Thursday, October 9, 2008

The Ancient Celtic Cross

The Celtic cross is a symbol we have seen many times, and we are used to seeing tall Celtic crosses carved out of stones in graveyards and on the tops of churches.  

Before Christianity came to what is now Ireland and the British Isles, there were already Celtic crosses in use but they were not high crosses.  It is said that St. Patrick added the circle to the Christian cross as a way of communicating that the God who created the sun, and hence the universe, also was known in Jesus of Nazareth who died on a Roman cross.  Instead, the ancient Celtic cross is more ancient than that.  

Instead of upright crosses, such carvings were placed flat on the ground, the four quarters pointing to the four directions.  To the North lies wisdom, silence, Winter, death, and the element of the earth.  To the East lies rebirth, youth, Spring, growth, sunrise, and the element of water.  To the South lies vitality, vigor, Summer, strength, noontime, and the element of air.  To the West lies knowledge, experience, Autumn, guidance, sunset, and the element of fire.  The circle which connects the four points is the cycle of the eternal returns of all these things, and the Center represents the Spirit and the soul.  If you noticed, there are both elements of the divine masculine and feminine in this description.  

It seems to me that our culture seems to have lost the ancient connection to the cycles of nature, and the cyclic cosmology from that time.  Instead, we think in more linear ways, as if everything has a beginning and an ending.  This not only affects the ways we look at life, but influences our conceptions of history and our misunderstandings of such biblical terms as "the end of the age."  Instead of  the end of an era and the beginning of a new era, many hear a term that refers to the end of the world.  Hence, a word like apocalypse (which means to reveal) then begins to take on meanings of the "end times" and the destruction of the world.  The cyclic world of most ancient peoples who depended on knowing and living within the agrarian cycles of nature gets displayed in such symbols as spirals and circles.  But the Celts also had quite an affinity for the number three, which melded neatly with Trinitarian thought.  And so, for hundreds of years Ireland had both an ecologically aware and a very relational form of Christianity.  What if we could reclaim such a cosmology as a way of healing Christianity from its pretenses of power over others, alienation from creation, and the reclaiming of the divine feminine?

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