I am in my father, and you in me, and I in you
In the north-east of England, along the banks of the mighty river Tyne, as it winds its way out to sea, stand the remains of one of the greatest seats of human learning in the seventh and eighth centuries. For a long time the site was neglected, lying amidst the debris of the industrial age. However today the great monastery of Jarrow is once more brought to life, with the creation of Bede’s World - a kind of historical theme park, where young and old can experience a day in the life of a monk, exploring the preparation of parchment, the writing with quill pens, the harvesting of herbs, from the monastery gardens, the care of animals and the rhythm of prayer in the old church of St. Paul’s.
Why am I telling you this? Because today the church celebrates Venerable Bede’s day. Bede is a minor saint, and very few places will pay much attention. However I always remember Ven Bede’s day, not just because it falls the day after my birthday and is therefore easy for me to remember, but because the first church of which Jonathan was vicar bore a dual dedication to St. James and St. Bede. In that humble little church, in the inner city parish of Gateshead, I first presided at the eucharist twenty years ago this coming week. Just to say that brings tears to my eyes. Moreover I was for a time privileged to be canon of Durham cathedral, where the bones of Bede rest in the great Galilee chapel. Hence I have a particular affection for the Venerable Bede.
So who was he?..
His scholarship covered a huge range of subjects, including commentaries on the bible, observations of nature, music and poetry. His most famous work, which is a key source for the understanding of early British history and the arrival of Christianity, is 'Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum' or 'The Ecclesiastical History of the English People' which was completed in 731 AD. It is the first work of history in which the AD system of dating is used. Without it we would know almost nothing of the great northern saints, Aidan, Cuthbert, Hilda and Oswald, and of the coming of Christianity to the north of the British Isles. Beginning with the invasion of Julius Caesar, Bede’s history spans almost 800 years, and covers such important events as the martyrdom of St. Alban, the coming of the Saxons. the arrival of Augustine of Canterbury and the Synod of Whitby, which really saw the triumph of the Catholic over the Celtic church in the British Isles.
Bede rarely left his monastery and never traveled beyond the great city of York. He never met a great leader or saw a library better than his own at Jarrow. He died peacefully in his cell at the monastery in May 735 AD. On the day he died he completed a copy of the translation of the Gospel of John into Olde English.. Now today we can read the gospel of John in an instant on our telephones. and carry a copy in our pocket. In those days to produce a single book of the Bible took many months - skins had to be prepared, the correct pigments for the ink had to be collected, blended and made, hand sharpened tools had to be prepared for the work and every letter had to be painstakingly copied by hand. Monks like Bede worked through the short days and chill of a northern winter without benefit of light other than a candle, and with no heat in their cell. Pen and paper, light and warmth were beyond their wildest dreams. To his work of translation Bede brought his knowledge of Hebrew, Greek and Latin. His copy of the whole Bible remained the Bible in use across the Roman Catholic church until 1966.
Within a hundred years Bede’s Ecclesiastical History was known all over Europe, and provided the foundation for the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, which used the BC/AD form of dating, which remained current until the very recent adoption of the more ecumenical BCE/CE system. Bede’s monastery at Jarrow was not so fortunate. Sadly it was pillaged and destroyed by fire by the Vikings in 794, and by mid ninth century was abandoned. Happily Bede’s reputation caused it to be rebuilt in 1074, and the remains of those eleventh century buildings still surround the church and are now part of Bede’s World. However its very historic significance caused it to be one of the first monasteries suppressed at the Reformation, and since 1536 St. Paul’s, Jarrow has been a parish church.
So why is this history of interest to us, on the other side of the world, some 1300 years later? Is it not because in Christ we are all one body - as Jesus expresses it in today’s Gospel, I am in my father, and you in me, and I in you. It was true for Bede and it is true for us. In God there is no past or future, but only an eternal present. We are part with Bede of the great communion of saints.
But more than that, it is as if some of the saints run through that eternal body of Christ like the great veins and arteries, carrying the message of the gospel to every cell and organ. We know and acknowledge the great saints, without whom the fulness of the gospel would have been lost. Where would we be without Paul, or Francis for example? And for those of us whose church heritage as Anglicans, takes us back to the British Isles, Bede is the saint who enables us to understand something of our beginnings.
It is Bede’s hagiography of Aidan that teaches us that Aidan, whose name in Gaelic means fire, lit a torch across the north of the British Isles. Aidan was the torch, but the light was Christ, and that light shines here today. When Jesus told his disciples He would not leave them ‘orphaned’ but would come to them in the form of the Spirit, he anticipated that the Spirit would take bodily shape, in the saints who like Bede, call us back to the light.
The last word this morning belongs to Bede himself, who in his commentary on the book of Revelation wrote,
Christ is the morning star, who when the night of this world has passed, brings to his saints the promised light of life and opens to them everlasting day.
In the name of Christ the light of the world. Amen