The High Cross at Clonmacnoise stands an impressive four metres tall, built of Clare sandstone around 900 AD. The scenes depicted upon it are sometimes difficult to decipher and this has given rise to many alternative explanations.
There are two aspects, however, which are beyond dispute, and declare with a timeless eloquence the central paradox of Celtic Christology: that of the suffering and the glory of Christ. On this face (above), the central figure is the crucified Christ. The usual explanation of the four roundels (at 12, 3, 6 and 9 o’clock), are the four gospels, pictorialized as lion, ox, eagle and man as the various metaphors explaining aspects of Christ’s life and ministry (and/or of the gospel writers).
Here’s a detail of the central scene:
Peter Harbison writes “Christ, represented as if wearing a short trouser-like garment and with his legs bound, is shown with his outstretched arms falling at an angle and with his large hands bearing the nail heads in the centre of the palms.” (Harbison 1992, 52)
There are other interesting features in this scene. The figures to the left and right of Jesus are traditionally identified as Stephaton (left), who offers Jesus vinegar on a pole and Longinus (right) who stabs Jesus with a lance. Stephaton and Longinus appear (unnamed) in the passion story in the Gospel of John 19:28-34.
On the reverse face, the center of the head of the cross and the arms form one integrated scene. This is clearly a portrayal of Christ in glory and judgement.
Harbison writes: “Christ stands . . . carrying a sceptre . . . over his right shoulder and a cross-staff over his left shoulder.” (Harbison 1992, 49)
It’s as if the very emblems of his humiliation have become the badges of office as He rises, rules and reigns in power.
What is the sermon the High Cross is intending to preach?
It’s a declaration of the two sides of Christ and how one aspect teaches the other. If there was only a depiction of power and glory then one would be left with a triumphalist, omnipotent god bent on conquest and ruling in total authority.
That’s true, of course, but only partly so.
If there was only a depiction of suffering and death, then one might be left with the notion that pain and sorrow was the end of the story, or that they were somehow redemptive and valuable by themselves.
Again, there is a sliver of truth here, but both sides have to be brought together.
This is how the apostle John approached the paradox: he began his gospel with an account of the glory of God in creation and revelation but then said “And the word was made flesh and dwelt among us. And we beheld His glory.” We behold the glory of God “made flesh”.
Yet it was a strange sort of glory, and many who saw and heard him perceived no glory at all. What is striking about John`s presentation is that, although his glory was manifested powerfully in his miracles or “signs”, it was above all to be seen in his present human weakness, in the self-humiliation of his incarnation.
As He came in lowliness we have an example of the paradox that John uses so forcefully later in the Gospel, that the true glory is to be seen, not in outward splendour, but in the lowliness with which the Son of God lived for men and suffered for them.
This becomes especially clear from the way in which John links glory with the cross. We may not be as surprised at this as we should be, since our awareness of the splendour of Christ`s accomplishment at Calvary can cast over his cross a cloak of spurious sentiment and so obscure something of its horror. But a horror it was to the first century world, a place of unspeakable agony, and, above all, of shame and curse. To explain the paradox was, indeed, a great part of John`s purpose in writing the gospel. Part of his goal, in writing an evangelistic book for Jews and proselytes, is to make the notion of a crucified Messiah coherent. The intrinsic offense of the cross he cannot remove. What he can do is to show that the cross is at one and the same time nothing less than God`s astonishing plan to bring glory to himself by being glorified in his Messiah.
But what do we do with the paradox? What should our reaction be?
As we come to Easter, those two aspects come into their sharpest focus. The cross at Clonmacnoise reminds us that Good Friday and Easter Sunday belong together, to speak out the one gospel of the living Christ.