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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Monday, 12 May 2014

Saint John of Beverley: a celebration

St John of Beverley is a truly northern saint, one of that galaxy of great men and women of old who, though long dead, continue to speak to us and inspire us today. I come to you from Durham Cathedral, a place that did not exist in John’s time; and yet seems to me to be intimately connected with our celebration of him tonight. Durham only exists because of St Cuthbert, the 7th century bishop of Lindisfarne whose community brought his body to our peninsula in the 10th century and built a cathedral as his shrine. John belonged to the same Saxon Christian world. A native Northumbrian from Harpham, he came back to the north from Canterbury where he had been educated, and entered the double monastery at Whitby under its great abbess St Hild. In the year that Cuthbert died, 687, he became bishop of Hexham and then of York, both sees connected with St Wilfrid who had been educated on Lindisfarne under St Aidan.

But the direct link with Durham is through the Venerable Bede. His remains were brought to Durham in the 11th century (said to have been stolen by the monks of Durham from their resting place at Jarrow). His shrine was nearly as important as Cuthbert’s in the middle ages. Bede’s huge significance not simply for the north but for the whole of England is that but for him, we would not know as much as we do about the Saxon church and the foundations it laid for the development of Christianity across this island. Aidan, Oswald, Cuthbert, Wilfrid, Hild, Benedict Biscop, Chad, Cedd – our knowledge of these great saints would be immeasurably the poorer without Bede’s writings. John of Beverley is another of them. Bede devotes five chapters of his History to John, and it’s clear that he was a man whom Bede not only admired but loved. One of the reasons for this may be that John himself ordained Bede as priest early in the 8th century. For many clergy, the bishop who ordained us is someone who holds a particular place in our affections and prayers. Perhaps it was like this for the young Bede.
Our New Testament reading tonight speaks of some of the virtues Bede found in St John. I chose a reading from St Luke because we know that John wrote a commentary on the 3rd gospel, though it has not survived. I wonder whether there were particular aspects of St Luke that he especially admired and that may have influenced the shape of his ministry. For St Luke, Jesus comes into the world as the Saviour not only of his own Jewish people but of all humanity: there is a universal dimension to this gospel of divine mercy without limit that many have found particularly appealing. Luke goes out of his way to speak of how Jesus gives back human dignity to and embraces slaves, outcastes, children, women, people who were not highly regarded in the patriarchal societies of antiquity. The first part of our reading recalled how crowds came to Jesus to be healed of their diseases: ‘all…were trying to touch him, for power came out from him’.

But the power of Jesus lies in his words as well as his works, says Luke. Indeed, the crowd, he says, had come out to listen to him as well as to find healing. Luke quotes the essence of his proclamation: ‘Happy are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God! Happy are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled! Happy are you who weep now, for you will laugh!’ And by contrast, how miserable are those who look for fulfilment elsewhere: in their wealth, their standing, their achievement, all the things that pass away and do not endure – for to invest your entire life in anything other than God’s kingdom of wholesomeness and promise is to miss what it means to be a human being. So ‘love your enemies’ he says, ‘do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you… Do to others as you would have them do to you.’ That rule is not golden simply because it makes for harmonious human relationships, though that is true. It is golden because it’s how God is in himself, the one who gives himself to humanity, to each of us, by coming among us in Jesus. And the secret of happiness is to live as Jesus did, in the light of the kingdom of God that he has come to announce and to embody in himself.
These are among the qualities Bede saw in John of Beverley. He introduces him as a ‘holy man named John’, the bishop who is not so absorbed in overseeing the affairs of the church that he cannot pay attention to a poor homeless young man who is also a deaf mute. He provides him with food and shelter, heals his infirmity and teaches him (literally) his ABC. Bede says he became like the lame man in the Acts of the Apostles (also a Lucan story) who, after his healing, walked and leaped and praised God. The boy says Bede ‘gained a clear complexion, ready speech and beautiful curly hair, whereas once he had been ugly, destitute and dumb’. The detail is so charming that we wonder whether Bede heard the story from him himself. Bede tells of other healings wrought by St John, and these are recounted at some length, as if to say: don’t pass over the stories told of this man of God too quickly. We should learn from them, ask ourselves how they point back to the example of Jesus Christ himself, what they might say to us and how they might inspire us as we try to live as committed Christians in our own times.

Here, I think, are particular questions for all of you here in this Minster community and in this East Riding town. Like Durham and St Cuthbert, this church would not be the marvellous building it is were it not for the shrine of St John, and the way he was revered throughout medieval times. Nor would the town would not be what it is. Some of England’s greatest kings fervently honoured his memory, among them Henry V who attributed his victory at Agincourt to the saint. With this memory of the enormous following St John had enjoyed here, you wonder what went on in the minds of those who destroyed his shrine during the Reformation era and confiscated its great wealth. In Durham, where Cuthbert’s shrine survived the king’s commissioners’ savage attempts to wreck it, there were dark mutterings about not tampering with places where the saints had performed works of deliverance and healing because they would not like it.
But of course, a shrine is more than a physical place within a grand building. Just as we in Durham gladly inherit the vocation of being Cuthbert’s community today, you here, by being a living temple of God’s presence, embody what belonged to the essence of St John’s shrine. That is to say, as people of faith who inhabit this great building and this lovely town, it is your vocation to do what John of Beverley did in his day. It is for you to follow your Lord and Teacher as he did, to imitate his words and works of mercy and salvation, as he did, to bring healing and reconciliation to the people among whom you live and work, as he did, to live in simplicity and loving community as he did, and to bear living witness to the coming of God’s kingdom of justice, truth and peace in the society of this town – as he did. In this place, all that makes us want to cherish and love St John of Beverley lives on, not simply in the stones of this church and its ancient shrine, or on words written on parchment by an ancient historian, but in you who are its living stones, a shrine of flesh and blood in whom the spirit of the risen Jesus bears joyful witness to the good news that he brings to the world that is both his and ours.

At the Patronal Festival of St John of Beverley, Beverley Minster, 11 May 2014 Isaiah 35; Luke 6.17-31


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