Friday, June 04, 2010

The Sparrow In Winter: A Really Cool (and nearly forgotten) Event from Church History

Quite unintentionally my readings the past few months have been in more ancient English works and many of those works I have reflected on here. While most have been poetic works from the Renaissance period, one particular historical narrative caught my eye. I will not spend too much time on it, but the overall thrust is quite exhilarating and makes a significant contribution to the ongoing conversation regarding the Biblical worldview.

The Venerable Bede (673 – 735) was a Christian monk who earned the posthumous title, “Father of English History.” He was a biblical scholar, translator, and poet who composed (mostly for the purpose of correcting error and debunking myth) the earliest history of England in the five-volumes of the "Ecclesiastical History of the English People." The brief section I would like to highlight here is often referred to as, “The Conversion of Northumbria,” or “The Conversion of King Edwin.” England was a missionary frontier after the Roman occupation, and in 597, Pope Gregory had received an encouraging letter regarding the successful spread of Christianity, especially in the northern regions. King Edwin lived about 625.

Bishop Paulinus had been preaching Christ and the heavenly kingdom when King Edwin expressed interest in receiving the message taught by the bishop; but first, he wanted to consult with his close friends, counselors and priests. He called a meeting, the purpose of which was, that if they were as agreeable as he, then they would all “be cleansed together in Christ, the Fount of Life.” So, they held a “round table” discussion, each expressing his thoughts about this message of Christ they were hearing.

One of his chief priests stated that he did not think this gospel was good idea. Translated from the Old English we read: "O king, consider what this is which is now preached to us; for verily I declare to you that the religion which we have hitherto professed has, as far as I can learn, no virtue in it. For none of your people has applied himself more diligently to the worship of our gods than I; and yet there are many who receive greater favors from you, and are more preferred than I, and who are more prosperous in all their undertakings. Now if the gods were good for anything, they would rather forward me who has been more careful to serve them. It follows, therefore, that if upon examination you find those new doctrines which are now preached to us better and more efficacious, we should immediately receive them without any delay."

In other words, “I don’t see anything good in what we already practice, and nobody knows religion better than me, who receive better favor from you than the gods we worship. If you think their doctrines are better and can actually accomplish something, then we should receive them.”

Here is what grabs me:

Another of the king's chief men, approving of Coifi's words and exhortations, presently added: ‘The present life man, O king, seems to me, in comparison with that time which is unknown to us, like to the swift flight of a sparrow through the room wherein you sit at supper in winter amid your officers and ministers, with a good fire in the midst whilst the storms of rain and snow prevail abroad; the sparrow, I say, flying in at one door and immediately another, whilst he is within is safe from the wintry but after a short space of fair weather he immediately vanishes out of your sight into the dark winter from which he has emerged. So this life of man appears for a short space but of what went before or what is to follow we are ignorant. If, therefore, this new doctrine contains something more certain, it seems justly to deserve to be followed.'

The other elders and king's counselors, by divine inspiration, spoke to the same effect., But Coifi added that he, wished more attentively to hear Paulinus' discourse concerning the God whom he preached. So the bishop having spoken by the king's command at greater length, Coifi, hearing his words,- cried out: "I have long since been sensible that there was nothing in that which we worshiped, because the more diligently I sought after truth in that worship the less I found it. But now I freely confess that such evident, truth appears in this preaching as can confer on us the gifts of life, of salvation, and of eternal happiness. For which reason I advise, O king, that we instantly abjure and set fire to those temples and altars which we have consecrated out reaping any benefits from them."

In short, the king publicly gave his permission to Paulinus to preach the gospel, and, renouncing idolatry, declare he received the faith of Christ: and when he inquired high priest who should first profane the altars and temples of their idols, with the enclosures that were about them, the high priest answered, "‘I; for who can more properly than myself destroy those things which I worshiped through ignorance, for an example to all others, through the wisdom which been given me by the true God?’”

The king gave Paulinus his own horse and armaments, and turned him loose to burn down the temples of their former idolatrous worship.

One reason this event was important to the Venerable Bede is that he was able to show how the preaching of the gospel brought change to the heart of a man and to a country. “King Edwin . . . with all the nobility of the nation, and a large number of the common sort, received the faith and the washing of regeneration, in the eleventh year of his reign, which is the year of the incarnation of our Lord 627, and about one hundred and eighty after the coming of the English into Britain . . .” The conversion of King Edwin was fairly recent to his own time!

There seems to be an aire of excitement and celebration around this nearly forgotten event, even as the Venerable Bede records it. The law of land forbade priests to ride horses or bear arms and the fact that the King of Kings begins his spiritual overthrow through the heart of King Edwin by moving the king to give his own resources to the priest—what a rush! Can you imagine seeing the people standing with mouths hanging open as the bishop rides up to a temple with spear in hand?

The language of King Edwin’s friend, of the uncertainty of life as a flitting winter sparrow was a powerful picture. This must have been a common sight in those days, for everyone seems to have understood the illustration. We take many historical events for granted, that they just occur happenstance and are entered into the minutes should someone happen to record them. One might even suggest that they missionary activity was sort of a random drift across the land, across the European continent, across the English channel, until it perched on the heart of a man.

But the gospel is a surety and is part of God’s design. All the more, the doctrine of forgiveness in Christ is the most certain, dependable, and efficacious. It is part of time and space, though we experience our portion only briefly. This surety empowered the priest to say, that as a convert from idolatry himself that he qualifies as idol-destroyer then he launched into the culture! Most never knew what hit them until after it had passed—like a sparrow, flitting through the hall during winter.

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