Published: 16/11/2020

Reverend Benjamin Carter is Vicar of the Parishes by the Wall which includes the Vindolanda site, in the diocese of Newcastle. He was inspired by an ancient christian object found at Vindolanda in 2019. 

A Sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity

Ezekiel 33: 7-11

In August 2019 during the annual summer excavations on the site of the Roman settlement of Vindolanda fourteen fragments of a lead bowl were found. Although they were badly weathered close examination showed that the object – dating from sometime in the fifth century – to be a Christian artefact. Covered in simple Christian images – crosses and chi-rho, a fish, a whale, a happy bishop, angels, members of a congregation – experts believe the bowl to be a chalice. Found amongst the rubble of the wall of a sixth century church building this unique find casts a new light on one of the most poorly understood periods in British history.

 
Following the evacuation of the Roman garrisons from Britain, including the settlement at Vindolanda at the very beginning of the fifth-century our popular imagination sees the life of these islands plunged in what was known as the “dark-ages”. The Venerable Bede, in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, says of this time that:
Then were all restraints of truth and justice so utterly abandoned that no trace of them remained, a very few of the people even recalled their existence.
 
So great was this darkness that Bede passes over almost two centuries of history in one paragraph. And we are left with the image of a land where warring bands of Celts and Saxons fought over the scraps of Roman Britain. All that was left, Bede says sorrowfully, was for "God in his goodness...[to send]...more worthy preachers of truth to bring them to the Faith".
 
Perhaps because the power of Bede's narrative the story we tell ourselves of the Church often falls easily into this pattern. This beginning of September, had it not been for the pandemic, we should have been marking our annual celebration of the “Way of Cuthbert” weekend as we give thanks to God for the life and witness of our Patron and the communities of faith Cuthbert fostered and continues to encourage. As a few days before that, at the end of August, is the feast of St Aidan, that great saint from the generation before Cuthbert. On Lindisfarne there is a statue of Aidan holding the light of Christ which he brought – under the encouragement of the saintly king Oswald – into the darkness of this northern land.
 
 
The worshipping communitties of the Parishes by the Wall sit today as a community that draws from Cuthbert’s great example, and planted in the kingdom that Oswald and Aidan won for Christ. Had the world been different we would have walked our own pilgrimage in the Way of Cuthbert from Haydon Old Church to Beltingham, and as we look to renew the life of our Church buildings in the Haydon Churches project we plan to do so in the light of that heritage.
 
But the finds at Vindolanda should encourage us to think more deeply about our Christian heritage and how we continue to live in the light not only of Cuthbert and Aidan, but also those faithful Christians who etched the signs of their faith on that simple communion cup in those hidden and dark centuries between the twin lights of Rome and Lindisfarne.
 

The American Founding Father and President John Adams once said:

Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.
When we tell the stories of Aidan and Cuthbert we have become so used to the story of the “dark-ages” and of the godless and pagan land which they converted that, as we encounter facts like the finds at Vindolanda, we can find ourselves doubting the whole story. What, we might ask ourselves, does it tell use about the stories of our Christian past if we discover that Christianity was more established and more present in those dark centuries than we had thought?
 
Now please be clear, I don’t think anyone is in danger of throwing the baby out with the bath water, and suddenly casting Bede and his Ecclesiastical History as the Anglo-Saxon version of fake news. But the new reality that we have found does provide a pattern and encouragement for our faith which can perhaps provide a deeper model for our place and story of faith alongside the heroic virtue and holiness of Aidan and Cuthbert.
 
In our Old Testament lesson we hear God’s direct calling and commission to Ezekiel.
 
So you, mortal, I have made a sentinel for the house of Israel; whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me.
 
The call to Ezekiel to be a sentinel is not an idle one. Archbishop Stephen Cottrell has reminded us that Sentinel is one of the most powerful images of calling and commission used through the Old Testament. Used over thirty times, the call of the sentinel is to be a watchman, a lookout for the ways of God within the world. And this is not just a call unique to Ezekiel. In Isaiah it is the sentinel who looks for the coming of:
the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news,
    who announces salvation,
    who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”
 
Thomas Cranmer, when defining the call of the priest for the first time in the English language, lists the sentinel, along with messenger and steward, as the marks of the ministry of a priest as they:
 
proclaim the word of the Lord and…watch for the signs of God’s new creation.
 
Returning to Ezekiel we find the call of sentinel carries with it its own contemporary resonance as the prophet is called, as perhaps we are today, to stand in this time of Covid-Exile and search the horizon for the signs of  God’s faithfulness and restoration.
 
As we reflect not only on our own experience, but also of the hidden lives and voices of the faithful uncovered at Vindolanda we could do worse that to reflect on this call to be a sentinel.
 

 
If you spend time at Vindolanda and at the Roman frontier that lies to its north you get a glimpse of what it meant and means to be a sentinel. You stand patiently, day after day, scouring the horizon looking for signs. And as you see things you must interpret them and understand them and discern what it is that you see. It can be lonely work, and it is certainly work that can be boring and challenging. But if we are to see what lies ahead of us, we need our own sentinels looking at God and looking at the world for what is to come.
 
I might be, in fact I almost certainly am, romanticising the life of those Christians who etched their faith onto that cup. But I see them not as an aberration in the old story we tell of our Christian heritage. Instead like Ezekiel, I see them as sentinels scouring the horizons of their world and of God seeking the restoration which, in Aidan and Cuthbert, God faithfully brought.
 
As we look forward to what lies ahead of us we could do worse than to aspire to the faithfulness and tenacity of that voiceless community uncovered at Vindolanda as we continue to live the story of faith in these lands of which they, and Aidan and Cuthbert, and we are part. Looking to the horizon, living faithfully and patiently through the challenges of this time, as we look to God and to the world for the signs of the messenger who brings good news.