The Death of Bede

It is finished.

S. John xix. 30.

Do you ask why I have chosen these particular words for my text? I will answer the question by telling you a story. It is an old story, well-known everywhere, but best known here (at least I should suppose) in this town of Jarrowwhere I am speaking; a story well-worn, but not worn out, old but fresh still, fresh with the freshness of perpetual youth.

A man past the middle of life lay on his deathbed, surrounded by his disciples. They were sorrowing, says a bystander who relates the incidentTM, at the thought that they should see his face no more in this life. A youth was taking down some words from the master's lips. 'One chapter still remains,' said the lad, 'of the book which thou hast dictated; and yet it seems troublesome to thee to ask more of thee.' 'It is not troublesome,' said the dying man,'get out thy pen and prepare, and write quickly.' So the

r hours went on. At intervals he conversed with his scholars; then again he dictated. At length his amanuensis turned to him; 'Beloved master, one sentence only remains to be written.' 'Good,' he replied,' write it.' After a short pause the boy told him that it was written. 'Good,' said he, 'it is finished; thou hast said truly.' And in a few moments more he gave up his soul to God, with his last breath chanting the doxology, familiar to him, as to us.

You have recognised the story". The dying man was Bede; the book, which he dictated, was the translation of S. John's Gospel into the English tongue.

So then these solemn words 'It is finished,' appropriate at all times and in all places, have a singular propriety in this place and at this time; in this place which (whatever other and varied interests it may have for you) is known to the world at large chiefly as the home of Bede the Venerable; at this time, when the recent appearance87 of the latest English translation of the Scriptures may well recall our minds to the earliest.

'It is finished.' These words were full of meaning to the dying man. Three completions, three endings, more especially they appear to have suggested to his mind.

I. There was first of all the finishing of the work of dictation, on which he was engaged. When his youthful amanuensis used the words (as he appears to have done), it probably did not occur to him that they were the very words of the dying Saviour on the Cross. The last chapter, the last sentence, was written. The loving labour, on which they had been so long engaged, was ended. His dear master had lived to see the completion. It was with much joy, which even the sad thought of the approaching severance could not quench, that he announced, 'It is finished.'

The incident was indeed memorable, far more memorable than it could have appeared to any there present, to the translator, to the amanuensis, to the sorrowing circle of scholars who stood around awaiting the departure of their dear master. It was satisfaction enough for them to think that one Gospel—the chief Gospel—was now clothed in a language which the people could understand. They could not foresee the long, glorious, and eventful history of the English Bible, of which this was the opening scene. To ourselves its true significance will appear. The names of Wicliffe and Tyndale, of Rogers and Coverdale, of a long line of martyrs and confessors in the cause of Biblical knowledge and truth, will rise up before us. To ourselves it will recall the time, the thought, the labour, expended upon this work of translation in later generations, when it passed from individuals, who took it upon themselves of their own zeal and love, to committees and bodies of men duly authorised to exercise a common judgment. To ourselves it will seem to link the far-off past with the immediate present, the age of Bede with the age of the Victorian revisers.

What is the meaning of all this? What significance is there in the fact, that age after age so much thought and labour has been expended over this one book? Whatever else may come of this latest revision, one result at least has been achieved. It is a striking testimony to the power, the worth, the pricelessness of the book itself. Why is it that fifty or sixty men have been content—yes, and more than content—to spend years upon the work, to take long journeys from the most distant parts of the kingdom, to give their time and their thoughts gratuitously, without even the hope of fame,—for the achievement is the achievement of a committee, and the individual reaps no glory? Without the hope of fame, did I say? Nay, with the absolute certainty of censure, of rebuke, of misinterpretation, of imputation of motives, of adverse criticism of all kinds. Did their predecessors—better men than they—their predecessors, whether individuals or committees, receive any better treatment? Was not our present Authorised Version, which all men now with justice esteem so highly, decried on its first appearance, accused of faults which it had, and faults which it had not, of bad English, of bad scholarship, of bad theology? Did not almost every one say then, as almost everyone says now, 'The old is better?' Nay, if the recent revisers are surprised at all by the public criticisms on their work, it is by their mildness, not by their harshness. Judging from the experience of the past, they looked for a far more severe verdict on their work than has been pronounced. Why then did they undertake this thankless task with their eyes open? Why, except that there is a power, a life, a spell, in that book which drew them by its magic? They held it an honour, a privilege, as well as an obligation, to do what they could to set that book before the Englishspeaking people in the best form which improved scholarship and enlarged knowledge suggested. And now, with a feeling akin to that which suggested the words to Bede's young amanuensis eleven or twelve centuries ago, they say thankfully,' It is finished.'

