St Isidore of Seville, who lived from 560 AD until 636, is interestingly the patron saint of the Internet. You might be thinking,’ wow computing is much older than I thought’ but you are more likely to be thinking. What?
Living in Spain at a moment when the legacy of Rome and Greece was under threat from the forces that would lead to the so called dark Ages, he tried to collect as much knowledge as he could and summarise it for posterity, thus creating the first encyclopaedia.
So there you have the reason. I first came across him when studying medieval history, and I have never forgotten one of the bits of data he recorded. It was about age.
He divided up the human life span into 6 parts. Youth, he said, was when a person was at their strongest and most energetic – It began when they were 30 and stopped when they were 50.
A number of ages came after that- extreme old age being 75 and above.
St Isadore himself lived until he was 76.
I was reminded of this recently when I came across a story about how archaeologists are beginning to reconsider the assumptions that they have long made about longevity in the distant past. Now it appears that on many occasions in the past when societies were settled people lived much longer than has been conventionally thought. As one scholar wrote.
A smaller percentage of the population would have been over 100, than today, but they would have been there.
Which brings me to St John. I am more and more of the mind that the traditions of the early church are correct about his longevity and the dating of his Gospel. When people were in thrall to the idea that in the olden days people hardly lived beyond 50, the thought that St John, who had been a disciple of Jesus and witnessed everything that had gone on in Israel around 30 AD, could sit down in Greece 60 years later and produce his remarkable gospel seemed a bit far- fetched. I don’t think that is true anymore.
It might also help to explain why St John is so different from St Mark, St Luke and St Matthew.
One man who had been there and seen it all but had also been part of the church as it grew and spread out around the Mediterranean, and would have observed and been part of endless arguments about what Christianity was all about.
He would have watched as the church endured whimsical episodes of persecution by Roman Emperors.
He would have heard of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the actual removal of that city from the face of the earth by the Emperor Titus. The place which was at the centre of the experience , his encounter with Christ, which defined his life had been erased.
There was some laughter in the house of Commons on Monday when the Prime Minister referred to future historians looking back at the events of this week.
From where we stand today, we can’t be sure if those future historians will be laughing, weeping or cheering, although we probably all have a view!.
As a nation, or rather a group of nations- Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to stay, England and Wales to leave- we are divided on this subject. But contrary to the binaries that much of the media like to deal in, most of us I sense are complex creatures with all sorts of reasons for our position.
I don’t doubt that many people have been motivated in the main by xenophobia whilst others have made primarily financial calculations , and some have just been suffering from inertia, but most of us are a mixed bag.
But I do think we do need to be prepared.
If, as most economists predict, we leave the EU with no deal and we enter a new recession we will have to cope with a further and more vicious period of austerity.
It is likely that people will seek more extreme political solutions, and those who hate Europe will inevitably blame the EU for not making our exit easy.
If we end up remaining because parliament follows its own conscience that will also exacerbate domestic political differences.
The more positive leavers think that after a few years of economic stasis or decline the world will open up to us, and we will all be invigorated by our restored national sovereignty.
I hope they are right, just as I personally suspect they are terribly wrong.
But it helps, I think, that we can draw on a biblical perspective, whatever the future holds.
Such as St John’s memory of Christ changing water into wine at that wedding feast in Cana, reflected through the dark glass of 60 years of experience;
of conflict and persecution, and for me the most poignant factor of all, the complete obliteration of the place it all began.
There are many times St John must have felt that the wine had run out. Again and again, he saw that God replenished the supply.
Theologians like to insist upon the difference between optimism and hope.
Some versions of optimism, in terms of the wedding feast in Cana, could, I think, be described as the belief that the wine will never run out. Hope never makes that mistake.
It is more about how we deal with the moments there is only water left at the bottom of the barrel.
To return momentarily to our national convulsions over our relationship with the EU because of the dominance in our culture of consequentialist and economic thinking, it is almost entirely talked about in terms of calculation. Will we be better of or worse off? Will there be more or less conflict in the future? How much will it cost?
And the same sort of questions often frame all the other large matters we face- From Global warming to homelessness, and even education.
When we turn to the story of the wedding feast at Cana we encounter a different perspective. What the great American writer , Marilynne Robinson has called the open handedness of God.
A social scandal is about to occur. A wedding feast is about to fail the test of hospitality. Christ transforms that situation, when need is answered by prayer.
A disaster becomes a blessing. I can’t resist the idea that St John looked back at that private event and read into it the whole history of the church so far. Adversity again and again being turned to good by God opening his hand and people unclenching their fist.