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St Laurence

By Canon Chris Palmer

In the south choir aisle of Exeter Cathedral there is an image of St Laurence. It was his feast day this last week, and he’s one of the more entertaining of the saints – presumably the reason why his story is told in stone. The image, which comes from an old retable, tells the story of St Laurence being barbecued at the orders of the Prefect of Rome! Pope Leo the Great also tells us the story:

“He orders Laurence to renounce Christ, and prepares to ply the deacon’s stout courage with frightful tortures: and, when the first elicit nothing, fiercer follow. His limbs, torn and mangled by many cutting blows, are commanded to be broiled upon the fire in an iron framework , which was of itself already hot enough to burn him, and on which his limbs were turned from time to time, to make the torment fiercer, and the death more lingering.”

What prompted this gruesome torture? Well, the greedy Prefect wanted to get his hands on the church’s treasures. But when he ordered Laurence to produce these treasures, Laurence gathered together the poor and destitute, and presented these to the Prefect. ‘These are the treasures of the church”, he told him.

Exeter Cathedral has many fine treasures. Indeed as Canon Treasurer I have a nominal responsibility for them, even if my main role description relates to buildings. Among our valuable treasures are many items in our Library and Archive, and we care for these diligently, and are planning to make more of these accessible to a wider audience.

But Laurence reminds us that the church’s most valuable treasures are its people. And more than that, that those who are less valuable in the world’s eyes are of even greater value as treasures of the church. Jesus too invites us to see value in the Kingdom of God differently from the world. 

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours in the kingdom of God. (Luke 6.20)

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed. (Luke 4.18)

Those who are poor and despised have an honoured place in the Kingdom of God. St Laurence himself exemplifies this. Laurence was executed as a criminal, but is celebrated as a saint. His persecutor held earthly power, but is known today only as a despot.

Almighty God,
who made Laurence a loving servant of your people
and a wise steward of the treasures of your Church:
fire us with his example to love as he loved
and to walk in the way that leads to eternal life;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.