I was in a garden centre before lockdown and found this fun, novelty watering can. It is a swan and for all of us with Lincoln connections that means just one thing, St Hugh, the saintly bishop of Lincoln whom we remember on Tuesday. He had a pet a swan and is often depicted with it in windows and statues. Here in St John’s his statue behind me shows his faithful swan at his feet. He also appears in one of our windows in the south aisle.
A bit like St Francis of Assisi, Hugh had a reputation for friendships with wild creatures. His former chaplain and chronicler, Adam of Eynsham, records in his life of Hugh that when Hugh fed the swan:
“The bird used to thrust its long neck up his wide and ample sleeve so that its head lay on his breast; for a little while it would remain there, hissing gently, as it were talking fondly and happily to its master and asking something from him.”
To have achieved this, Hugh must have exuded a feeling of peace and tranquility, which the bird sensed. The swan then is a symbol of a way of life that is calm in the storm, with a settled spirituality. And there does seem to have been something saintly about him, which even monarchs recognised.
He brought wisdom in his dealings with Henry II, who brought him over to head up and sort out the Carthusian house in Somerset and lobbied for him to be bishop of Lincoln. But his gentle nature was no push over. He took advantage of the Plantagenet’s guilt over the death of Archbishop Thomas Becket and made sure they knew it. He seems to have sensed they needed his prayers and absolution more than he needed their backing.
A few years ago I came across a story of Hugh visiting a French religious house. He was shown their prized relic, the arm bone of Mary Magdalene. To their shock, he took out his pocket knife, cut open the wrapping and took a bite out of it. Hugh collected relics and was not going to miss out on this one. That year, in the cathedral, we marked this on his day with chocolate fingers after the Tuesday morning Eucharist so we could all take a bite in honour of Hugh.
It turns out Hugh had form on this. When he visited Peterborough Abbey, which was then in his vast diocese, the unsuspecting monks showed him Oswald’s uncorrupted arm, their prized relic. And you’ve guessed it, Hugh’s teeth came into action again as he took a bite out of that and went back to Lincoln with his ill-gotten treasure. If we ever dig up an arm bone in the precincts and find it has teeth marks on it, well, we may have found the missing arm of St Oswald. It’s not just his swan who could break your arm.
His stand for justice came when he told Henry II to readjust his priorities. This is quite a brave tirade.
“Are you not ashamed, when you are so great, that you have a mind which is ambitious, grasping, soaring, tyrannical, numbly indifferent, yes, and full of cupidity too? The magnates are sorely oppressed by your ambition – mark the fact!… The imploring widow is denied justice by your tyranny – mark the fact! The wronged are not vindicated against their own wrongdoers by your torpid indifference – mark the face! And the poor get no dispersement from your cupidity – mark the fact!”
Ouch! Not only did he have the bite of a swan, he had it’s hiss as well.
In our second reading, judgement and being called to account for how we have used the gifts given to us was brought centre stage (Matthew 25:14-30) with the stewards and the talents given to them to work with while their master was away. The one who failed to use them and grow them through his works, gets very short shrift.
Hugh set an example and demonstrated this justice in his own dealings. He released a poor widow from the obligation to provide an ox due to him. This was an ‘honour’ she was required to give the bishop as her landlord on the death of her husband. His steward felt this act of charity was madness and if he gave away his rights he would not hold the land. I can almost hear charity trustee arguments on a similar line.
Hugh’s response was to pick up a lump of earth. “I am now holding my land – my earth, yet I also restore the ox to the woman. But if we do not keep hold of heaven, of what avail is it to have kept hold of earth?” There is a treasure far greater than temporal finances. Charity, he told King Henry II, was the key to eternal life:
“see that the hungry and the thirsty, the prisoner and the sick, the dead and the naked obtain the sustenance, the solace, and the clothing that they need”.
Hugh was a Carthusian and in the centre of the Cathedral hangs the great crucifix with the Carthusian motto at its base – the cross is still while the world turns. In the turbulence of politics and life, of lockdown and plague, the cross of Christ is our still anchor and the assurance of our hope. As St Paul put it in our first reading, “God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that… we may live with him” (1 Thessalonians 5:9-10).
So a man at peace, sufficiently for a bird who can break your arm to nestle at his breast. People who bring peace in the storm are holy and inspirational. But like the swan he had a bite and a hiss. Amazingly, those on the receiving end took it and respected him because of his deep holiness. At his death in 1200, King John was one of his coffin bearers.
He was canonised 20 years later, so this year 2020 is the 800th anniversary of this. Justice, holiness, calm in the storm, courage to remind the powerful of these values too; Hugh with his swan is a saint for our times too. In his reminding of justice he echoes Jesus’ words, ‘what does it profit to gain the world and lose the eternal’. He bids us in word and action to keep our eyes firmly fixed on the lasting treasure of God’s Kingdom. Just don’t show him your best relics!
Sermon for 2nd Sunday before Advent, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 15th November 2020.