2. But the words, as they were taken up and repeated by Bede, had a second meaning also. 'It is finished,' said the youth. 'Good,' replied Bede,'it is finished. Thou hast said truly.' The lad spoke of the volume of parchment, of the writing in ink. But there was another writing written to the end, another volume closed, at that same hour, the writing of an earthly career, the volume of a human life—holy, brave, zealous, patient, scholarly, loving—for which Englishmen, and not Englishmen only, are bound to thank and to praise the great Head of the Church to all time. All the struggles of an intense and feeling heart were stilled; all the efforts of an assiduous and eager intellect were lulled to rest; all the conflicts of a sensitive and anxious conscience were hushed in peace. The last letter was spelt out; the last line was penned; the volume was closed, the first volume, the volume of Time. The next volume would open in Eternity. It was a solemn moment for him. It was a solemn moment for us, for all English Christians, but for you men and women of Jarrow more especially, who are the trustees of his good deeds, and the heirs of his fame.

3. I have traced two meanings of these words 'It is finished,' as they were spoken during this last scene of Bede's life. But is it possible to stop here? Can we fail to see a reference to them, as they were spoken seven centuries before by Him who spake as never man spake, spoken not at the supreme moment of an individual life, not when the volume of a saintly career was closed, but spoken in the supreme moment of the Life of Lives, spoken over the closing of a volume in human history? When Bede repeats with such marked emphasis the words Consummatum est, 'It is finished,' is it not clear that he was carried away in imagination from the scenes immediately surrounding him, saw the Saviour's body hanging on the Cross of Calvary, and heard from His dying lips those last words announcing the completion of man's redemption, words which not long before he must have dictated to his youthful scribe? What without the hopes inspired by these words were his literary works? What was his laborious life? Mere beating of the air, nothing more. What without this hope was his approaching death? Blank despair, nothing less. Yes, all was completed in that sacrifice. The prophecies were fulfilled; the types were realised; the shadows were replaced by the substance. Sin was vanquished. Death was annihilated. The full ransom was paid, the full ransom for the sins of mankind, for the sins of him Bede, for the sins of you and me. All was over. Old things had passed away. All things had become new. The volume was closed.

This hope, this joy, this glory, shone over the death-bed of Bede. God grant that, when our time comes, it may in like manner irradiate ours, yours and mine.

But a great completion is after all only a great commencement. Wherever we say 'It is finished,' we say in effect 'It is beginning.' The goal of the past is the starting point of the future. 'Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone; but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.' 'Except it die' is written across the face of the spiritual world, not less than across the face of the natural. Dissolution, decay, disappearance, death, this is the condition of life. Through death all things pass into life. Is it not so in all the three cases, to which the words ' It is finished' are applied in Bede's dying words?

We say ' It is finished' of a book. To its author it is dead. But then only its true life begins. Like the corn of wheat, it is sown in the ground. If it is a fertile book, it springs up, and blossoms, and bears fruit a hundred or a thousand fold. Generations come and go, but still it blossoms, still it fructifies. I referred before to the Revised Translation of the New Testament. We have witnessed here a phenomenon altogether without a parallel in the history of literature. The demand for it has far outstripped any past experience of publishers, has far surpassed the sanguine expectations of the most sanguine. It is sold at every railway stall and canvassed in every newspaper. And yet this is not a novel, not a sensational story, not a book of travel or adventure; but an old trite well-worn book, on which some time and patience has been bestowed to make it speak more clearly to English readers. What the future of this Revision may be, we know not. This is in God's hands. But, if nothing else should come from it, was it not worth all the time and all the labour thus to stimulate, as it has stimulated, the reading of God's Holy Word, thus to arrest the attention of the careless and indifferent, thus to gather crowds about the book of books, as more than three centuries ago they were gathered at the first appearance of the English Bible round the reader58, reading from the copy chained to the desk in our great churches and cathedrals? May we not hope that some consciences will be pricked, some hearts will be stirred, some souls will be won to Christ? May we not cherish the belief that not a few who came to criticise will remain to pray?

