THE LIGHTENER OF THE STARS

moon sky.jpg

 

BEHOLD the Lightener of the stars
On the crests of the clouds,
And the choralists of the sky
Lauding Him.

Coming down with acclaim
From the Father above,
Harp and lyre of song
Sounding to Him.

Christ, Thou refuge of my love,
Why should not I raise Thy fame!
Angels and saints melodious
Singing to Thee.

Thou Son of the Mary of graces,
Of exceeding white purity of beauty,
Joy were it to me to be in the fields
Of Thy riches.

O Christ my beloved,
O Christ of the Holy Blood,
By day and by night
I praise Thee.

(Carmina Gadelica)

Advertisements

St Columba: Celtic environmentalist

StColumba.jpg

St Columba  (Colm Cille, ‘dove of the church’) ;was the sixth century Irish missionary  credited with spreading Christianity in  what we now call Scotland. Importantly, he also founded  Iona, which became a dominant spiritual centre for centuries to come. He is one of the Twelve Apostles of Ireland.

Around 563, as the picture indicates,  he and his twelve companions crossed from Ireland to Dunaverty near Southend, Argyll in Kintyre before settling in Iona in Scotland, then part of the Irish kingdom of Dál Riata, where they founded a new abbey as a base for spreading Christianity among the pagan picts.

Here’s a lovely clip of some early medieval Latin hymns which are often attributed to him.

 

And environmentalist?  He is credited with the statement:  “He who tramples on the world tramples on himself” which resonates (with me at least!) of the need of our society to heed the Celtic call to rediscover both the real value of self and the real value of our lovely planet, within the framework of an awareness of the Divine.

Wild Geese

wild geese

“You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body

love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.”
Mary Oliver

Reflecting on the Cross of the Scriptures at Clonmacnoise

clonmac crossThe 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:

clonmac cross detail

 

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.

clonmac cross detail 2

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.

A Celtic Charismatic: Now Published

This book is a study of the spirituality of Patrick through his own writings, the Confession and the Letter. It is shaped as a series of thirty meditations which may be read in the course of a month, including the author’s own reflections upon Patrick’s use of Scripture, and songs from the Carmina Gadelica.

It is the author’s contention that Patrick can be fairly understood as A Celtic Charismatic, in his commitment to Scripture, his emphasis upon mission and in a lifestyle directed and empowered by the Holy Spirit.
This book is intended as a conversation-starter, perhaps mostly with the Christians of Ireland, towards the recovery of a vital faith and vigorous response to the challenges of our day.
“He who wants can laugh and jeer, but I shall not keep silent nor keep hidden the signs and wonders which have been shown to me by the Lord…”

"A Celtic Charismatic: Now Published

This book is a study of the spirituality of Patrick through his own writings, the Confession and the Letter. It is shaped as a series of thirty meditations which may be read in the course of a month, including the author’s own reflections upon Patrick’s use of Scripture, and songs from the Carmina Gadelica.
It is the author’s contention that Patrick can be fairly understood as A Celtic Charismatic, in his commitment to Scripture, his emphasis upon mission and in a lifestyle directed and empowered by the Holy Spirit.
This book is intended as a conversation-starter, perhaps mostly with the Christians of Ireland, towards the recovery of a vital faith and vigorous response to the challenges of our day. 
“He who wants can laugh and jeer, but I shall not keep silent nor keep hidden the signs and wonders which have been shown to me by the Lord…”"

The right way of Dying for Ireland

st alban

The Matrydom of St Alban

 The good God often freed me from slavery, and from twelve dangers which threatened my life, as well as from hidden dangers and from things which I have no words to express. I wouldn’t want to hurt my readers! God knows all things even before they are done, and I have him as my authority that he often gave me warnings in heavenly answers, – me, a wretched orphan! (35).

The word “often” is noteworthy. Apart from the six or seven years of his youth that he spent as a slave, there are two or three other periods of forced captivity mentioned offhandedly in Patrick’s Confession. But God often freed me (so why should I go on about it!).

