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I’m working on a book, and I wrote this today as part of a chapter. I thought it might be a blessing to my fellow Rabbits this summer.
The Celtic Christians, like the Romans, usually worshiped in rectangular buildings (as much as some modern people would love to think of Celts worshiping in forests and glades, or in round buildings where everyone was equal before Mother God, it’s not true). The evidence indicates that these Christians stood during worship, with women on one side of the room and men on the other. They required two priests to celebrate the Eucharist, just to make sure it was legitimate. These priests stood before a raised altar at the front of the room. Over that altar hung a large object.
In the Roman churches at the time, the object over the altar was a cross. Sometimes the cross had a representation of the body of Jesus on it. This is true to this day, of course. Roman Catholic churches, in fact most churches, have a large cross in a prominent spot. Though video screens have now replaced crosses in some churches, it is right and good to have a cross hanging front and center. The cross reminds us of our redemption and forgiveness through the sacrifice of Jesus. It is a potent symbol of our faith.
The Celtic churches did not have a cross. Instead, they had a crown. This was, for them, the central meaning of the Gospel: Jesus is King. Remember that they lived in a land which boasted many warlords, so many kings. Invaders constantly crossed into Celtic lands. War for the right of rulership was a common experience. Who was or was not the real king was often in doubt. In this context, the Celtic Church lifted up Jesus as the one true King, the King of Kings. You may see how counter-cultural this was, and how dangerous. I can’t imagine that many lords liked the idea of their people declaring someone else as Lord every Sunday. You may also see how amazing it was that some Celtic warlords practiced the Christian faith and why a few of them are now thought of as saints.
I would not argue that we should replace the Cross with the Crown as the central image of our faith. But what if we did? On one hand, we might lose some important things, like the suffering of Jesus and our call to suffer with him. We might lose our focus on his tremendous sacrifice on our behalf. We might lose some hard-won compassion. Those would be a terrible losses.
But there is something to gain in the Crown. The Crown might remind us that we are not our own masters. It might remind us that in all our political, cultural and economic difference we are still all subjects of one great ruler. It might remind us that our will is not to be done, but rather His will. A Crown might remind us that Jesus is Lord, whether we want him to be or not.
Of course, we could want both things–The Cross and the Crown. That would be something, wouldn’t it? A Church that saw Jesus as both the Suffering Servant and the Reigning King? A Church that saw herself as both redeemed and submitted, as forgiven by the King but also reigning with Him? That would be a grand image to take from the Celtic Church, a gift they can give us these many centuries later.
Thomas McKenzie is the author of The Anglican Way, a book he describes as a traveler’s guide to the Anglican tradition, as well as The Harpooner, an Advent reader featuring harpoons—how awesome is that. He graduated from the University of Texas and attended seminary at the Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania. He was ordained as an Anglican priest in 1998 and planted the Church of the Redeemer in Nashville in 2004, where he is the still pastor. He’s also keeps samurai swords in his office, and wears a skull ring.