From Be Thou My Breastplate,
Let the speech of the people of Heaven be in this mouth.
Which people of Heaven might Fursa have hoped to emulate in his own speaking as he offered up this request?
Perhaps the great Apostle Paul: in every town, in prison, and on trial, Paul’s speech was always full of Christ’s coming and dying and rising again; of his own journey of conversion — his forgiveness and healing and receiving of the Spirit.
Perhaps the great Apostle Peter: full of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost, Peter’s bold speech told of Christ’s coming and dying and rising again. It affirmed the need for conversion, forgiveness, and the gift of the Holy Spirit. On trial he asserted that he must always tell of his own journey too: of all that he had seen and heard.
Maybe Fursa aspires to the speech of the first martyr, Stephen. His final words unfolded the whole story of salvation, from the call of Abraham to the crucifixion of Christ.
Whether on trial or facing death, on a courtroom stand or a speaker’s platform, the speech of these heavenly citizens resounds with the chords of a shared story. Fursa’s request for the speech of the people of Heaven is a prayer that he might join this chorus and know the same apostolic power upon his own words as he recounts the unchanging themes of the great gospel story.
We know that Fursa’s Saxon neighbors loved their sagas, for we still have the texts of their epic tales of toils and danger; stories of demonic temptations and snares — all heroically faced and overcome. The Celtic peoples, too, loved their stories of pilgrimages to foreign lands; accounts of miracles and healings, or fearlessness and God-sent deliverance. Thus by answering with his own story, with its roots in the great testimony of the heroic Saint Patrick, Fursa could easily woo the attention of any hearer who asked why, from where, and how he had come to be here.
But Fursa’s aim was always to unfold for his hearers the most powerful saga of all — the pilgrimage of God’s own son; from Heaven, to womb, to Earth; to a cross, to a tomb, to the Earth; to the sky and, at last, to the right hand side of God’s throne in Heaven. Here was a saga full of demonic adversaries, miraculous healings, and God-sent deliverance — even from death itself. Then, as now, in order to infuse the hearer’s imagination with the truth and importance of it all, the preacher must be the supreme story teller.
Six short years before Fursa landed on Anglia’s northeast coast, the local king, Redwald, had played host to the Northumbrian king, Edwin. Redwald invited a traveling teller of the Christian story — the Bishop Paulinus — to recount to the gathered regents and courtiers the saga of Christ’s pilgrimage in the great gospel story. Like any king, Edwin was anxious to have God’s blessing to secure his kingly reign, and so he listened to this story intently. At length Edwin consulted his barons and together they compared this new story with the sagas and legends they already knew. One baron spoke decisively and pointed out to Edwin that never before had a saga sought to give light to our own lives and explain, “what went before this short life and what comes after it. If this story gives us new understanding and a better hope, it is for our good that we should follow it.”
So convinced, Edwin submitted his life to Christ and opened the kingdom of Northumbria to the gospel. It was this decision that paved the way for Fursa’s compatriot, Aidan, and his disciples, Wilfrid, Hilda, the brothers Chad and Cedd, and many other monastic missionaries of Fursa’s generation. Indeed, Northumbria was destined soon to become the spiritual boiler room and missionary powerhouse for the British Isles. So heavenly was the speech Paulinus had given that the very course of Britain’s history was altered.
Settling, only six years later, not many miles from where all this took place, Fursa would have heard the tale of this pivotal turn of events. He must surely have prayed with the hope of similar fruit in mind as he took his stand before God each day and asked for “the speech of the people of Heaven to be in this mouth.”