St Aidan had been a monk at Iona under St Columba before moving, in 635, to Lindisfarne (better known today as Holy Island) off the coast of Northumbria. There he founded a monastery and became bishop of Lindisfarne. He was a close friend of Oswald, King of Northumbria, who accompanied Aidan on some of his missionary journeys. Aidan’s church was the Celtic Church, which was greatly strengthened in Northumbria and beyond as a result of his ministry. He was loved by all, but especially the poor, for his gentleness, holiness and generosity. Aidan died in 651 and so did not have to suffer the pain of seeing his Church make its submission to the Roman Church at the Synod of Whitby in 664. The Christianity of the Celtic Church was described by Ronald Blythe as “severe and exquisite”. Its severity was represented by figures such as St David of Wales and St Columba himself, but St Aidan showed its exquisiteness. The noted 19th century Bishop of Durham, J. B. Lightfoot, a Patristics expert, said of Aidan, “Not Augustine but Aidan is the true apostle of England.” And Helen Waddell must have had Aidan in mind when she wrote that “Iona did for England what the Roman Augustine failed to do.” These testimonies are valuable reminders of the debt owed by modern British Christianity to its Celtic heritage. Aidan’s ‘day’ is 31st August.
The Greek word for ‘rock’ is petros, and this is the name Jesus gives Simon in Matt 16:18. But a few words later in this same verse Jesus uses the word petra, also meaning ‘rock’, to refer to the ‘rock’ on which He will build His Church. Jesus is obviously punning on the name He has just given Simon. So why not call Simon Petra instead of Petros? One objection is that petra is feminine whereas petros is masculine. But perhaps a more valid one is that there is also some semantic difference between the two words. Petros refers to a single rock or stone whereas petra usually refers to a rock mass. So in Matt 7:24, where Jesus uses the comparison of a man building a house on rock (as opposed to sand), the word used for ‘rock’ is petra, since a house is more likely to be built on a foundation of bed-rock than on a single rock. So likewise in Luke 8:6 the ‘stony ground’ on which the sower sowed his seed is petra, not petros. See also Matt 27:60 (tomb hewn out of ‘rock’ = petra). To ‘petrify’ is, literally, to turn someone or something to stone; figuratively, to terrify a person into immobility, like a stone.
From the Greek word, mysterion. Its root gives the clue to its original meaning: muein, meaning ‘to close the lips or eyes.’ Its Latin cognates include mutus, which gives us English ‘mute’. The key idea, then, is of secrecy and silence. The English word has now become almost entirely secularised in its meaning and can refer to almost any event for which there is no apparent explanation. In New Testament and early Christian times its meaning was predominantly religious. On the one hand it could refer to the religious ‘mysteries’ of the Hellenistic world, with their emphasis on secret knowledge to which access was gained only through closely guarded initiation rites. On the other, in New Testament and early Christian usage, it commonly referred to that which was once hidden in God but is being progressively disclosed, preeminently in the life and teaching of Jesus. Its disclosure does not necessarily lead to understanding, as is clear from Jesus’s words in Matt 13:1-23. The most frequent use of ‘mystery’ occurs in Paul’s epistles, and occurs in this morning’s reading from Romans 11 at v 25.
In today’s Gospel reading (Matt 14:22-36) Jesus’s walk on water is placed within “the fourth watch” of the night (v 25). There were two systems for dividing the night into watches: the Roman and the Jewish. The Roman system, used in New Testament times, divided the night into four periods or ‘watches’, each of three hours duration, beginning at 6pm and ending at 6am. The Jewish division, used in Old Testament times, was a three-fold one, so the reference in v 25 to the “fourth watch” shows that the Roman division was being followed.
The Romans counted the hours from 12 midnight and 12 noon, as is usual today, whereas for the Jews, a complete day ran from sunset to sunset. They adopted the Roman system of night ‘watches’ until 6am, but thereafter the hours of daylight (i.e. from 6am) were divided into ‘hours’, with 9am being the third hour, 12 noon the sixth hour and so on. In John 19:14 the reference to “the sixth hour” must be according to Roman time (counting from midnight), not Jewish time, because according to Jewish time the hour would be 12 noon rather than the more likely 6am.
Oswald was king of Northumbria in the first half of the 7th century. He had spent time in the monastery of Iona founded by St Columba and was baptised there. He then returned to Northumbria in 634, to be followed the next year by St Aidan, who had been one of St Columba’s monks at Iona. Aidan became bishop of Lindisfarne (Holy Island) and a strong friendship developed between him and Oswald. The Christianity of Northumbria at this time was Celtic, even though St Augustine had arrived in the south of England at the end of the previous century bringing Roman Christianity. It was still a time when England was only partly Christianised, and Northumbria’s powerful neighbour, Mercia, was pagan. Bitter enmity existed between Mercia (which extended from the Welsh borders into what we know today as the West Midlands) and Northumbria. Mercia’s King Penda had killed Oswald’s predecessor, Edwin, and in 642 he killed Oswald, before being killed himself by Oswald’s successor, Oswy, in 654. It was Oswald’s practice before a battle to erect a cross on the battlefield. The place where he erected his cross before the battle with Penda became known as St Oswaldes Treow – better known today as Oswestry, on the Welsh border with Shropshire. Oswald was known as a man of humilty and generosity. His ‘day’ is 5th August.
A Word in Season