We don’t know what the twelve life-threatening dangers were exactly, though, again, the Confession itself provides material for a numerated estimate. What is more interesting is mention of hidden dangers and from things which I have no words to express.  Elsewhere Patrick uses this kind of language to express satanic attack and forms of spiritual warfare, and that would seem to fit here too.  He displays an intelligent reticence (I wouldn’t want to hurt my readers!) rather than modesty. These things are not really that important (he seems to say), and, in any case, Patrick is driving towards a different point.

He does note, however, that God  often gave [him] warnings in heavenly answers. Spiritual attack was met by supernatural provision.

The real point comes up in section 37:

It was not by my own grace, but God who overcame it in me, and resisted them all so that I could come to the peoples of Ireland to preach the gospel. I bore insults from unbelievers, so that I would hear the hatred directed at me for travelling here. I bore many persecutions, even chains, so that I could give up my freeborn state for the sake of others. If I be worthy, I am ready even to give up my life most willingly here and now for his name. It is there that I wish to spend my life until I die, if the Lord should grant it to me.

The point is quite clear here. It is, if I can phrase it this way, that Patrick had found the right way to die for Ireland.

There is no way that this passage can be construed to say that Patrick was seeking martyrdom –even that wasn’t the real point. The point, the all-consuming point, was the mission to which Christ had summoned him.

That was worth dying for.

God had made a way for him (It was not by my own grace, but God who overcame it in me) against all odds and obstacles so that I could come to the peoples of Ireland to preach the gospel.

But if God had made the way, Patrick still had to walk it, and there seems to be a developing resistance in both missionary and mission-recipients.  I bore insults from unbelievers, so that I would hear the hatred directed at me for travelling here.  The progression is obvious: persecutions… chains… [slavery] leading on, logically to the possibility of death. And so he stakes his case quite straightforwardly: I am ready even to give up my life most willingly here and now for his name. It is there that I wish to spend my life until I die, if the Lord should grant it to me.

It is there I wish to spend my life.

God has called me, and thus far God has helped me. He has protected me from many dangers and supernaturally warned me about them. If I’m honest, I can expect to die –perhaps quite soon- in this place where God has called me to be, but that’s just it. This IS the place where God called me to be, and I am His, whether to live or die. I’m at his disposal.

A Holy Ambition: “The Land of My Captivity”

saint patrick

 

 I must take care not to hide the gift of God which he has generously given us in the land of my captivity. (33)

The double reference here is to Paul’s injunction to Timothy to “stir up the gift” within him (2 Timothy 1:6) and to the story that Jesus told about the “Talents” which one hapless recipient hid, rather than put to use (Matt 25:14-30).  In Patrick’s mind, both the gift (of apostolic mission) and the place of service are one and the same. They are the land of my captivity.

It’s an interesting way of putting it. Patrick had been enslaved as a boy, of course, during which captivity he turned to Christ. Now as an adult he has returned as a “slave of Christ” and may still fairly call Ireland the land of my captivity.

In the following section (Confession 34), he describes the holy and wonderful work to which he is committed.  In the casual and highly personal terms of someone testifying in a church meeting, he says:

 In this way I can imitate somewhat those whom the Lord foretold would announce his gospel in witness to all nations before the end of the world. This is what we see has been fulfilled. Look at us: we are witnesses that the gospel has been preached right out to where there is nobody else there!

One catches the excitement of Patrick’s understanding of the missionary work to which he has been called. Even though what he does is but a pale imitation (In this way I can imitate somewhat…), it is part of something long foretold would happen before the end of the world. That is, quite simply, that the gospel would be preached to the ends of the world, and, as far his geography lessons can teach him, that’s exactly where he stands:  Look at us: we are witnesses that the gospel has been preached right out to where there is nobody else there!

So Patrick stands at the end of the known world, preaching the gospel, as he believes, at the end of the age. Imagine having that sense of destiny and purpose.

And if our understanding of both geography and history have extended –it wasn’t the end of the world, and it wasn’t the time of Christ’s return- our perception of spiritual reality falls far short of Patrick’s. We preen ourselves on our scientific knowledge but have little notion of our place in God’s scheme of things.

