Perhaps the best known of the stories about Cuthbert. Yet if anyone thought ‘Celtic’ Christianity, or more correctly Irish monasticism, a romantic idealism, this story must surely dispel any such myth. Cuthbert spends night after night up to his armpits secretly praying in the freezing North Sea, reciting the psalms. Nobody even knew he was doing it until after his death. This level of asceticism is utterly alien to most of us these days, but it clearly wasn’t in those: Bede’s focus is not on the severity of Cuthbert’s vigil, but what happened after it. The spying monk is terrified, not because he has watched Cuthbert praying in the sea, but precisely because the service of the otters demonstrates their recognition of his holiness: the Garden of Eden, humanity’s relation with the rest of creation, is being restored. In other words, Cuthbert is validated as a ‘holy man’, a living saint, by God, and you know it because of the way the animals treat him; that’s what terrifies him. But note this only appears to be achieved through relentless ascetic prayer. This restoration of creation is a central theme in the Anglo-Saxon understanding of Christian salvation in general, and the monastic vocation in particular. It’s there on both the Bewcastle and Ruthwell crosses.
John the Baptist needs to know whether his cousin is ‘the face of the Lord’ before whom he, as the prophet of Isaiah 40, has been preparing the way. Jesus’ answer to him is to simply look at the evidence and see chapter 61 of Isaiah bursting into life around him in the desert.
But the really remarkable phrase he utters is at the end of our passage – ‘Wisdom is justified by all her children.’ In other words, look at this evidence and recognise, and understand, whose fruits these are. Here Jesus claims to be Wisdom, the creator, healer and restorer, personified throughout the Old Testament, and especially in Proverbs, as the presence of God in his creation – ‘I was with God in the beginning…’ (Prov 8:22-30). Now that’s audacious.