During the Season of Lent, we’re spending this time focusing on six different types of crosses which have been used throughout Christian history to help people have a deeper understanding and appreciation for the meaning of Jesus’ cross.
So far, we have focused on the Latin cross, the Jerusalem cross, and last Sunday, we looked at the significance of the Tau cross.
And for this fourth Sunday in Lent, we turn to the Celtic cross. And as you can see, the Celtic cross is pretty much the Latin style of cross which we talked about on the first Sunday of this series, only there’s also a circle surrounding the middle of the cross tying the four parts of the cross together.
In preparing for this sermon today, I have been reminded of just how important the shape of the circle is for people from the Celtic faith. And by Celtic Christianity, I’m referring to the Christian Church of the British Isles which dates all the way back to the 2nd or 3rd century and continues to be an important expression of our Christian faith today.
In a few moments I want to share some brief highlights of the history of Celtic Christianity, but for now, I want to say a quick word about the powerful symbol of the circle for people who are from the Celtic Christian faith.
In Celtic Christianity, there’s a wonderful traditional prayer that goes like this: Circle us Lord, keep love within, keep hatred out. Keep joy within, keep fear out. Keep peace within, keep worry out. Keep light within, keep darkness out. May you stand in the circle with us, today and always.”
This prayer and the image of a circle are meant to help Christians remember that God is always with us no matter what we may be facing in life. We’ll get back to the meaning of the circle in a little bit, but for now, I want to briefly sketch a little of the history of Celtic Christianity to help us better understand this unique shape of the cross of Jesus and how this cross can help us prepare for Holy Week and Easter.
A lot of people don’t realize that Christianity originated in the British aisles as early as the 2nd century – less than 200 years after the time of Jesus. Christianity first arrived in this area because of missionaries who had been sent there from the Church in Rome.
Christianity grew and grew in this region thanks to three Christian saints in particular – St. Ninian in Scotland, St. Dyfrig in Wales, and St. Patrick in Ireland.
But around the middle of the 5th century, as Christianity was continuing to spread, pagan invaders, who were known as the Angles and Saxons from the northern part of Germany, and the Jutes who were from the area of Denmark, conquered the native Celtic Christians, and also drove many of the Celtic Christians north and west into Cornwall, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland.
After some time had passed, it was from these areas of the British Isles that Celtic Christian missionaries returned to England to preach the Gospel to these pagan invaders. While these Celtic missionaries were busy evangelizing, the church in Rome decided to send Christian missionaries as well, the most famous one being Augustine, not to be confused with the more famous St. Augustine, the great theologian of the early church.
This other Augustine arrived in the southeast corner of England in the year 597 and the pagan king who was ruling that area allowed Augustine and the other missionaries to preach the Gospel which they did and they ended up being very successful. Augustine became a Bishop and established his headquarters in Canterbury. From that time to our present day, there has been an unbroken succession of archbishops of Canterbury as part of the Church of England or the Anglican Church.
It sounds like everything worked out well since the missionaries from both the Celtic Christian tradition as well as Augustine and his missionaries from Rome were able to convert the pagan tribes who had invaded England. But there was a very different kind of problem as a result of this success.
The Celtic Christians and the church from Rome didn’t see eye to eye on a lot of issues. Augustine was a big reason for this division because first of all, he didn’t have a lot of diplomatic and people skills.
Secondly, he insisted that the Celtic Christians should adopt his way of doing things. Augustine felt that the Celtic Christians were obligated to follow the way the church back in Rome did things.
There’s an interesting story about this. It is said that the Celtic Christians, before going to meet with Augustine, consulted a hermit who had a reputation for wisdom and holiness, and asked him, “Shall we accept this Augustine as our leader or not?”
And as the story goes, this wise old hermit said, “If at your meeting, he rises to greet you, then accept him and his ways, but if he remains seated, then he is arrogant and unfit to lead, and you ought to reject him.”
As it turned out and true to form, Augustine remained seated during that meeting. That wise hermit ended up being right. It took another sixty years before these two groups finally came together. It wasn’t until the famous Synod of Whitby in 664 that these two faith traditions found reconciliation and began working together.
Now, that’s just a very brief history of early Celtic Christianity but I think this background might help put their particular expression of the Christian faith in some perspective.