Patrick knew, and he had a “holy ambition” to see it done, and done well.

 

Reflection

There is a strong connection between what I may call the “missionary heart” of both Patrick and Paul. It’s very evident in Paul’s declaration at the end of Romans (15:16-24), which reads thus:

For I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me to bring the Gentiles to obedience—by word and deed, by the power of signs and wonders, by the power of the Spirit of God—so that from Jerusalem and all the way around to Illyricum I have fulfilled the ministry of the gospel of Christ; and thus I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named… but as it is written, “Those who have never been told of him will see, and those who have never heard will understand.” … But now, since I no longer have any room for work in these regions, and since I have longed for many years to come to you,  I hope to see you in passing as I go to Spain… (Rom 15:18-24)

Paul also possessed limitations in his own knowledge, but he understood “holy ambition” just as surely as did Patrick.

It’s there in v20: “And thus I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named….”

Paul, as Patrick, was driven by a holy ambition. He mentions being often hindered (v22) and yet longing to see the project through. That is to say, he was driven by his passion for mission. There was no way he could go to Rome until he had finished in the regions from Jerusalem to Illyricum. But finally, he says in v23, “I no longer have any room for work in these regions.” So: “I hope to see you in passing as I go to Spain.” (v24)

Both Patrick and Paul had a holy ambition to see people from all the nations who had never heard of Jesus believe in Him and become obedient to Him.

When Paul came to Christ (Acts 9, 22, 26), he was told this: “I am sending you [to the Gentiles, the nations] to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me” (Acts 26:18).

Where does holy ambition come from? It comes from a personal encounter with the living Christ shaped and informed by the written word of God and empowered by the Holy Spirit.

God doesn’t lead us into ambitions that are pointless—that you will regret at the end of your life. There is always a need to be met—not a need in God, but in the world—by a holy ambition. Holy ambitions are not about self-exaltation. They are always a form of love. They always meet someone’s need.

Now what is the need Paul refers to in this text? Verse 20: “Thus I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named.” That means that Paul has set his face like flint to preach the gospel to people who have never heard of Christ. They don’t even know his name.

So, we come to v19: “From Jerusalem and all the way around to Illyricum I have fulfilled the ministry of the gospel of Christ.” That’s from Jerusalem up through Syria, across Asia Minor (Turkey), down through Greece on the east side and up the west to northern Italy where Albania is today. Paul says he has fulfilled the gospel there. And he underlines that astonishing statement in verse 23 by saying, “I no longer have any room for work in these regions.” And then in verse 24 he says, “I go to Spain.”

What does that mean? Surely there was much to be done in those regions? How could he say his job was done? Simply that Paul was not a local evangelist, but a frontier missionary, a pioneer missionary. That is, his calling and his ambition was not to do evangelism where the church has been planted. The church should do that! No, his call was to go where they didn’t even know the name.

This was Paul’s ambition. And since the great commission to make disciples of all nations is still valid and there are peoples today who do not know the gospel, therefore every church should pray that God raise up many frontier missionaries, and make all of us evangelists.

And this, I believe, was the central hub of Patrick’s missionary heart. He felt the honour and privilege of his calling, just as he understood its immensity and his own inadequacy.

Patrick’s Take on Evangelism

go into

For that reason, therefore, we ought to fish well and diligently, as the Lord exhorts in advance and teaches, saying: Come  after me, and I will make you  fishers of men. And again He says through the prophets: Behold, I send many fishers and hunters, saith God, and so on. Hence it was most necessary to spread our nets so that a great multitude and throng might be caught for God. (17)

Patrick takes a rather loose translation of Jeremiah 16:16 (perhaps quoting from memory) to give the two sides of the issue: fishers and hunters. Fishers wait, and hunters pursue.

Here’s Jeremiah: “ But now I will send for many fishermen,’ declares the Lord, ‘and they will catch them. After that I will send for many hunters, and they will hunt them down on every mountain and hill and from the crevices of the rocks.”

