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Easter on Iona – tradition or innovation?

2017 April 27
by Paul Vallely

John Bell of the Iona Community always prided himself on talking of God “in the language of the living room”. The great hymn-writer and preacher was not on Iona in person this Easter but the influence of the notion of telling the old story in new language is deeply-rooted on an island which as long ago as the 6th century was a centre of innovation.

Not that it is restricted to the Iona Community. We arrived on the remote Hebridean island for Holy Week late on Wednesday and awoke on Maundy Thursday to a penetrating Thought for the Day from Lucy Winkett, a cleric blessed with the gift of fresh eyes. More than that she has the application to use them to think through the Gospel in language which connects with non-Christians in our secularised society.

The phrase “on the night before he died, Jesus…” trips easily from Christian tongues as a short preamble to the Eucharist. But think, Lucy Winkett suggested: all of us must live through a night before we die. For those of us who are aware of the imminence of death it will be a time of acutely heightened experience. It will crystalize in our consciousness a realisation of what is most important in our life.

What Jesus chose to do the night before he died was to spend time with his friends. There was food and wine and music and heady discussion. Then as Jesus realised he could not sufficiently communicate his final message through words, he turned to action, washing feet and breaking bread. We have turned it into theology, but Jesus was instituting symbols of shocking potency.

On Good Friday morning residents with the Iona Community presented Stations of the Cross which began in Martyrs’ Bay and progressed through the ruins of the 13th century nunnery, via the parish church, up the hill to the rebuilt Abbey. But throughout that journey the people at its centre were individuals who lived lives as complex and messy as our own today.

Particularly vibrant was a dramatic monologue from Barabbas, unreformed, unrepentant and unapologetic, contemptuously misunderstanding what Christ had done for him and for many. Then came a piece of vivid reportage

from the centurion at the Crucifixion who was imagined to be the same Roman officer whose servant Jesus had healed two years before. These were not sideline cyphers in a traditional morality play. They were flesh-and-blood individuals with venalities and vulnerabilities we all can share.

At the Easter Day liturgy the presiding minister, Rosie Magee, continued this powerful demotic. Her invitation to the altar table was conversational but charged with a contemporary poetry. So too was her build-up to the words with which Jesus instituted our Eucharist. She was open, inclusive and utterly comprehensible to anyone who might have arrived a tourist and been drawn into something deeper.

Holy Week on Iona was an admonition against theological jargon. We in the Church all too often speak only to ourselves, it gently chided. There are other ways, Iona reminded us. The challenge is to take them out to the wider world.

* * *

An attentive reader contacted me after my description last week of the island of Iona as a place of innovation rather than tradition. Wasn’t the great inheritance of Celtic Christianity fundamental to what makes Iona special to people of faith today?

There is a paradox about Iona. Sitting out there at the extremity of the British Isles, it’s a place that people today visit to seek spiritual peace and quiet. But what first made it special was its position in the sixth century as an engine of sacred innovation.

It was Iona’s early monks who came up with the idea of marking a grave with a stone bearing a cross. Then the development of the cross reached new levels of creativity with the massive 4m tall high crosses which spread from Iona to the rest of Britain with their elaborate double-sided carvings of great Bible scenes and elaborate patterns symbolising eternity. Even now we do not fully understand the significance of the placement of the crosses in a liturgical landscape in which the sun falls on them differently as the hours and the seasons progress.

In the scriptorium, which made Iona’s library one of the powerhouses of Dark Age learning, new dyes and inks were discovered to produce the magnificent version of the gospel known as the Book of Kells. (Kells was only the place to which it was taken for protection from the Vikings.) The Abbey’s museum also contains pieces of the first glass ever made in Scotland. One of the windowpanes are so old that Columba’s 7th century biographer Adomnán may once have peered through it.

Other people’s innovations become our traditions, I thought, as we picked out an unfamiliar path from the Abbey to the hermit’s cell on the west of the island. It was more than a decade since I had been on an Iona community pilgrimage and the route had been changed to avoid erosion to the island peak. As we set off there was a path of sorts. Such, I pondered, is what tradition is; a path worn by others, which we follow.

But paths can lead you into bogs. On my return home last week I went to a lecture about Eusebius’s odd rewriting of the gospel story. This was not an error, as many have assumed, but a deliberate attempt to make Christ more attractive to elite educated 4th century Romans according to the lecturer, Dr James Corke-Webster. He was dismissive of earlier academics who assumed that the writers of antiquity were somehow not quite as bright as we are.

One of Melvyn Bragg’s guests on In Our Time programme, about the 13th-century English philosopher and scientist Roger Bacon, made a similar point, saying: the past is not just a trajectory to the present. The death of a friend this week reminded me that every generation is equidistant from eternity. That’s what the communion of saints is about. It is how those who have died are still with us. And yet they sometimes teach us that, on occasions, we have to find new ways of getting to the old destinations.


these two pieces appeared in The Church Times

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