Before we talk more about the Celtic cross, here are some other unique features of Celtic Christianity in general which I think are really helpful for us to know. I’ll share these rather quickly.
Celtic Christianity emphasizes love of nature and of God’s creation. They have a love and respect for art and poetry. They are orthodox in their Christian beliefs with a heavy emphasis on the Trinity; God who is known as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And they also have a special focus on the importance of liturgy and prayers.
Celtic Christianity has been influenced more by the Christian faith in the Eastern part of the church rather than the Western part of the church as seen in their problems with Augustine who I mentioned earlier. And maybe that’s why people today are so intrigued by Celtic Christianity because we have become so accustomed to the Western branch of Christianity, that we are just now beginning to reclaim the wonderful tradition of the more Eastern dimension of our Christian faith. Celtic Christianity helps us to reclaim this less familiar side of our Christian history and tradition.
Also in Celtic Christianity, women were given a more prominent role in the life of the church than in other Christian faith traditions.
Celtic Christianity emphasizes the need for each Christian to have a spiritual guide and to not try to be a follower of Jesus Christ on your own.
Celtic Christians tend to be great story tellers because of their wonderful oral culture tradition.
They are really big into offering Christian hospitality and they emphasize the importance of family and kinship ties.
And they also have their share of some of the greatest Christian saints who have ever lived over the course of Christian history.
Saints such as Patrick who had a huge hand in preaching the gospel in Ireland. Aidan who in the 7th century, restored Christianity in Northumbria after unsuccessful attempts by previous leaders; Columba, a faithful and determined monk who in the 6th century converted pagan kings and traveled on vigorous missionary journeys throughout his seventy-six years of life.
Cuthbert, from the 7th century, who even though he preferred his own Celtic customs, was humble enough to accept some of the practices of the Church in Rome for the sake of Christian unity. He traveled by horseback all over England sharing the gospel with people who were scattered in outlying and sparsely settled areas encouraging them to not rely on their charms or amulets, but to pray to God and to put their trust in Jesus Christ, alone.
Brigid was another wonderful Celtic saint. She lived during the 5th century, left her pagan religion, and was baptized in the Christian faith at the age of fourteen. She became a nun and helped to establish a Christian community in Kildare where a pagan shrine stood that included a perpetual fire. Instead of stamping out the fire and disrespecting the Druid people, Brigid chose to allow the fire to continue but she gave it a Christian interpretation. Thanks to her sensitive and respectful approach, many of the Druid people accepted the Christian faith.
And last but not least, another saint from the Celtic Christian faith is St. Robert McDowell of Scotland. You might have read some of his outstanding poetry.
Now, back to the Celtic Cross which I mentioned briefly at the beginning of the sermon. The Celtic Cross is basically a Latin cross, which is the most popular shape of cross but this cross also has a circle in the top middle of it connecting all four points of the cross.
As the story goes, St. Patrick, who lived during the 5th century, is the one who came up with this particular style of cross. During St. Patrick’s time, the circle represented a pagan moon goddess, and by incorporating a symbol from the pagan faith with the Christian cross, it showed those he was converting to Christianity how the Christian faith connected to their religious symbols. Consequently, St. Patrick ended up ordaining many Druids to serve as Christian priests which is pretty remarkable if you think about it.
Another symbolism of the Celtic cross also comes from the circle. The circle is a symbol of eternity that emphasizes the endlessness of God’s love as shown through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. The circle reminds us that there is no end to God’s immeasurable love. And I think this particular meaning is worth stopping for a moment and giving some thought.
This means that no matter how much we have failed God in the past or in the present, or how much we will fail God in the future, that God’s love for us is always the same. As a friend of mine likes to put it, “God loves you and there’s nothing you can do about it.” I find this circle of love to be a great thought for us during this Season of Lent, that God’s love has no end.
When I think of Celtic Christianity’s emphasis on God’s unconditional love, I think of the story of the Prodigal Son. We’ve heard this story. It’s one of Jesus most famous parables and it’s about a father and two sons and how the youngest son demanded his share of the inheritance, left home, and squandered the money in loose living.
This son had done the unthinkable. Not only did he disrespect is father by asking for his inheritance, but he also turned his back on his own family.
