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Commemoration of Saint Egbert

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April 24


Saint Egbert (Ecgberht) was born in England of noble parentage in approximately the year 639. In his youth, he went to study at a monastery in Ireland called Rathmelsigi (Rathelmigisi, Rathmelsige) in Connaght. Soon after his arrival at Rathmelsigi, his traveling companion Æthelhun died of the plague and Egbert contracted it too. Egbert prayed that God might spare him, and vowed voluntary exile for life if he recovered. A vow of exile was considered a supremely holy act of self-denial and sacrifice, not unlike a vow of poverty or celibacy. Egbert's prayer was answered, and in fulfillment of that vow he never returned to England, though he lived to the age of ninety.

After his ordination as a priest, Egbert was filled with zeal for the conversion of the pagan Germanic tribes in Friesland. The Frisians were early empire-builders among the scattered tribes of the Dark Ages, controlling an area stretching from Denmark to Belgium. The Frisians so dominated sea-going trade that the North Sea was then known as Mare Frisicum. St. Egbert felt a strong call that the gospel should be preached to the Frisians and trained several bands of monks for these missions including St. Wigbert and St. Willibrord. Egbert wanted desperately to be their apostle in person and longed to make the trip himself, but his plans to travel there were repeatedly thwarted.

In 688, in the midst of his most determined attempt to make the voyage, a brother monk who had been a loving disciple of St. Boisil breathlessly reported to Egbert that he had had a vision very early that morning. According to the Venerable Bede, St. Boisil, dead many years, appeared to the brother and said: "I am come to bring Egbert a message from our Lord and Saviour, which must be delivered to him by you. Tell him that he cannot perform the journey he has undertaken; for it is the will of God that he should rather go to teach the monasteries of Columba." Egbert initially expressed doubt about the vision, and asked the brother not to tell anyone else about it, but even after additional discernment persuaded him the vision was true, Egbert continued making plans for his missionary trip to Friesland.

The sacred messenger would not be deterred, and a few days later Boisil to the same brother, saying: "Why did you tell Egbert so negligently and after so lukewarm a manner that which I enjoined upon you to say? Yet, go now and tell him, that whether he wants to or not, he must go to Columba's monasteries, because their ploughs are not driven straight; and he must bring them back into the right way." "Their ploughs are not driven straight" was taken to be a reference to the schismatic practice in those monasteries of celebrating Easter on the "wrong" date.

Egbert again asked the brother not to tell anyone about the vision, and despite of believing the vision was true, he stubbornly continued his preparations, loading his ship with many provisions for a long voyage. One day while the fully loaded ship was waiting for good sailing weather, a violent storm arose in the harbor that tossed the ship to and fro, spilled most of the precious cargo, and left the vessel lying broken open on its side in the sea. Only the belongings of Egbert and his companions were spared. Egbert finally (!) got the message God did not want him to make the trip, cancelled the voyage, and gave up his plans for missionary work in Friesland forever. Many other Celtic notables either studied with Egbert or did missionary work with him in Ireland, including St. Adalbert, St. Swithbert, and St. Chad.

Egbert did not leave Ireland for Iona until the year 716. By his sweetness and humility over thirteen years he eventually succeeded in straightening their liturgical plough: Egbert is credited with inducing the Iona monks to relinquish their mode of Easter computation. He had the satisfaction of living to see the completion of his earthly mission: on the day of his death in 729, Easter was finally celebrated at Iona for the first time according to the Roman reckoning, even though Easter had already arrived earlier in the year according to their former rule.

St. Egbert is not to be confused with the Egbert who served as Archbishop of York for 34 years. References in the work of the great theological scholar Alcuin, which refer to an Egbert with the Latin terms antistes and episcopus, both meaning bishop, probably refer to that Archbishop of York, who founded a cathedral school at York that Alcuin attended as a child. The dates are also wrong for St. Egbert to be the same Egbert who served as the 12th bishop of Lindisfarne; the latter Egbert's consecration to the episcopate occurred in the year 803, seventy-five years after the death of the Egbert we celebrate today.

St. Egbert died, hours after serving as celebrant at a joyful Easter Mass, on April 24, 729.

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