But if' It is finished' means ' It is now beginning' in the case of a book, it means this equally in the case of a good man. Of him it is true, most true, that, though dead, he liveth. Nay, we may go further and say that, because dead, he liveth. The good work which he did, the good cause which he advocated, the good example which he left, these remain, these blossom and bear fruit. Their growth, their fertility is no longer impeded by any feuds and jealousies in others, by any imperfections—faults of temper, or of judgment, or of tact—in the man P. S, 7

s himself. At length they have free course. More than eleven centuries have rolled away since Bede trod the soil of Jarrow. And still his name is fresh among you. Still his work, his influence, his example, are potent for good. Still, as far and wide, in the busy upstart towns of the Transatlantic West, and in the quiet immemorial cities of ancient India, men read the simple story of his dying hours, the aspiration rises in their hearts, 'Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his.'

And if this be true of the finishing of a book, of the finishing of a man's career, it is in a far higher and fuller sense true of that great finishing, that ending of all endings, the ending on the Cross. That death was life indeed, the life of the world. That finishing was the great beginning of a heavenly kingdom, the beginning of a rescue of souls from sin and death, the beginning of an ingathering of a holy people of God, the foundation of a second and spiritual temple, the Church of Christ.

The ingathering of a people, the foundation of a temple. As I utter these words I am recalled to the purpose for which we are met together to-day. There is a special sense in which you too—like the boy scribe of Bede, like Bede himself—will repeat the words 'It is finished' to-day. 'It is finished,' the material fabric, the building made with hands, the walls, the pillars, the roof, the furniture. All is complete. Nothing is wanting. A district will shortly be formed. An incumbent has already been named. This parish will enter upon a new and independent career. On this day—S. Peter's Day— we consecrate this building with solemn prayer to Almighty God, as the church of S. Peter. In some branches of the Church of Christ two Apostles are commemorated together on this day. It is the day not of S. Peter only, but of S. Peter and S. Paul. So we here link the two Apostles together. We associate the new church and parish of S. Peter with the old church and parish of S. Paul, that (like the two Apostles of old) they may live and labour and suffer together, as fellow-workers for Christ.

And what will be the predominant feeling of all who take part in this day's work? Must it not be thanksgiving, thanksgiving from a full heart and with joyful lips? Thanksgiving, first and foremost, from those whom God has prompted to build this house, that their heart's desire has been realised, and that they are permitted this day to see this church consecrated to the honour of God and to the edification of His people; thanksgiving from the clergy that now at length they have a fit sanctuary for the worship of Almighty God, where the voice of prayer and praise shall be heard continually, a fit abodg * where all the pious feelings and all the hallowed memories of the neighbourhood shall find a home in the future; thanksgiving, lastly, from the people at large, that God has dealt so graciously with them, that He has prompted the hearts of His servants, the donors, to this pious work, and that from their hands they, the congregation, receive it without money and without price.

A feeling of thanksgiving first; and what next? A sense, a strong, a growing, an overpowering sense, of responsibility. Ah, yes, here, as elsewhere, ' It is finished,' will mean 'It is only now beginning.' The material temple is built; the fabric made with hands is completed. And now begins that larger, more arduous, more protracted work of building up the spiritual fabric, the sanctuary not made with hands, of piling up and cementing together the souls of men, that the building may rise ever higher and higher, and wax ever stronger and stronger, a glorious edifice, a mighty fortress of truth and righteousness, an holy temple acceptable to the Lord.

Therefore I ask your prayers, your earnest prayers, for the services which shall be held in this church, and the congregations which shall be gathered therein. But above all I beseech you to lift up voice and heart for him who shall be entrusted , with the care of this new parish, for him who—neither unknown nor unapproved before—henceforward will enter upon a larger work; that he may stir up the gift of God that is in him; that he may ever have in remembrance into how high a dignity and how weighty an office and charge he is called; that he may make full proof of his ministry; and that thus living and labouring, spending and being spent, he may so fight the good fight, may so finish his course, that he may receive the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, shall give him in that day.

'Then cometh the end;' then, and not till then. Then at length all is finished. Then the grave shall give up her dead. Then the seals shall be broken and the books shall be opened. Then we all, you and I, shall stand before the judgment-seat of Christ, stript of our disguises, that we may receive each according to his works. God grant that we may find joy and peace in that terrible, that glorious day.