The Old English Life of Saint Margaret ends, as the title might suggest, with the protagonist St. Margaret’s death. After Margaret is killed, angels “come over the body of the holy Margaret and bless it,” singing, “‘Holy, holy, holy, Lord God, glorious King of hosts, heaven and earth are full of your glory.’” At first glance, this concluding moment may seem strange or confusing. Margaret, who has just slain a dragon from inside its stomach and survived immersion in boiling water, is finally dead; to the reader this may feel like a moment of defeat, even a moment of abandonment by the God who protected Margaret for so long. And yet, after an epic saga full of miraculous resistance to death, angels appear to proclaim Margaret’s death as a testament to God’s glory! Why is this the case?
To answer this question, we must turn to the story on which all martyrdoms are modelled: that of Christ’s crucifixion. As several people have already noted, Margaret’s tale of suffering and death closely parallels Christ’s; there are numerous similarities in characters, imagery, and plot between the two narratives. Thus, to understand why the conclusion of Margaret’s story is one of triumph and glory rather than one of abandonment and defeat, we need only look to the conclusion of Christ’s story. This, of course, is the Resurrection. After three days in the tomb, Christ returns to life, thereby defeating death and opening the door for humanity to enter eternal life in Heaven. As a devout Christian, Margaret has hope in this life after death; her ultimate goal is not to prolong her life on Earth, but to spend eternity with God. Thus, Margaret’s death is the moment at which she attains this goal.
It is not enough, however, just to think that the Resurrection gives Margaret a reason to finally give up on her physical trials and embrace death. Rather, it is precisely the Resurrection that gives meaning to all of Margaret’s trials beforehand! Once again, we can understand this relationship between suffering and glory by turning to Christ. Look at any artistic depiction of the resurrected Christ, and you’ll note an important detail: all the wounds from the Crucifixion remain on His glorified body! St. Thomas Aquinas (with some help from Sts. Bede and Augustine) writes the following on this topic:
“It was fitting for Christ’s soul at His Resurrection to resume the body with its scars. In the first place, for Christ’s own glory. For Bede says on Luke 24:40 that He kept His scars not from inability to heal them, ‘but to wear them as an everlasting trophy of His victory.’ Hence Augustine says (De Civ. Dei xxii): ‘Perhaps in that kingdom we shall see on the bodies of the Martyrs the traces of the wounds which they bore for Christ’s name: because it will not be a deformity, but a dignity in them; and a certain kind of beauty will shine in them, in the body, though not of the body.’”
The Resurrection, therefore, does not erase the reality of physical suffering on Earth, but neither does it let suffering and death have the last word. Rather, it gives meaning to the physical ordeals of martyrdom by transforming them into a trophy of victory in the next life, a sign of the martyrs’ love for Christ and of their faith that death, in the end, will not be the victor. Suffering on Earth is only meaningful when met with the possibility of another life in Heaven; without bearing in mind the reality of the Resurrection, then, we cannot hope to understand Margaret’s story. As St. Paul writes, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is vain… if for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are the most pitiable people of all.” (See 1 Corinthians 15:16-20.) Thus, to focus solely on the miraculous things that occur during Margaret’s life on Earth is to miss the point of the story, and more broadly, of Christianity itself. God’s ability to keep St. Margaret alive in the midst of her trials is miraculous, yes, and serves as a powerful witness of His strength to those who are watching and reading. But if He only mattered to Margaret insofar as He was capable of keeping her alive in this life, she would be not glorious but pitiable! Thus, it is not Margaret’s resistance to death, but her willingness to die, that serves as the ultimate witness to God’s power. Margaret’s ability to give herself over to death in the end displays a deep faith that death is not the end, and witnesses to the greatest miracle of all, the Resurrection. The Life of St. Margaret ends not just with Margaret’s death, but with her entry into eternal life. That, and nothing else, is precisely what makes this a tale of glory.
Life of St. Margaret