HOMILY FOR THE SERVICE COMMEMORATING VENERABLE BEDE
CHAPEL OF ST AUGUSTINE OF CANTERBURY, ANGLICAN CENTRE, ROME
25 MAY 2021
Reading the History of the World in Light of Jesus Christ
The saints are God’s answer to our human questions; they are the best and most credible exegetes of God’s Word, in which we as human beings encounter God’s gifts and demands. This is especially true of the two saints we are remembering today − the Venerable Bede, monk and great scholar, and Saint Aldhem, Bishop of Sherborne. They both lived in early medieval times and, with their great learning, testify to how un-gloomy the Middle Ages actually were, although often described as the “dark” ages. On the contrary, the Middle Ages were distinguished by an enlightened spirituality. Particularly Saint Bede the Venerable drew constant sustenance from Holy Scripture for his sublime theological reflection. It is in his spirit that we, too, are well advised to listen to the words of the Gospel reading on following Jesus. It is certainly no accident that the lectionary foresees it for his feast day (Mark 10:28-31).
The Church as God’s dwelling-place
After Jesus’ very earnest instruction about wealth and discipleship, Peter raises the very human objection: “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” In Jesus’ reply to Peter it first becomes clear how Jesus intends the community of his followers to come into being: “everyone who has given up house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or property, for my sake and for the Good News.” This list comprises the absolutely normal place where Israelites lived their lives; today we would perhaps call it their place as citizens with their father, more precisely, the patriarch, at the centre of their lives. So they enter the community of followers of Jesus by leaving their hereditary place of life with its focus on the patriarch.
Certainly, that is only the first step. The second is leaving their hereditary place of life for the sake of gaining a new one. Anyone who leaves their traditional dwelling place will – Jesus promises – “receive now in return a hundred times as many houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and property – and also persecution. And in the world to come that person will have eternal life”. Anyone who leaves their traditional civic place of residence will settle in a new one; and this is characterised by regaining everything they have left behind – except the fathers. The fathers are missing at this new location. Why? Simply because in this new community of Jesus there is no longer the human father, the patriarch, the centre of life. Rather, the centre of life in this new community is God’s own self.
Consequently, entering into this community of Jesus’ followers means moving out of the civic community with the patriarch at the centre to be integrated into a new community, with God alone at the centre. Hence the community of disciples only lives in the spirit of Jesus when they don’t just proclaim God’s word but are themselves a place where God lives. What Mark tells us in this dialogue between Peter and Jesus is drastically brought home to us in the Letter of James – that we should seek to be near and subject to God. For “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6).
The biblical texts remind us that, today too, faith in God must have undisputed priority in the Church. In the present situation of Christianity there can be no greater priority than opening up access to God again for people. After all, if we deprive people today of access to God we don’t give them enough, even if we give them a great deal. This necessary concentration on faith in God has lost nothing of its relevance in the present situation of Christianity, in which we suffer from a certain hearing impairment − or even deafness − towards God. Nowadays we have so many different frequencies in our ears, or have even closed our ears, that we can hardly hear God anymore. Hence the most important assignment of Christianity in the present day is to witness to the living God and so give people the answer they need.
Christ as the true reference point of history
As Christians we don’t just confess any god in the sense of a supreme being somewhere way beyond this world. Instead, we confess a God who is not silent, but who speaks − a God who spoke to his people Israel and revealed himself ultimately in his Son Jesus of Nazareth. The Letter to the Hebrews describes it with unparalleled clarity: “Long ago God spoke many times and in many ways to our ancestors through the prophets. And now in these final days, he has spoken to us through his Son. God promised everything to the Son as an inheritance, and through the Son he created the universe” (Heb 1:1-2). Central to basic Christian witness to the living God is witness to Jesus Christ, truly human and truly divine, in whom the living God shows and reveals Godself.
