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St Aidan of Lindisfarne 1 Cor 9:16-19; John 13:16-20

Just off the north east coast of England lies a large tidal island which is cut off by the sea twice a day. A road runs across the causeway and residents and visitors are able to cross between the island and the mainland safely at low tide. At one end there is the remains of a small castle on a pyramid-shaped hill. A village surrounds a parish church and apart from that there is only rough grass, some small fields, and a great deal of wildlife, mainly birds. Perhaps you have visited or seen Lindisfarne also known as Holy Island. It is a popular destination for both tourists and pilgrims. Today we commemorate one of its earliest inhabitants who chose it on purpose, and made it a base which had far-reaching consequences: St Aidan, Bishop of Lindisfarne, d. 651.

To appreciate Aidan it helps to know something of his life and times. These isles were a very different place 1400 years ago. The Romans had withdrawn sometime in the 4th C. leaving a number of different peoples to take over. The isles, including the area we now know as England, were wild, densely forested and populated by Angles, the original British, the Irish, and Saxons. There were a number of smaller kingdoms and tribal areas and there was often warfare, conflict and shifting alliances. These times, known as the early middle ages, were brutal and difficult. To survive you had to be a warrior.

In AD634 Oswald took the kingdom of Northumbria in battle and soon after requested the Irish monks at Iona to send a Christian mission to his people. Oswald himself had been in exile as a child and was educated and influenced by the monks on Iona. When Oswald became king of Northumbria, he established his base at Bamburgh on the coast, and wanted his people to live as peaceable Christians.

The Celtic Church, the kind of Christian culture in which Aidan grew up was different from the Roman style of Christianity which Augustine brought to Kent. Eventually the two traditions clashed and the Roman one was adopted at the Synod of Whitby in 664, but Celtic spirituality has enjoyed something of a revival in recent times. It’s popular for various reasons. An interest in Celtic literature was cultivated by some Victorians who had a romantic idea of life in the more remote times and parts of our isles. More recently David Adam, amongst others, has composed simple prayers and written extensively about Aidan, Cuthbert and the Celtic church. There is also a desire amongst some English Christians to rediscover an “original” spirituality of our land. A more profound reason why this kind of spirituality appeals is that it links prayer and belief with concern and reverence for creation. The Iona liturgy that we use as part of our worship here has its roots in this kind of spirituality.

So what can we learn of and from Aidan? His name means “little fire” or “flame” and this means both that a passion burned in his heart and that light shines from his life in dark times. The collect of St Aidan speaks of his simplicity, humility and love for the poor. I would like to take each of those in turn as a way of thinking further about this saint and missionary who brought the life and light of the gospel to our land.

Aidan was a monk, perhaps not of the kind we might readily imagine living a cloistered life in a large establishment with the sounds of chanting drifting around a large abbey. That kind of monastic life came much later. But Aidan lived as simply as he could with his community. They lived in groups of small, primitive buildings, leading a common life. They were dedicated to prayer, work to support their life and education. They went on preaching tours around the country, returning to their community perhaps with boys who were brought for schooling. Life could be quite harsh, but they thought of the bleak seascape being like Jesus in the wilderness. They lived close to the land and this is very much a theme of celtic spirituality – rejoicing in creation. Aidan accepted the fact that he was a creature and in that there is much simplicity.

You may wonder why Lindisfarne was chosen as a suitable place to establish a community of monks. Aidan saw that it combined two important things: on the one hand he was near enough to Bamburgh castle where the king held court. Oswald had invited the monks at Iona to send missionaries and so he valued their advice. Lindisfarne allowed Aidan to get to the king quickly if necessary. But Lindisfarne, being a tidal island was also cut off by the tides twice a day. That provided enough distance for the monks not to get caught up in the king’s affairs completely, but to maintain their spiritual integrity. They were to be in the world but not of it. This balance is also reflected in the way Aidan treated people: all were treated equally whether rich or poor, of high status or low. Aidan was simple in his dealings with people. I think we can learn from this simplicity. We are not all called to be monks or nuns, but to accept our creatureliness is important as well as living as simply as possible. To treat all people with equal respect and not to let wealth or status influence us is also important as we try to follow Christ. This is what lay behind Paul writing to his Corinthian friends and saying that he strove to offer the gospel freely to all, regardless of who they were or what he might get out of it in order to attract as many as possible to Christ.

Today’s gospel reading is some of the words Jesus spoke to his disciples after he washed their feet in the upper room. He said that he was sending them out as servant and messengers of God just as he had demonstrated his service of them in the name of God. Those who accepted the messenger also accept the one who sent them. St Aidan was sent to serve Oswald’s people and to be a messenger of the good news. One of Aidan’s methods was to travel on foot rather than on horseback. The rich or powerful went on horseback. But that meant the rider was always above anyone on foot. Aidan could have used a horse, but he preferred to meet ordinary people on their own level – to speak to them as and where they were. I think that is a challenge for us. We often want to be in control and to expect people to adapt to our way. We expect people to come into church and fit in with us. But our society is full of many who have never been in church. We need to find ways of meeting people where they actually are, meeting them on their own level, in order to bring Christ to them.

Love for the poor
Aidan went about Oswald’s kingdom from village to settlement not only preaching but also healing and doing good. He would often use money given to him to ransom slaves. He gave away anything given to him, sometimes to the frustration of his benefactors! He was not afraid to speak out and challenge the wrong-doing of wealthy or powerful men. In these ways he demonstrated his love for the poor. This is such a challenge to us with our relative wealth and our tendency to acquire. We are not necessarily called to exercise poverty, as are monks and nuns, but we are called to love the poor and for that love to be shown in our actions. There are many ways in which the world wide Church seeks to alleviate poverty and stand up to unjust structures. Our love for the poor can be demonstrated both in private charity (say supporting Christian Aid or World Vision) and also in supporting initiatives by organisations to bring about greater economic equality in our world.

Aidan sought to serve Christ in leaving what was familiar and becoming a messenger of the gospel to Northumbria. He would not want us to be followers of Aidan. Rather he would want us to follow Christ’s example which was simplicity, humility and loving service of the poor. The flame and light of faith that was Aidan’s can also be ours through the grace of God and the indwelling of the Spirit in our lives.

Copyright © Rev Paul Smith



Lord of creation,
whose glory is around and within us:
open our eyes to your wonders,
that we may serve you with reverence
and know your peace at our lives' end,
through Jesus Christ our Lord.