Gift of the Celts

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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.


19 Comments

  1. David

    Beautiful, and full of good reminders. One of my favorite periods of Church history to read about. Thank you, Fr. McKenzie.

  2. Chris

    I love that idea Thomas. The cross is important, but it has become so ubiquitous in our culture and civilization that I wonder if it has lost some of its symbolic power. The crown-now that would shake things up even in our pluralistic day. Or perhaps we just combine them, like so, to remind ourselves that the only way for our Lord to obtain His crown, and for us, was to carry the cross: http://www.stjohnsoakwood.org/home/180000585/180000585/art_window_cross_and_crown.JPG

  3. Matt Conner

    awesome man. awesome. i love these proclamations of truth in a season where we desperately need the reminder. awesome!

  4. Matthew Clark

    I was just talking with my mentor the other day about how hard it is in our culture to get the idea of lordship. Besides looking back in history to ideas that I haven’t directly experienced, I wonder what examples to give from our culture on this?

    It is helping me to think more about Jesus’ Kingship. Thanks for this blog.

  5. Marissa Hawkins

    Interesting thoughts and history. I like the Celts for it. The need to acknowledge Jesus’ kingship and suffering reminds me of the crown of thorns, which I think was used a lot as a symbol of Christianity by the early church. It might serve to represent both Jesus’ suffering and lordship, as well as His humanity and humility.
    Always good to think on all of who Christ is. Thanks for for sharing this.

  6. Chuck Colson

    Thomas, nice post. And, you might find it stimulating to consider Richard Bauckham’s take on John’s gospel – the cross is Jesus’ enthronement. It is a brilliant read. Hope sabbatical time continues to go well.

  7. Aaron Roughton

    First of all, The Cross and the Crown sounds like a sweet name for a pub. Or a secret society. I prefer pubs to secret societies.

    Secondly, I greatly appreciate this post, Thomas. I remember the first time I saw the trailer for the first Narnia movie. The trailer ends with Aslan taking position at the top of a hill and roaring. I got chills and tears filled my eyes. I remember thinking, man, I wish I felt the same way about the real Jesus as I do about Aslan. I wish he would show up, sword in hand, and call me into battle. I think you have put your finger on the disconnect between our cultural Jesus and the King of Kings.

  8. Eddy Efaw

    Chuck and Aaron . . . what excellent comments! Thomas thank you for this thought-provoking post!

  9. David

    I second Mr. Colson. Reading Dr. Bauckham’s exposition of St John’s double entendre on “lifted up” (a phrase with deep Isaian roots — Isa 6 & 52) is a good way to spend a day at the beach.

  10. Peter B

    Aaron: right there with you, brother.

    The more I think about it, the more it would make sense to have a crown — or some understandable symbol of rule and authority — up there as well. With all of the divisive influences these days about who rules us and how, it would be a good reminder.

  11. April Pickle

    Amen to this being a thought-provoking post. Thank you, Father McKenzie. Cross, crown (and I like that these words begin with the same three letters, at least in English), or both, I love and need the visual reminder that Christ is Redeemer and King. And I say yes to large, raised, front and center!

  12. Rich Tuttle

    I’ve been pondering how the church ought to relate to the culture and thinking of what that looks like. Obviously the church is to be Christ-like, but what does that look like? I think it’s clear from Scripture that Christ looks like a royal-blooded Lion, mighty, powerful, kingly, and at the same time an empty-blooded Lamb, humble, slain for those He loves, etc.

    It’s the same picture as the Crown and the Cross. The Church carries two banners into the world a Lion with a Crown and a Lamb with a Cross. I think these are good and needful pictures for an American church that enters culture looking rather like a chameleon…

  13. livingoakheart

    The beauty of sovereignty and servanthood is something that is so often neglected or misunderstood in our culture. Thank you for this reminder of different times.

  14. Loren Warnemuende

    Echoing Livingoakheart, such a needed reminder. As Americans, the whole significance of a king is, I think, lost on us. We want Jesus as our feel-good friend, who is tolerant of everyone, but stands for nothing. Thanks for a powerful picture and challenge.

  15. Walt

    This makes me think of the Christian and Missionary Alliance (C&MA) logo: http://www.cmalliance.org/resources/ (scroll down a bit and look on the right side). It depicts the cross, a pitcher, a laver (cup), and a crown. All of this symbolizes Christ as our Savior, Sanctifier, Healer, and Coming King.

    The logo is a visual representation of the “four-fold gospel” of the C&MA, and reminds us of Jesus’ supremecy in all things.

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