In the short  section, Patrick lists a kind of concordance of evangelism proof texts:

Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.(Mat 4.19)

Behold, I send many fishers and hunters, says God,(Jeremiah 16:16)

Go therefore now, teach ye all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and behold I am with you all days even to the consummation of the world.(Matthew 28:19-20)

Go ye therefore into the whole world, and preach the Gospel to every creature. He that believes and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believes not shall be condemned.(Mark 16:15-16)

This Gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world for a testimony to all nations, and then shall come the end.(Matthew 24:14)

And it shall come to pass, in the last days, says the Lord, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. And upon my servants indeed, and upon my handmaids will I pour out in those days of my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.(Joel 2:28-29)

`I will call that which was not my people, my people; … and her that had not obtained mercy, one that hath obtained mercy. And it shall be in the place where it was said: “You are not my people,” there they shall be called the sons of the living God.'(Hosea 1:10,2:23)

The seven quotations give us an idea of Patrick’s take on evangelism. If these texts formed the thread of a seminar on “Outreach to Ireland 101,” then what the outline be?

For example:

1.”Fishers” -Work with subtlety, patience, diligence.

2. “Fishers and Hunters”- We need different kinds of cooperating strategies to do the job properly.

3. “Into all the world” – Stress mobility, fluidity, and ‘travelling light.’

4. “Make disciples” – Stress the building of character, and interpersonal relatiosnhips.

5. “In the name of…” – Mission is a Trinitarian enterprise.

6. Importance of baptism

7. Time-frame of Christ’s reurn – Urgency.

8. Empowerment of the Holy Spirit

9. Building Christian Community.

Thoughts?

 

 

“Come over and help us” – Patrick’s Call

shamrock_tree

 

How did Patrick understand his calling to the Irish? The Confession contains his testimony, in one of the most well-known sections of his writings:

I saw, in a nocturnal vision, a man named Victoricus coming as if from Ireland, with a large parcel of letters, one of which he handed to me. On reading the beginning of it, I found it contained these words: ‘The voice of the Irish;’ and while reading it I thought I heard, at the same moment, the voice of a multitude of persons near the Wood of Foclut, which is near the western sea; and they cried out, as if with one voice, ‘We entreat thee, holy youth, to come and henceforth walk amongst us. ‘ And I was greatly affected in my heart, and could read no longer; and then I awoke. (23)

 Though the passage recalls Daniel 7:13: (“I saw in a vision of the night one like the Son of Man”),  a stronger reference would be to Acts 16:9: ” And a vision appeared to Paul in the night; There stood a man of Macedonia, and prayed him, saying, Come over into Macedonia, and help us.”

The Latin phrasing of Acts 16:9 (“visio per noctem…vir”) is quite close to Patrick’s  “vidi in visu noctis virum,” as is the concept of an identifiable foreign national. And in both cases, the response is a positive agreement.

The reasons for this passage’s fame are the historical puzzles it raises, (Who was this man named Victoricus? Where is the Wood of Foclut?) and the patriotic buttons pressed by the phrase coming as if from Ireland and of course, the resounding “Vox Hiberniacorum” ( The voice of the Irish). Of enormous interest too is the designation given to Patrick himself as  “sancte puer” (holy youth), the nearest approach he ever makes to understanding himself as “Saint Patrick.” It is more reasonably conjectured that “sancte puer” was something of a nickname that Patrick had  acquired during his time as a slave when he mentions praying constantly through the night.

It is interesting to notice once more the connection between eye and ear (while reading it I thought I heard), that even the import of written news is to be translated into prophetic voice. Patrick reads, and hears (somewhat like Augustine’s conversion experience of hearing a voice bidding him to “Take up and read”) and the result is that  I was greatly affected in my heart, and could read no longer; and then I awoke.

And this, of course, is the whole point.  There comes a time when text is not enough: it must be translated into action. As Paul said: “I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” ( 1 Cor 9:16). And later, he wrote: “ For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced...”(2 Cor 5:14). The vision was of a large parcel of letters of which Patrick only read the first. But one was enough to evoke the sense of  a multitude of persons begging for his help with one voice.

