Student Sermon – The Feast of St Hilda

The Feast of St Hilda – Tuesday 19th November, Morning Prayer and Eucharist

I have a confession to make.  I’ve been having a bit of an identity crisis over the last three years.  It’s not because I quit my profession to pursue Holy Orders, or moved over 600 miles from my husband (and dogs) to attend theological college, or that I  now find myself here in Cambridge.  A lot of change, adaptation, reorientation.  But, no, these aren’t the cause for my unease.  Rather, it comes from watching somewhat helplessly as the values, principles, and institutions of my relatively young nation are hollowed out.  “Truth,” “democracy,” “the rule of law”—concepts I thought were rooted in a common vocabulary are losing their meaning, slipping away.  And I know this angst is not unfamiliar to you, my dear cousins with much older traditions. When our points of reference are shifting, when terra firma isn’t, to what do we cling?

At its heart, the Synod of Whitby was an effort to settle the ecclesial identity of a unified Kingdom of Northumbria, forged over decades of conflict from its constituent kingdoms of Bernicia and Deria.  There’s enough drama in the run-up to Whitby for an ITV miniseries:  a king is deposed and killed; his young sons flee into exile, a change of fortune and a marriage for love (or more likely, for convenience) to unite the dynastic ambitions of competing royal houses who, by the way, celebrate Easter on different days.  The disparity in religious practice plays out across the realm as well as within the royal household.  King Oswy follows the tradition of the Irish monks, who calculate Easter after the 14th of Nisan according to the Jewish calendar; and his queen practices according to Roman custom, which calculates Easter after the 15th.  To establish the kingdom’s future prosperity and security, King Oswy called his bishops and other religious to St. Hilda’s double monastery of men and women at Whitby to debate the date of Easter.  Also on the docket:  which style of tonsure monks should wear, the receding hairline of St John, as was the Celtic fashion, or the circular bald spot on the crown of the head, after St. Peter, which was the Roman style. 

While one consulted reference described Hilda’s role as “hostess,” she in fact played a far more substantial part, offering her views in support of retaining Celtic custom and making it the kingdom’s standard practice.  But this homily is not about Hilda as a forward-looking, proto-feminist leader in the Church.  Rather, it’s about Hilda as conciliator and as a person obedient to the synod’s decision. She enables others to find their footing when King Oswy determines he, his family, and his kingdom will follow Roman custom.  Hilda recognized that peace and unity among people of faith and all the members of the worldly kingdom was far more important than the matters determined by the Synod.

“Do not be afraid,” says our Gospel reading.  Hilda is not afraid, for the foundation upon which her identity rests is immutable.  Having been converted to Christianity at 13 and taught by Roman clerics, Hilda is in her early 30s when she adopts Celtic customs in response to Aiden’s call to establish a monastery.  A product of both traditions, Hilda knows her identity is not determined by which pattern of male baldness her brethren monks adopt.  More fundamentally, she knows the unassailable truth of Easter is not whether it falls after the 14th of Nisan or after the 15th but that it.. simply.. happened.  God became flesh and dwelt among us, and through his death and resurrection we have eternal life.  And not this only, but it is Easter every time we gather around this table for Eucharist.

“Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit” the Gospel continues.  Hilda is ready.  While the Bishop of Lindisfarne and other supporters of Celtic tradition retreat to Iona, Hilda remains with and witnesses to the people of Northumbria, her lamp lit to dispel the darkness of their hurt, confusion and anger.  I can also imagine this proto-feminist abbess, whisperer to kings and bishops, would brook no nonsense from those whose case was argued successfully, admonishing others to put into practice the Christian charity they profess on their lips. 

In a few weeks’ time, most of you will vote in an election to shape this country’s identity and direction.  Whatever the outcome, there will be a mixture of hurt, confusion, anger, juxtaposed with relief and joy, and the latter possibly tinged with an unhelpful dollop of triumphalism.  Do not be afraid, and like Hilda, be ready to carry your lamps, burning brightly with the flame of God’s reconciling love, into the unknown future of your great nation.  Let your light enable others to find solid ground, to live into grace, and to face the future with hope, not fear.

“The Lord is glorious in His saints; O come, let us adore Him.”

Catherine Ballinger, Diocese of Washington

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