatched, Magnus prayed God for his death to be accepted as a sacrifice and prayed forgiveness for his murderers.
Nephew Rognvald sailed from Norway and promised the Orcadians that he would build a “great stone minster” and indeed he constructed in sandstone Saint Magnus’ Cathedral in Kirkwall (the capital city), consecrated in 1137. The body of Magnus was interred there and to this day has spurred many a pilgrimage. [In 1314, Saint Magnus was said to have appeared to Robert the Bruce, King of Scotland, promising him victory at Bannockburn. He was victorious there over Edward II of England, in that first war for Scottish independence. (Perhaps we shall soon witness an independent Scotland!)]
This story is of special significance to me as family and I were on holiday in Orkney last year and toured the magnificent Cathedral of Saint Magnus, where I was privileged to light a candle and pray. By law, that Cathedral belongs to all the people of Orkney! it is regularly used for Mass by the Anglican/Episcopal and Roman churches, and also for protestant services as well. As a strong testimony to the history of the place, I remember that the altar books in place that day were all in Norwegian!
Let us praise God for the witness and martyrdom of Saint Magnus and for all those who, like Christ, chose the better path of peace, even at the cost of their own lives. They stand models and prayer-partners for all of us who have come after them in the “one great fellowship of prayer and praise.”