Friday, August 14, 2015

A Visit to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne

It was a perfect day. The sun was shining and the sky was blue. The wind was a little chilly. It was what we describe as an “on-off” day. Our coats were on and off all day as we repeatedly moved from shelter to open countryside. It was on this lovely day that we visited the Holy Island of Lindisfarne

In the morning we had driven to Berwick-on-Tweed to visit our friend, Chris. We were delighted that Chris was looking so well after his long months of struggling with illness (Please send healing thoughts his way as he continues his journey towards recovery).

Chris felt strong enough to join us for the afternoon on Lindisfarne. Little did he know that our visit was going to become an eight-mile hike! We arrived at the island at the end of the safe crossing time. This is the time we love the most, when the tide cuts the island off from the mainland for a few hours.

Lindisfarne is a special place. It lies off the North-East coast of England reached by a tidal causeway. It was St. Aidan who arrived at the island in the seventh century. He came from the monastery on Iona, Scotland. He is accredited with bringing Christianity to England. There is a feeling of peace on the island. It is what the Celts used to call a place where “the air is thin.” There is closeness between the natural and the spiritual. The peace is tangible. It is in the air.

We walked around the perimetre of the island. As always, when one moves a little way from the centre of a popular tourist spot the countryside becomes deserted. 
We have spent weeks, days and hours on the island years ago. Nevertheless I was amazed at how familiar it all was as we walked around the almost deserted shore.  We remembered the various bays, the quarry and the paths as if we had walked them yesterday. For Andy and I it was a journey which kindled many memories. As we walked our conversation was often punctuated with “do you remember when …”.

We walked across the sand dunes covered with gorse and wild flowers. We introduced Chris to the wilder side of the island. As we walked we dropped into the different bays. Firstly, we visited the long expanse of golden sand with sound of sea gently lapping at the water’s edge. Then the rockier bays with the cliffs full of nesting birds. After which we came to the bay where there are great slabs of rock. This was where we sat a while and ate our sandwiches. It was a magical place as we watched, with great delight, the seals swimming in the bay. At one point we counted about fifty of them.

Sadly, we couldn’t linger there all day but moved on to see more bays. We were beyond sandy beaches now and the coastline was all pebble. We walked along coming nearer and nearer to the castle. The castle was built around 1550, although it underwent much renovation in the early twentieth century. We couldn’t resist a peep into the nearby lime kilns where our children, and, subsequently, our grandchildren played.

As we walked from the castle, views of the priory were in front of us and to our left the harbor. The sun was starting to set and the whole harbor was clothed in golden light.

A stroll through the village, including a wee taste of Lindisfarne mead, completed our circle. The tide was receding, we returned to the car park, happy that we had been blessed with such wonderful day.

Feeding, Fame and Fickleness

Today, the Lectionary continues its glance at John chapter 6 which has spanned three weeks. The chapter starts with a feeding story. Actually, all the Gospels carry feeding stories. The one we are reading today is the Gospel of John’s account of the tale where 5,000 people are fed from the five loaves and two fishes offered by a little boy. Not only were they fed, but the left-overs were enough to fill twelve baskets.

The feeding stories have been mainly interpreted in two different ways. The first way is that they are miracles where bread and fish is supernaturally multiplied.  The second way they have been interpreted is as an example of generosity where the little boy’s gift encourages everyone to share what they brought so there was more than sufficient for all. The end result is the same, 5,000 hungry people are fed.

Last time I blogged on this passage I talked about how I found the feeding stories profoundly disturbing as I tried to imagine reading them in a country where there is no green grass for people to sit on, no crumbs to gather and where perhaps, even one of those crumbs would mean life for another day for a child or an animal. How would I present the gospel with its many feeding stories and where Jesus claims he is the bread of life to those literally starving to death?

Today, as I read the chapter the verses that stood out to me were right at the end of the feeding story.

‘When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.” When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.’ (John 6:14-15)

They caused me to ponder Jesus’ reaction to fame and also the fickleness of humanity.

What is it that causes such extreme reactions in people? The crowd of 5,000 people ate and their reaction was to want to “make him king”. Why? Would we be the same today? If someone supernaturally fed 5,000 people would we be calling for them to run for the next president?

At this point in John’s gospel it is stated that people were following Jesus because of the miracles they saw. Prior to this story, the gospel records no stories about Jesus teaching, nothing that reveals any character, it is purely miracle based.

It seems like the people have short memories. I wonder how many of the 5,000 who were fed and wanted to make Jesus king were in the crowd who shouted “crucify him” a few months later!

As the story continues we see the character of Jesus emerge. It is in his reaction to the offer of fame. He withdrew to a mountain by himself. Now that is a model for us to live by. It is a model of ministry to others. It is a model that shows compassion on hungry people (or sick people, or hurting people, or abused people, or invisible people) but without any desire for fame or recognition. It is a model of service that alleviates suffering then slips away out of sight. It shows the character of the one who has compassion, serves and then withdraws. Let that be our model and our aim as we minister.

But the chapter doesn’t end there, in the gospel of John the story continues. The crowd was persistent they searched for and eventually found Jesus who challenged them saying that they were looking for him only because they ate their fill of the loaves.

Jesus then began to talk about being the bread of life. In the last part of the chapter the dialogue is clearly Eucharistic. One has to wonder if the dialogue is included to affirm the Eucharistic practice that had developed in the Johannine community. Margaret M. Mitchell et al take that view.

“The sacramental language of chapter 6 certainly alludes to a ritual practice used by the Johannine community at some point in its development. It might have come late to the life of the community, or more likely, it describes an accepted practice the understanding of which the evangelist wanted to deepen.” (Cambridge History of Christianity 2006, 142)

In other words, the author of John was giving the first and second century readers a legitimization of their practices. This was both with the Eucharistic language celebrating Jesus’ death and resurrection and with the analogy to Moses and the manna, even to the crowd grumbling as they did in the wilderness.

Yet, that was the verse that stood out as I read the latter half of the chapter. The people began to complain about Jesus because they didn’t like what he said (41). This brought me right back to my first thought about how fickle human beings can be.

This crowd had been fed, they had wanted to make Jesus king, they had sought him out on “the other side of the sea” (25) yet as soon as he started to talk they started to complain.

Apart from all the Eucharistic theology in this chapter I think it offers us a real challenge about our way of living. It speaks a lot about the character of humanity. Much for us to ponder, I think.