After he spends all of the money on wild living, he finally comes to his senses and decides to return home to become one of his father’s servants. At least then, he would be able to eat real food and not the food of the pigs which he had been eating just to survive.
Imagine this scene as this youngest son returns home. All the way home, he is going over his apology for what he had done to bring shame to the family, knowing that his father might not even allow him to be his servant, let alone his son.
And then, picture in your mind, the way this parable ends. When the father sees his son off in the distance, this father is filled with compassion and begins running toward him.
We have lost the shock of this story because in Jesus’ day, adults never ran outside like that in public. That would have been a disgrace.
So, here’s this father, going against social protocol, throwing caution to the wind by running in public, all because he is overjoyed that his son who was lost has now come home. And he was willing to go to these great lengths even though his son had hurt him deeply.
After he embraces his son, he throws a huge welcome home party and spares no expense. And Jesus told this story because he wants us to know of God’s immeasurable love for us. The circle that is in the middle of the Celtic cross is to always remind us of God’s eternal love. There is nothing we can do to make God love us more and there is nothing we can do to make God love us any less. God loves us unconditionally, and there’s nothing we can do about it. It’s just the way it is.
And this leads me to share this final thought about Celtic Christianity. Many people would often refer to those Celtic saints who I mentioned earlier as “God- intoxicated people who lived with an intense sense of the presence of God.” “God- intoxicated people who lived with an intense sense of the presence of God.”
They believed in Jesus Christ to the very core of their being and they shared this good news with everyone near and far, that all of life and creation were embraced by the triune God who walked with them throughout life’s journey. Just reading ancient Celtic prayers reveals this strong characteristic of Celtic Christianity and what they mean by the circle of God’s endless and everlasting love.
Celtic Christians often use the phrase, “Thin Place” to convey how the spiritual and natural world often intersect and overlap. These thin places are the moments when we experience a deep sense of God’s presence in our everyday, ordinary, and even mundane living. Thin places represent the razor thin distance between heaven and earth and all we need to do is to be open to these everyday holy moments.
In our day and age with its heavy emphasis upon reason, rationale thought, scientific proof, and linear thinking, Celtic Christianity offers us a breath of fresh air. Heaven is not as far away as we might have thought. Heaven is overlapping our lives in any given moment. The God of all creation, who is wholly other and transcendent, is also the God of the incarnation. God became flesh in the person of Jesus Christ.
And this is why we call so many of the Celtic Christians, saints. Because of their deep sense of God’s presence and of God’s overflowing love for all people, that’s why they were willing to travel on dangerous missionary journeys. They believed each place to be a place of one’s resurrection where only God could bring new life and it was their task to pray, preach, care, worship, and wait till the resurrection would most certainly come.
I wonder if people say the same things about us. That we too, are God-intoxicated people who live with the intense sense of the presence of God. And as we wait upon the celebration of Easter and the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, like our Celtic brothers and sisters, it is our primary task to pray, preach, care, and worship wherever we travel.
For this all to be said about us, we need a circle in the middle of our cross.
Crosses of Jesus: The Celtic Cross
Small Group Questions
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
March 26, 2017
Celtic Christianity is known for the phrase, "Thin Place Moments," which describes those holy moments in our everyday lives when heaven and earth overlap and we experience God's presence in a very real way.
Share a recent "Thin Place Moment" that has happened to you recently.
Celtic Christianity is known for love of God's creation (nature), poetry, orthodox beliefs with an emphasis on the doctrine of the Trinity, worship liturgy and prayers, emphasis on women in leadership roles in the church, the important of having a spiritual guide, storytelling ability, and hospitality.
Share which of these Celtic Christian aspects stand out for you. Why are they important?
The circle in the Celtic cross reminds us of God's endless love through for the world through Jesus Christ. The story of the Prodigal Son emphasizes this endless love when the father runs out to meet his son who was returning home from squandering the family inheritance.
How have you experienced God's endless and unconditional love in your life?
Celtic Christianity is known for their beautiful prayers. Pastor Robert shared this prayer during the sermon this past Sunday. Say this prayer together as a small group:
Circle us Lord, keep love within, keep hatred out. Keep joy within, keep fear out. Keep peace within, keep worry out. Keep light within, keep darkness out. May you stand in the circle with us, today and always. Amen.