Columba, Abbot of Iona, Missionary, died 597 Today we start an occasional series looking at saints, Catholic and Reformed.
Born in Ireland in about the year 521, Columba was trained as a monk by St Finnian and then founded several monasteries himself, including probably that of Kells, before leaving Ireland to settle on Iona, off the coast of Scotland. He was accompanied by twelve companions and the number grew as the monastic life became more established and well-known. Columba seems to have been an austere and, at times, harsh man who reputedly mellowed with age. He was concerned with building up both the monastery and its life and of enabling them to be instruments of mission in a heathen land. He converted kings and built churches, Iona becoming a starting point for the expansion of Christianity throughout Scotland. In the last four years of his life, when his health had failed, he spent the time transcribing books of the gospels for them to be taken out and used. He died on this day in the year 597.
Isaiah 61. 1-3
The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favour, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion— to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, to display his glory.
A poet explains the meaning of vocation to a faith community that is divided and anxious.
The contemporary culture in which this Hebrew wordsmith searches for meaning is still reeling from economic collapse, political misjudgement and broken relationships. The poem is an expression of reality that is to be entered and experienced rather than to be analysed and systematically applied. This poem will come to life when the listener makes it her own and allows its timbre to find expression in ways that excite and motivate.
Those who listen to the poem are invited to become part of it. The faith community is to be ‘called oaks of righteousness’ not because of piety but for the commitment to re-shaping the world order. It is no random opening of the scroll of Isaiah in a Nazareth synagogue that begins the public ministry of Jesus. Jesus doesn’t simply read the poem; he embodies it. That is what outrages his listeners. The promise to restore economic justice and to establish joy instead of despair is the manifesto for the initiative in which Jesus becomes the divine agent of intervention in the affairs of the world.
Perhaps Columba, whose name means ‘dove’, heard the rhythm of the Hebrew poet as he explored his own vocation as a missionary, diplomat, educator and the bringer of good news. Columba would surely have been in sympathy with the conviction of Isaiah and Jesus that God calls human beings to engage in a divine initiative that stretches beyond the walls of the synagogue, monastery or church.
Anxiety can be a crippling disease that dulls the mind and deadens the human spirit. Left unchallenged it breeds prejudice and distrust and finds refuge in fundamentalism. Agendas become dominated by internal concerns. When the rhythm of the poet is lost the community of faith is impoverished. As we, the people of faith in 2017, continue to wrestle our own vocation it is vital that we taste the freedom that Isaiah breaths into the despondence of post exilic Jerusalem. The freedom to look further than the prison of the present, to break the chains that bind us and to live the dream of a world restored. Our vocation is not to save the church but to plant seeds of hope in a world where economic imbalance, political instability and broken trust between individuals and nations is endemic. We do these things when we allow the poet to stir our hearts and our imaginations as well as our diaries and our credit cards! When the church becomes less concerned about orthodoxy and more excited by poetry then we too may become ‘the planting of the Lord, to display God’s glory’.
Gracious God you call us and empower us: to bring good news to bind wounds to proclaim liberty to call for jubilee to comfort and restore.
Forgive us when we have allowed anxiety to dull our imagination, open our eyes to the possibilities that surround us, stir our hearts that we are excited again at being called people of God, help us to catch the rhythm of your life and let it live in us. We are yours and we will be steadfast and sure. Amen.
The Rev’d David Grosch-Miller is a member of St. George’s, Morpeth and an Immediate Past Moderator of General Assembly.