'Their Words Made Flesh'

November 17, 2021
Matthew Potts
Matthew Ichihashi Potts, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church.

The Reverend Matthew Ichihashi Potts, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals at HDS, and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church, delivered the following remarks at Morning Prayers in Harvard's Memorial Church on November 17, 2021.


This is a reading from the 19th chapter of the gospel of Matthew beginning at the 27th verse. Peter said to Jesus, "Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?" Jesus said to them, "Truly, I tell you at the renewal of all things, when the son of man is seated on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on 12 thrones judging the 12 tribes of Israel and everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or mother or children or fields for my name's sake, will receive a hundred fold and will inherit eternal life." Here ended the lesson.

Today is the feast day of the medieval Saint Hugh of Lincoln. I don't want to talk about Hugh. So we're going to talk about tomorrow's saint, who is Hilda of Whitby, one of the most important English Christians. Hild, she was known in her own day. She was born in 614, lived until 680. Her father was the brother of the king of Northumbria. Northumbria was a kingdom in what is now Southern Scotland in Northern England. Her father was poisoned. And so she had lived, she was sent to her uncle's court and she was raised in the Northumbrian court.

They were not Christians. The Northumbrias were not Christians. Her uncle Edwin married Æthelfrith, who was a Christian princess from Kent. And two years later, the whole court was baptized, including Hild. In 633, the kingdom of Northumbria was conquered by Mercia, a non-Christian kingdom. Edwin was killed and the queen and Hild and others fled down to Kent, where the queen started an abbey. Kent had been recently evangelized by Rome. And so there were actually two versions of Christianity operating in Britain at the time. In the south, Roman Christianity, in the north Celtic Christianity. The northern Bishop, Aidan, called Hild back to Northumbria to start an abbey. She went back there, to Northumbria, started one abbey, led another, and then started the very famous third abbey at Whitby in the Celtic fashion. 

So in the Celtic abbeys, it was both men and women, so she governed men and women. They lived in small huts of two or three, men on one side, women on another side, and there was a chapel in the middle, and all of it governed by Hild.

A big argument erupted in the church, as it always does, between the Roman and the Celtic practice. And a synod was held at Whitby, which Hild administered, and they came to an agreement to follow the Roman practice. And I think it was something about Hild's existence in both those spheres. The fact that she was from the north, led a monastery in the north following the Celtic practice, but also had connections to the Southern Christian Roman rite. And she was able to do this and administer this peace.

She was the counselor of Kings that came to her for council. She was one of the most important Christians of her day, and I wish we had some of her writings. I teach an introduction to ministry class at the divinity school, and I wanted to know what she wrote about. She lived in this time of great turmoil. I wanted to know what her experience was like, leading this community at this turbulent time, and we have none of that.

We have legends of her life, which is recorded by the Venerable Bede. The only writing we have that came directly out of the abbey is one nine line poem by a shepherd named Cædmon. It's the first poem in English that we have. Nine lines. And Cædmon was just the boy who worked in the stables and took care of the animals. But Hild noticed him, noticed his gift for song, and invited him to cultivate this gift of poetry. And that's what we have left of her ministry, these stories, and this nine line poem. That's what we have left, in writing, I should say. I want to have something of her own words, but what we do have is the church, the English church. What we do have, is the long tradition of English poetry that Cædmon started.

I spoke about my own work as a teacher, and I think about my own work as a teacher. And as a teacher, your greatest success is what your students do, not what you do. And I think, as a pastor, that's also true. This abbey at Whitby produced five bishops and two saints, and Cædmon the poet, and the English church, and the tradition of English poetry. We don't have her words, but we have all these words made flesh, a witness to her work.

I don't love Jesus' answer to Peter's question in the gospel passage I just read, where Jesus says, "If you leave everything behind, don't worry, we'll replace it a hundred fold, later." On the one hand, we can see Hild as a fulfillment of this teaching. She left everything twice, left the north for the south, the south for the north. And didn't she, as Jesus promised, come into great renown?

I actually want to focus on the disciple's question, on Peter's question, actually. His sort of, what have you done you for me lately, inquiry to Jesus. We've left everything. What are you going to do for us now? I think, when we seek reward, we assume that our rewards, the rewards for our work, will redound to ourselves. But Hild's rewards redound to us. And the reward for Jesus' work redounds to us.

We have none of Hild's writings, none of many of the writings of the women who made the church. And for this, we ought to lament. But we do have the church, the church that they made. And this is their witness, and for it we give thanks for their words made flesh in our lives. I invite you please, to rise for the prayers.