As someone once said: “If we but hear the voice of a desperate world the way that God does, then perhaps we would do as God did…”

 

One in Three in One?

shamrock

 

Patrick’s emphasis on the Trinity is reflected throughout his writings. He regarded its teaching as pivotal to the telling of the gospel story, as is evident in the opening words of section 14 of the Confession: In the knowledge of this faith in the Trinity.

The strength and centrality of this emphasis can be seen in the way it found expression in the much later writings collected in the Carmina Gadelica and was invoked at the commencement of every action and event, large and small.  Here’s a night-time prayer, for example:

I lie down this night with God
And God will lie down with me
I lie down this night with Christ
And Christ will lie down with me
I lie down this night with the Spirit
And the Spirit will lie down with me. 

A prayer for protection:

The arm of God be about you, 

The way of Christ guide you, 

The strength of the Spirit support you.

The holy God encircle you and keep you safe;

A final example from the Carmina Gadelica is more explicitly explanatory, and yet it is still simple and natural, even homespun, and far removed from the intellectual and abstract conceptualising of the Church Fathers.

Three folds of the cloth, yet only one napkin is there,

Three joints in the finger, but still only one finger fair,

Three leaves of the shamrock, yet no more than one shamrock to wear,

Frost, snow-flakes and ice, all in water their origin share,

Three Persons in God: to one God alone we make our prayer.

The Trinity was accepted in Celtic spirituality as simply the way things are. This is how nature is; this is how God is, and this is how we are, in our true being, as made in the image of God.

What are the implications of this way of thinking?

Working and extrapolating from the facts of Patrick’s life, a key consequence of so emphasising the Trinity would be the balance between being true to ourselves and yet being a person for others. Of course, our culture is dominated by the former consideration but it would be a mistake to think that the ancient people whom Patrick encountered would have been so very different at heart, even if “true to ourselves”  had a strongly tribal connotation.

“True to ourselves” for Patrick indicated the passion of his missionary calling, and “being a person for others” indicated the people to whom he was sent.

Secondly, the doctrine of the Trinity would have implications for an understanding of creation. God, unlike the gods in other ancient creation stories, did not need to go outside himself to create the universe. Instead, the Word and the Spirit were like his own two hands (to use the famous phrase of Irenaeus) in fashioning the seen world.

God created by speaking (the Word) as the Spirit hovered over the chaos. Creation, like regeneration, is a Trinitarian act, with God working by the agency of the Word spoken and the mysterious movement of the Holy Spirit.

Third, the Trinity would have implications for the way Patrick understood evangelism and cultural engagement. As a missionary, Patrick would have encountered two opposite spiritual tendencies: one would have been a unity of language, culture, and expression—without allowing much variance for diversity.

But at the same time, there would certainly have been a wide diversity of opinion, belief, and background—without attempting to see things in any kind of meta-unity.

In this context, a teaching of the Trinity would allow for both diversity and unity. If God exists in three distinct Persons who all share the same essence, then it is possible to hope that God’s creation may exhibit stunning variety and individuality while still holding together in a genuine oneness.

And this would carry enormous implications for the communities that Patrick sought to develop.  Patrick celebrated a God who he understood was in constant and eternal relationship with himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

This is the underlying reality of Christian community, for it is only here that interpersonal community can be seen as the expression of the nature of God. Without a plurality of persons in the Godhead, we would be forced to think that God created humans so that he might show love and know love, thereby making love a created thing (and God becoming a needy deity!).

But the Trinity shows us that we can say that God did not create in order to be loved, but rather, created out of the overflow of the perfect love that had always existed among Father, Son, and Holy Spirit who ever live in perfect and mutual relationship and delight (Quoting Kevin DeYoung).

Is this the reason that Patrick so emphasised the Trinity? Its teaching celebrated both unity and diversity (and so provided a bridge into Celtic culture); its teaching encapsulated the gospel story (and so simplified evangelism); and its teaching provided method and means of creating Christian community.