The Church Fathers expressed the truth that Christ is the centre of Christian life and of ecclesial communion in the lovely images of sun and moon. Just as the moon has no light of itself, receiving all its light from the sun in order to shine into the night, the mission of the church lies in not wanting to ‘sun itself’ but in being content to be the moon, in order to radiate Christ as the true sun into the night of the human world. Today we need the witness of a lunar ecclesiology, as called for by the Second Vatican Council and expressed most clearly in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church “Lumen gentium”. That is because “lumen gentium” – the Light of nations – is not the Church. It is Christ, whose “light brightly visible on the countenance of the Church” is destined to illuminate all people.
Such lunar ecclesiology is also part of the great legacy of the Venerable Bede. He always read and commented on Holy Scripture with consistently Christological hermeneutics. He was convinced that the actual key to understanding Scripture as the living word of God is Jesus Christ, and that, in the light of Jesus Christ, the Old and New Testaments should be regarded as one Holy Scripture. In his view, the two testaments belong together in the spirit of what he called “concordia sacramentorum”. The reason is that they are paths to Christ, albeit expressed in different signs and institutions.
This concentration on Christology is not only apparent in Bede’s exegesis and his liturgical theology, with which he wanted to guide the believers to joyfully celebrate the mysteries of faith and to espouse them credibly in their lives. Orienting his whole theology to the mystery of Christ is also – and primarily – manifest in Bede’s favourite activity, i.e., depicting the history of the Church, in which he saw the Holy Spirit at work, and where he was deeply convinced that the reference point and centre of the whole of history was the birth of Jesus Christ. While, in those days, time was still calculated from the founding of Rome, Bede drafted in his “Chronica Maiora” a chronology that later became the basis of the universal calendar “ab incarnatione Domini”. We therefore owe to this great early medieval scholar the calendar that understands and interprets history starting from God’s incarnation.
Gratitude and prayer for saints today, too
The centrality of faith in God and Christocentrism prove to be heartfelt concerns of Saint Bede. They make it clear how much Christian faith and Bede’s erudite theological reflection influenced life in the England of his time and, going beyond that, in the whole of Europe. This is clear, for example, in the great appreciation shown the Venerable Bede by Saint Boniface, the leading missionary to Germany. On several occasions Boniface asked the Archbishop of York and the Abbot of Wearmouth to arrange for copies of some of Saint Bede’s works to be sent to him so that he and his companions could enjoy spiritual illumination from reading them. And a century later, Notker Balbulus, the Abbot of Saint Gallen, hearing of the extraordinary influence of Saint Bede, called him a new sun that God had caused to rise, not from the East this time but from the West, to enlighten the world.
We have every reason to be grateful for the life of Saint Bede, with its magnificent witness to profound faith and untiring intellectual and spiritual work, and to always keep it in mind, particularly in the present day in which we face similar great challenges. We can only take up these challenges in ecumenical fellowship, as Pope Benedict XVI told journalists during the flight to the United Kingdom on an apostolic journey in September 2010. Still in the spirit of the Venerable Bede, the Pope added: “If Anglicans and Catholics see that both are not there for themselves, but are rather instruments of Christ…; if both follow together the priority of Christ and not themselves, they draw closer together, because the priority of Christ brings them together …”; then they “are united in commitment to the truth of Christ who comes into this world, and so they find themselves also placed reciprocally in a true and fruitful ecumenism.”
Together as we are ecumenically, we pray that the living God – with the intercession of Saint Bede and Saint Bishop Aldhem – will today send us such great figures who spiritually bring out the beauty of Christian faith and lead trustworthy lives. Today, too, the saints are God’s way of answering many human questions. Yet the most costly and unsurpassable answer that God has given us is his Son Jesus Christ, who gives us a share of his intimate relation with his Father so that the promise of the Letter of James may be fulfilled in our lives as well: “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you” (James 4:8a). Amen.
Epistle: James 4: 1-10
Gospel: Mark 10: 28-31
. Lumen gentium, 1.
. Benedict XVI, Interview with journalists during his flight to the United Kingdom on 16 September 2010.