Homily for the Feast of St. Aidan

Feast of St. Aidan, August 29, 2021




Thank you, Doris, for your storytelling, and Good Morning again, St. Aidan’s, and welcome to the Feast of our patron, Aidan, monk of Iona, Bishop of Lindisfarne. We gather this morning in combined services to celebrate in the spirit of this gentle monastic who opened himself to God’s call to be sent out, ultimately to become the “apostle of Northumbria,” known for his gentleness as much as his discipline. At a young age, Aidan had become a monk at Iona off the western coast of Scotland, a monastic community that had been founded by St. Columba and twelve companions in 563 C.E. Though he loved his life at Iona, God called him to become “a pilgrim for the love of God,” as David Adam describes Aidan in his modern of account of our patron’s life.[1] Aidan made his way to Northumbria at the invitation of King Oswald, who had come into power after his uncle, Edwin, had been killed. Christianity had begun to grow in the region in previous years, but now the call emerged to plant it anew, especially after another monk of Iona had tried and given up in despair. Gentleness and steady connection, building up in love, not tearing down in harshness, was what Aidan felt was needed.[2] And so he answered this call.

In studying the emergence of Christian monasticism in seminary, I was taught that the emergence of disciplined religious life was an important transition from the earliest period of Christianity in which it was dangerous to follow Christ, indeed, sometimes to the point where being openly Christian could result in being killed. Much early Christian writing unfolded in reflection on in that constant sense of danger, including lives of saints who lost their lives for their faith. But then once that danger lessened, writers started to wonder, how did that shifted experience of vulnerability, a greater experience of societal acceptance, impact what it might mean or look like to be a Christian? The monastic movement within Christianity has been seen as a way of taking up those questions, refusing to get overly comfortable, and embracing the challenging edge of Christian life in the face of danger. What struck me this year as I reflected on Aidan’s story is the language he uses of three different forms of “martyrdom” in relation to Christian life, very much reflecting the transition I had learned about, with his references to red, green, and white martyrdom in our first reading.[3] I was intrigued by the green martyrdom as a kind of dying to self in the sense of an intentional pruning for growth, hearkening back to the reading we had in May on the vine and the branches (John 15:1-8).[4] Green martyrdom, as he saw it, is open to all of us, inviting us out of our comfort zones to be changed and indeed extended in growth as we make our way. And then I was struck by white, the third kind of martyrdom, that continues that theme of extension, sending one out into the world, away from one’s place of origin, on pilgrimage with and for God. This was the mode in which he answered the charge from King Oswald to begin that planting process again. These modes struck me as particularly apt in this continuing time of COVID, extended as we are both here at 101 Gold Mine Drive and in our various locations via Zoom. We are in our ambiguous location are being extended, called through challenge into growth.

And although they emerge in reverse order in David Adam’s account, the second feature of Aidan’s story that struck me this year was of different kinds of Lent. The reference emerges at a moment after Aidan and companions had founded Lindisfarne on the Holy Island in/off the coast of Northumbria, a place I know some of you have visited. Aidan had extended himself to the point that he needed additional space where he could not be found. And so he made his way to another, smaller and more remote locale, to spend six weeks in prayer. He described this chunk of time as “one of the Lenten times”—Lent plural. Because apparently, one cannot have just one Lent. There was in Celtic tradition, I learned, a “Lent of Jesus, the Lent of Moses, and the Lent of Elijah,” intriguingly echoing those who were illumined on the Transfiguration mount.[5] The Lent of Jesus is the one we know well, that precedes Easter. The Lent of Elijah preceded Christmas—what we know as Advent. The Lent of Moses followed in the summer after Pentecost. Which—notwithstanding today’s Feast Day—is where one might say we find ourselves. In a context that church type people came to call COVIDtide well over a year ago, a time of seemingly neverending Lent, I was both amused by this notion and at the same time it spoke deeply to me, naming a reality in which I feel we are living. Naming it as both challenging and as holy, and holding out the possibility of this time as even in some sense life-giving-- in the spirit of the extension of that green and white martyrdom, the different forms of life that come to us in the extension of our growth out from our true vine.

And so here we are in this challenging moment. A day that is our feast day, and yet also a time in which in our wider world there is so much that is so difficult that has been happening. This week there was a terrible bombing in Kabul.[6] People have been losing their lives. People are in pain. People are suffering. The Delta variant of COVID continues to unfold in ways that are challenging to us all. And we’re aware of the hurricane that is now approaching Louisiana, arriving this morning.[7] I invite your prayer this morning for everyone who is impacted by all of these things. This is a moment of challenge. And yet, to me, it can help to name this time as part of a context of Lent, a “Lent of Moses,” as a place that is holy, a place in which God declares Godself to be with us and extends an invitation from God to an ongoing process of growth. This is a time and place of meeting the challenges that come to us, a place in which God invites us to be with one another, to uplift and support one another, to know that we will be sustained in this place. God is with us. Truly, God is with us. And so this day, I invite us all to give thanks for the places in our lives where we can feel and see that green growth emerging in the midst of challenge. To give thanks for one another, for the new life that come into our communal life even in this difficult time, as we will celebrate shortly with a celebration of folks who have become part of St. Aidan’s during COVIDtide, during this time when we have been extended in so many ways. Life and growth continues in our midst in this time of flux, and I give thanks for it, and I give thanks for you, in the spirit of our patron St. Aidan.

[1] David Adam, Flame in My Heart: St. Aidan for Today (Morehouse Publishing, 1998) [2] From “Aidan, Missionary Abbot, Bishop of Lindisfarne (651).” http://www.satucket.com/lectionary/Aidan.htm [3] Flame in My Heart, 30-31: “Already he was practicing the green martyrdom: by prayer and fasting he was disciplining his desires and seeking only the will of God. Green martyrdom was expected of all who dedicated their lives to Christ. … Green martyrdom is that dying to self that is necessary for fullness of life. Green martyrdom is pruning for growth, it is about extending ourselves. Now Aidan was to take on board the white martyrdom, though not for the first time. His white martyrdom had begun long ago when he left his home and the people he loved. It began when he left the beautiful and familiar places that were dear to him from his youth. … White martyrdom was the call to leave all and follow Christ, to give up all that was dear to him, to abandon possessions and familiar surroundings for the unknown. White martyrdom was to be freed from place that you might reach outwards and upwards, that you might have the greatest mobility.” [4] https://www.lectionarypage.net/YearB_RCL/Easter/BEaster5_RCL.html [5] Flame in My Heart, 87 [6] https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/26/world/asia/kabul-airport-bombing.html [7] https://www.nytimes.com/live/2021/08/28/us/hurricane-ida-updates

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