St Aidan of Lindisfarne – Apostle from the North

Feast day, 31st August.

St Aidan window | Leonard Evetts
Holy Island Church

In 635AD a monk from Iona arrived at the court of King Oswald at Bamburgh in Northumberland. The King had recently won back his kingdom from the pagan Penda and he vowed that his people should become, as he was, Christian. When his father was defeated by Penda, Oswald with his brother and sister were sent, for safety, to live with the monks on Iona – the island consecrated by the prayer of St Columba. There Oswald learned Christianity and it was to Iona that the newly crowned king sent for a missioner to begin the work of proclaiming the Gospel. The first monk to arrive failed to make any headway with the people and it is thought he was too harsh on them. It probably didn’t help his case when he called them ignorant, unteachable and barbaric!

The saintly monk Aidan gently told him that he had tried to feed the people with ‘meat’ when first they needed the ‘milk’ of the Gospel. Not surprisingly, the Abbot told Aidan if he could do any better, he should go to Lindisfarne and see what he could do. Thus he was sent to re-start the mission and his gentle approach to evangelism soon paid off.

As a Celtic monk, he preferred the isolation of an island – although one which was accessible to the mainland for his missionary work and also near the King with whom he intended to work in partnership.   Ideally suited (and you can so easily detect the hand of God in this) was the island known as Lindisfarne or today, because of Aidan, Holy island.

Aidan’s approach to mission and evangelism was neither hard-line nor hard-sell.  He was a Celt and the Celtic approach was to quietly but certainly overlay pagan beliefs with Christian ones but not by denouncing the pagan.  To pagan belief, the Celts introduced a richer interpretation.  For example, the pagan worship of the Sun was easily transferrable to worship of the SON, Jesus Christ.  Without threatening but through gentle loving, the seed of Christianity was carefully and firmly sown and it paid off.

Aidan also went ‘local’.  He set up a monastic school which trained  youths for mission, having first steeped them in prayer and Bible study.  Twelve boys (like 12 disciples) were the first to arrive and they laid the foundation for a monastic school which was to gain huge renown.  The boys, when trained, were sent out as ‘Apostles’ to England.  Cedd, for example, took the Gospel to Essex (having first proclaimed Jesus Christ in North Yorkshire). Chad, his brother, proclaimed the Gospel in the Midlands. Aidan himself was tireless in his Missionary journeys.  The mission succeeded and was blessed by God, because it combined the deep zeal of Celtic spirituality to travel to foreign parts for the sake of the Gospel with a deep understanding of what the Gospel is.  It used local people to spread the Word.  Though Lindisfarne began as a Celtic foundation (and was staffed in part from Iona and Ireland) it was also an Anglo-Saxon (native) mission.  That’s why it took root.  It may sometimes be true that a prophet isn’t often heard in his or her own country but there is another truth which is that if you are convinced by Jesus Christ and build up your relationship with Him, then you will witness to people in your own locality.

Aidan was a clever, wise and astute purveyor of the Gospel and he made it his business to get to know the people he preached to.  At first he even took King Oswald along to interpret what he said until he learned the native tongue.  And he was gentle and loving.  In all this he has much to teach Christians about mission today.  He is the Apostle from the North but he became the Apostle of England.  Ripples of Gospel love started from Lindisfarne and quickly spread by God’s grace.

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