The Divine Hours of Lent

Like most other seasons in the liturgical year, Lent is a time, at least in part, for heroes, for remembering and honoring and trying to emulate those who have preceded us in the faith. Lent is remarkably shy on heroines, though. In fact, for years, I thought there were none, until I discovered Hilda of Whitby. Every year, I have to re-visit and re-tell her story just out of gender gratitude, if nothing else, for her presence in the whole drum roll of our march up to Easter.
Hilda was born in 614 c.e. in Northumbria, high up in north-east Britian. Because of her father’s untimely death, however, she was reared by her uncle, King Edwin. In 627, Edwin converted to Christianity and was baptized. So too was Hilda, along with the rest of the royal household. But in 633, Edwin was killed in battle, his crown passing eventually to a new monarch, Oswalt, who continued the policy of royal protection for Hilda. As a result, she lived in his household until 647, at which time she left to become a nun.
Almost from the moment of her final vows, Hilda’s life became one of ever greater prominence and influence in the Church. Among other things, she managed to found five different and successful monasteries before her death in 680. The last of them was Whitby, which was also far and away the most politically powerful and religiously gracious of them all.
Whitby was what is known as a “double house,” meaning that it incorporated both a convent for women and a friary for men under the administration of one principal, almost always an abbot. Hilda’s position as abbess of a double house like Whitby is, in fact, a powerful affirmation of what the ancient records say of her: namely, that she was brilliant, administratively gifted, wise beyond even her own extensive education, and respected by her enemies as well as her friends.
She was also deeply compassionate and enabling. Caedmon, the first of England’s great poets, was a stable boy at Whitby when, history says, Hilda found him, perceived his gifts and vocation, and then provided him with the sanctuary and means by which to do his real work as poet. But the problem in all this good news was that Hilda—indeed, all of those at Whitby—were Celtic Christians. Or to give them the name that their own time gave them, they were Ionian Christians.
The Celts had been christianized well before 300 c.e.; and as such, theirs were the culture and faith in which British Christianity had its deepest roots. But during the 5th and 6th centuries, frequent and ferocious invasions of Britain’s eastern and southern coasts by the Angles, Jutes, and Saxons had forced the native Celts farther and farther back into Wales and up into Ireland, and Scotland. Over the subsequent decades, as things had settled down into less bellicose ways and as the invading hordes had slowly turned into residential ones, the Celts had begun to send missionaries into the northern and western portions of Britain like Northumbria, those being the areas most contiguous with the lands of their own relocation. Rome and the Latin Church in Gaul, had also sent missionaries to evangelize the Germanic invaders; but those missionaries had stayed primarily in the south and east, those areas of Britain being the ones nearest to the continent and to the English Channel. By 647, the result was two Christianities in one, fairly-confined geography.
The differences between the two traditions were relatively few in number, actually. They differed culturally, certainly…that is, each tradition or stream of British Christianity differed from the other about where the seat of ecclesial authority was and about such seemingly inconsequential matters as the correct hair style for monks. They did differ, however, over one serious and central issue; they differed over Easter.
There is every reason to assume that the early Christians celebrated Easter on the Jewish Passover. Nisan is the first lunar month of the Jewish new year, and Passover is always observed on Nisan XIV as determined by a lunisolar calendar. By the end of the 3rd century, however, Christians had become persuaded that Easter must always be on a Sunday and, moreover, never on Nisan XIV. In 325 c.e., the Council of Nicea codified those two points, and turmoil had ensued. Several ways of calculating Easter’s proper date emerged, one method of calculation being adhered to in this part of Christendom, and another in that. Unfortunately, the method of calculation adhered to by Ionian Christianity permitted Easter to fall on Nisan XIV, if that day were also a Sunday. And Hilda was Ionian, deeply Ionian, in fact. So too was Oswiu, king of Northumbria in the late 650’s and 660’s.
The king may have been devoutly Ionian, but unfortunately his queen, Queen Eanfled, was a Roman Christian. They apparently got on well in most things; but about the proper dating of Easter their differences were sharp and distinctly disruptive of the royal tranquility. While the king’s faction might be celebrating Easter, the Queen’s faction could still be fasting for Lent, and vice versa. Things went from bad to worse, as such things tend to do. Finally, in 664, things came to a head, and Hilda stepped into the breach.
The now famous Synod of Whitby was convened that year with Hilda serving as host to all the clerical and political dignitaries who gathered there to resolve the issue. The determination to be made was not, of course, just about the date of Easter, though that was the overt reason. What really was at stake was whether Britain—and all of us who have descended from her—would be Roman or Ionian in their Christianity. King Oswiu served as both moderator and judge of the procedures. Bishops from both sides of the aisle made their case before him; but here histories of the proceedings differ.
Some say that King Oswiu, when the arguments were at last all presented, asked each advocate one question: Was Peter really given the keys of the kingdom and declared to be the rock upon which the Church was founded? When all those on both sides said yes, then the King is said, by some, to have ruled in favor of Roman Christianity for England.
The Veneable Bede, on the other hand, tells the story a bit differently, saying that it was Hilda herself who cast the determining vote. According to Bede, it was an act of enormous self-sacrifice for that strong woman—whom, he says, all referred to as “Mother,” so great was her wisdom and power—to do so. But by voting against her own heritage, Hilda unified Britain, enabling the presence of one faith common to both the Celts, who were her people, and the Romanized Anglo-Saxons to the south and west of Northumbria.
Regardless of whether one says Hilda’s role was only that of facilitator of the Synod of Whitby or that it was, instead, the larger one of tie-breaker, the stories all agree about one thing. To this very day, every time sea gulls fly over the site where Whitby once stood, they dip their wings in tribute to the woman who governed there and who, by one means or another, saw to it that our Easters would always fall on a Sunday.

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