Suddenly a Latin version of St John’s Gospel is in the headlines. And everyone is delighted. The British Library has got the cash together so that the Cuthbert Gospel can be kept in public ownership. The Library have had it on loan since 1979 but now that it is theirs they can invest in its display and interpretation. And it can come back to Durham for a while too. Everyone is glad.
There is much to delight in here. It is a wonderful little book with its beautiful dark red cover, carefully tooled and coloured, the stunningly clear lettering and the marginal annotations showing which passages should be read at the various offices for the dead. There are plenty of images on various websites and the whole thing has been digitized by the British Library and that too is on-line.
We should not be surprised by an old Bible book, perhaps. We all know the Bible is old. But this is the oldest intact European book. John’s Gospel bound in leather and placed in Cuthbert’s coffin on Lindisfarne and then taken on a journey with him – fleeing the Vikings – to his final, and its provisional, resting place in Durham.
Seeing the book on the TV yesterday, and in particular seeing it in the careful hands of Dr Claire Braey, brought it to life in a special way. The book is hand sized. It is meant to be held and opened. And it was placed at the head of Cuthbert by someones careful hands. There is handiwork evident on every page.
Yes, it is a book and a book is a lot of words but this is more than a lot of words. It is more too, than the accumulated meaning of those words. Rich and deep and infinite as John’s Gospel is – this is somehow more.
And it is John’s gospel itself which can give us some clues to reading this book – that is, interpreting its existence and our wonder and delight in it. ‘In the beginning was the word’, wrote John. ‘and the word became flesh and dwelt among us.’ These are the words that were placed close to the head of the blessed father Cuthbert. They speak of meaning not on pages but in flesh and in life. As they carried his coffin on the famous journey his community would have known that the book of words which spoke of the meaning and love beyond words was also part of what they were shouldering.
John’s Gospel also famously speaks of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. Cuthbert, like many biblical figures, was called to the service of God from keeping sheep. It is an image which speaks of the honour and primacy of care in Christian values. And what is care if it is not giving others respect and space, honour and time, kind attention and a loving interpretation of the meaning of things. John’s gospel is a careful book about care. And Cuthbert’s Gospel is a testimony (witness) to that kind of care.
True care is about the way we relate to others, but it is also about how we relate to things. We need to learn this every day as we discover more and more about the weakness not only of the flesh but of the ecosystem of our planet. Cuthbert and his caring community have much to teach us about that too. At Durham Cathedral we speak of discovering our place in God’s creation. It is indeed a work in progress. It needs our careful attention.
And finally an irony. It is John’s gospel which ends with a word about the limits of books. The writer, realising that he has come to the end, admits that there is much more that Jesus did but that ‘if everyone of them that were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written’.
Every book is a testimony not only to writing but editing. There is always more that could be said. Always another chapter to be written. Readers face the same issue – there is always another book for the shelf or the suitcase. Writing and reading imply editing and selection. Once upon a time the decision was made to place a certain book in Cuthbert’s coffin. Who made that decision? How was it made? Why? Whose hands placed it there?
And that suggests to me a kind of spiritual exercise, the ‘one book test’. It is this: if you were going to have one book placed lovingly in your coffin… what would it be?
Feel free to share your answer.