This sermon was written and preached by Rev Helen Garton at Christ Church Cathedral at a joint service to mark 1500 years since the birth of St Columba with our ecumenical neighbours there.
A Gloria written by St Columba (trans. Duncan Macgregor):
Glory to God the Father, the unbegotten One;
All honour be to Jesus, His sole-begotten Son;
And to the Holy Spirit – the perfect Trinity.
Let all the worlds give answer, “Amen, so let it be.”
Thank you for your invitation to preach here in this place and for your invitation to the congregation at St Columba’s United Reformed Church to join you in worship, to mark the 1,500th anniversary of the birth of St Columba in Gartan, County Donegal (my surname is only one letter away!) As your nearest ecumenical neighbour, only The Bear pub separates us to the side, but I suspect that we will have a different approach to our honouring of St Columba, for in the United Reformed Church we do not have the same notion of patronal saints as you do in the Church of England.
Our church, which began its life as the Presbyterian Chaplaincy to the University and then became a church in 1929, took St Columba as its name in recognition of our Scottish Presbyterian heritage. And you will hear that in the accents of some of our senior and wiser members! But where our paths meet, there is always a cross, for we stand in the presence of Jesus Christ, the message of our very existence.
In our set readings for today, the second Sunday in Advent, we have encountered 3 messengers who have, in turn, spoken about the coming of God into this world, to call the people to account, to judge them and to save them from themselves. The very name ‘Malachi’ means ‘messenger’ in Hebrew. And in Malachi and the Gospel of Luke, the people have been so hell bent on holding God to account by their own standards, that they have become unable to recognise God in their midst. No wonder, for the people were weary and tired, just as we are wearied and tired today with what has been happening all around the world and on our own shores.
For God to be known and seen and recognised in situations such as this, a messenger is needed to prepare the way, as if the light of God’s countenance is so bright that it cannot at first be seen without a veil and an explanation. St Columba it is who is credited with the establishment of Christianity in Scotland, beginning first on the tiny island of Iona, whose community today extends beyond Scotland around the world.
But it was not a dramatic moment of conversion or calling, which gave Columba this role of messenger of the gospel of Christ. Instead, it was a less savoury episode in his life, which led to his mission to Scotland. As legend has it, he took it upon himself to copy out the Psalter written by St Jerome kept in the Abbey at Movilla where he was a monk and a priest. This got him into trouble with his teacher St Finnian who disputed his right to keep the psalter to himself. Things got so out of hand, that it spilled out into an existing political conflict, resulting in a battle in 561 in what is now County Sligo, a conflict that led to the exile and temporary excommunication of St Columba, from which he set sail for Scotland, never to see Ireland again.
St Columba was 42 and much of the detail we have about him is sketchy and disputed. Some say that St Columba’s exile was punishment for the conflict, others say that it was an act of penance for the lives lost in battle. Either way, St Columba took with him the message of the Gospel and with the 12 disciples he took with him from Derry, he settled on the island of Iona, on the boundary between the Western and Northern Pictish kingdoms, where he set about converting them to Christianity.
It was said of Columba that he was “Someone whose mastery of the written word led to the deaths of 3000 people… someone whose mission to spread the living word of God should save more than 3000 souls and lead to the spread of Christianity to these shores.”
It would be too much of a stretch to say that St Columba’s intention in copying the psalter was to put it into the hands of every person in the land. The time for such a miracle would not be for nearly a 1,000 years. But there is a lesson in this, that the word of God blows freely and where it will. But put the written word of God into the wrong hands and it becomes a weapon to brow beat the downtrodden and already oppressed. The word of God has so often in the past and in our own time become a weapon for those who want to preserve it for their own use. Set the word of God free as a dove and it spreads where the spirit blows, to the four corners of the earth. It is no coincidence that our saint was named ‘Columba’ or Columcille, translated to mean ‘Dove of the Church.’
So today, we honour a complex man with a complex history; today we honour a saint of the Church, to whom we owe a huge debt of gratitude for the spreading of the Gospel. However we like our saints… whether we revel in the stuff of legend and myth, or go to another level and reverence them as the object of devotion, for me, the saints I relate to best, have feet of clay which are firmly planted in the ground.
Whatever we are able to glean of the facts and reality of St Columba’s life, we know that he was a man of great learning with the word of God at the core of his being. We know that he had strength and determination, to set forth on a missionary journey into, perhaps not the complete unknown, but certainly into uncharted waters where his reception was not guaranteed. We know that he was a man of inspiration, who inspired those who followed him on his pilgrimage to Iona. We also know that he was a man of God, and we see that in his legacy, in the monasteries he founded, as well as in what of his writings remain… and in his rule of life.
None of this would have been possible if he had floated serenely over the surface of the waters and the earth. Instead, he planted his feet of clay firmly in the ground, one foot in front of the other, and did not stop until his work was done and took his final rest on the island of Iona. He was a true messenger of God, as was the prophet Malachi and the evangelist St Luke and the missionary St Paul. They too had feet of clay which walked upon the same earth as we tread today, taking with them the message of God’s good news to the world.
So it is not inappropriate that we remember St Columba today, the second Sunday of Advent, with all the prophets who have prepared the way for the coming of Christ. And the message is always the same, to prepare ourselves to receive the good news of Jesus Christ, who was born into the complexity and mess of human existence, and whose purpose is always to direct us towards God, for our salvation is at hand.
I end with two prayers by St Columba himself:
Let me bless Almighty God,
whose power extends over sea and land,
whose angels watch over all.
Let me study sacred books to calm my soul:
I pray for peace,
kneeling at heaven’s gates.
Let me do my daily work,
gathering seaweed, catching fish,
giving food to the poor.
Let me say my daily prayers,
sometimes chanting, sometimes quiet,
always thanking God.
Delightful it is to live
on a peaceful isle, in a quiet cell,
serving the King of kings.
Be O Lord,
a guiding star above me,
a smooth path below me,
a kindly shepherd behind me
and a bright flame before me;
today, tonight and forever. Amen
The prayers of intercession were written and led by Rev Tony Tucker, a retired URC minister and member of St Columba's URC Oxford who has been ordained 67 years this year.
Lord God and heavenly Father, we give you thanks and praise today for your servant St.Columba. We remember the vitality of his faith, his missionary zeal,his affirmation of the place of women in the Church, and his tireless journeys throughout Ireland and Scotland to bring the Gospel to the people of those lands. We pray that we may be empowered to share his vision as witnesses to your saving love in Christ. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.
We pray for the Iona Community as in Columba’s name, it continues his ministry through its work for peace, social justice, and the integrity of Creation. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.
We pray for your Church in this city, diocese and synod, and especially for your blessing on this Cathedral – its chapter, choir, musicians , staff and volunteers – and on the Minister, Elders and members of St Columba’s. In working together, may we find our unity in Christ. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.
We pray for the communities in which we live, and those who serve as councillors, officers, and administrators in our health, education and emergency services. May we be communities where all are valued, none is excluded, and the voices of the poor and homeless are heard. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.
We pray for one another, that we may be faithful disciples, following in Columba’s footsteps, and building one another up in Christ. Grant to us and to your whole Church the faith of the apostles, the boldness of the prophets and the strength of the martyrs. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.
Almighty God, in Christ you make all things new, transform the poverty of our nature by the riches of your grace, and in the renewal of our lives, make known your heavenly glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Merciful Father, accept these prayers for the sake of your Son, our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.