Last year I read books II and III (of five) of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, and I spent most of my report complaining that The Venerable labeled anyone who didn’t date Easter his way as “rude” and “barbarous.” At times he gave the definite impression that accepting the Roman date of Easter is more important than faith in Christ.
This year, in finishing up Bede’s chronicle, I found to my relief that in books IV and V he (mostly) leaves the issue of Easter behind and got on with the story – or stories. As he gets closer and closer to his own time, the early eighth century, Bede has less and less of a continuous arc to draw and begins simply to tell tales of recent saints. Here is the story of Caedmon, who seemed to have a divine gift for composing song. Here is the story of Wilibrord and the Ewalds – “Black Ewald” and “White Ewald” because of the color of their hair – who took the message of Christ across the water to Frisia. Here are stories of nuns who saw lights showing where they were to be buried and of monks who heard the angels sing as their companions died. Several stories involve dreams and near-death visions; one poor fellow saw a shining figure holding a huge black book recording all of his sins, and I thought of Scrooge and Marley and the ghostly chains they formed.
My favorite story is that of Chad, or Ceadda in the original spelling. Many Americans first learned the meaning of the word “chad” during the debacle of the 2000 Presidential election and can hardly hear the word without thinking of its predecessor, “hanging.” At some point during that drawn-out mess, I heard or read a journalist pointing out the irony of St. Chad, who was also involved in a contested election, back in the 7th century. Through miscommunication or misuse of authority or mis-something, both Chad and a monk named Wilfrid were appointed bishop of Northumbria. They were apparently unaware of each other, and when Wilfrid went to Europe to have his position conferred, Chad meekly stepped into the office he thought he occupied. But when Wilfrid returned to England, Chad stepped down without a whimper and became once again a simple abbot. Wilfrid got the position, but 1300 years later, Chad was still making the news.
I didn’t like everything I saw in Bede this year by any means. He said quite a bit about earning God’s mercy and salvation by good works, and these passages sat especially uneasily with me since I had also started my Luther compilation. And he did have to bring up Easter one last time and explain that his way (i.e. the current pope’s way) of dating Easter was biblical, while the Celts’ way was not. Besides there being no word in the New Testament about a special yearly commemoration of the Resurrection, Bede’s argument seemed to come down to whether the shifting dates followed a ninety-five-year cycle or an eighty-four-year cycle, most definitely a question outside the scope of the biblical text. (Eighty-four years! Silly Celts!) I hear that Pope Francis is considering a uniform date for Easter. I wonder if Bede would consider Francis barbarous.