Celtic Christians understood the Kingdom of God and God's calling for us to join in seeking its progress on earth as it is in heaven.
Welcome to Celtic Legacy. I’m your host, T. M. Moore.
Each week we bring you insights from the period of the Celtic Revival (430-800) to demonstrate the continuing importance of that little-known period of Church history.
Today’s installment is entitled, “The King and His Kingdom.” It comes from the 9th or 10th century, a period after the Celtic Revival had crested, and it shows us the staying power of the Celtic Christian vision of Christ. The Saltair na Rann – or Psalter of Fifty Stanzas – sings the glory of Christ as He rules in the unseen realm. Here is an excerpt from Canto II of Saltair na Rann, translated by Eleanor Hull in her book, The Poem Book of the Gael.
King steadfast, bountiful, goodly, noble,
abode of peace…
with whom is the flock of lambs
around the Pure Spotless Lamb.
Bright King, who appointed the Lamb
to move forward upon the Mount (of Sion)
four thousand youths following Him,
(with) a hundred and forty (thousand) in a pure progress,
A perfect choir, with glories of form,
of the stainless virgins,
chants pure music along with them
following after the shining Lamb.
Equal in beauty, in swiftness, in brightness,
across the Mount surrounding the Lamb;
the name inscribed on their countenances, with grace,
is the name of the Father.
The King who ordained the voice
of the heavenly ones by inspiration,
as the mighty wave of man waters;
Or like the voice of sound-loving harps
they sing, without fault, full tenderly,
(like) multitudinous great floods over every land,
or like the mighty sound of thunder…
The amount of good which our dear God,
has for His saints in their holy dwelling,
according to the skill of the wise
there is none who can relate the hundredth part of it.
The Lord, the head of each pure grade,
who gathered the host to everlasting life,
may He save me after my going out of the body of battles,
the King who formed Heaven.
King who formed the pure Heaven.
Celtic Christians practiced the discipline of seeing into the unseen realm, and of celebrating and delighting in the greatness of Christ revealed there. In stories, poems, artwork, and carved crosses, Celtic Christians declared that the Lord is preparing a place for us in the heavenly realm, a place of beauty unimaginable. Scripture instructs us to set our minds there (Col. 3.1-3), that we might know our true citizenship is in heaven, and bring that citizenship to earth with beauty and power.
At Christmas we sing of the coming of the King of kings and Lord of lords, Jesus Christ, Who brought with Him into this mortal domain His everlasting Kingdom of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit (Is. 9.6, 7; Rom. 14.17, 18). “Joy to the world!” we insist: “The Lord is come!” And we cry out, “Let earth receive her King!” We sing and celebrate the Good News that Jesus and the apostles preached, the Good News of the Kingdom of God. Think of those glorious lines from Revelation 11.15, as rendered in Handel’s Messiah: “The kingdom of this world is become, the Kingdom of our God, and of His Christ, and of His Christ! And He shall reign forever and ever!”
Advent is the season of King Jesus’ coming, and in His coming, bringing His Kingdom to earth, as it is in heaven. Understanding and desiring that heavenly Kingdom is thus crucial to seeking the Kingdom on earth.
The Saltair na Rann is a collection of 162 songs, over 8,000 lines of verse, “covering the full sweep”, as John Carey explains in King of Mysteries, “of Christian sacred history, from the world’s creation down to the calamities which will overtake it in the last days” (Carey, p. 97). Eleanor Hull insists “It may justly be regarded as the Irish Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained…”
Whereas most of the Saltair follows the outline of Scripture, Canto II soars with vivid spiritual imagination to describe the glories of the eternal Kingdom of God, a place of such majesty, scope, immensity, beauty, strength, and wonder that it dwarfs all earthly kingdoms and envelops the entire cosmos. Here is the “promised land of the saints” which Brendan and so many others sought, and to which, after a fashion, they journeyed from time to time in their meditations and prayers.
Our excerpt appears toward the end of Canto II, when God, the King and Creator of the glorious heavenly realm, sends His Lamb to earth to gather followers to join Him in the eternal dwelling of glory. Christ came to earth to “move forward upon the Mount”, which Hull interprets as Mt. Zion – Biblical symbolism for the Church (see Ps. 48; Heb. 12.22ff), but which is perhaps better left untranslated as simply, “mountain.” In that form it represents the earth, to which Jesus came as the incarnate Lamb. His mission was to gather His holy ones, the 144,000 from every nation, tribe, and tongue, described in Revelation 7. The number, suggesting perfection, is not to be taken literally but indicates all the elect, redeemed, called, justified, and sanctified saints of God and disciples of Jesus Christ. Jesus came to earth to gather His saints and to lead them to the eternal glory He has prepared for them. And this is both a “there and then” and a “here and now” calling.
How did the author of the Saltair envision the lives such chosen and redeemed ones should lead as they follow Jesus back to His heavenly realm?
The Saltair envisions the followers of Christ are a choir, engaged, like the saints and angels in heaven (Rev. 4, 5), in continuous worship and singing. They manifest “glories of form” because they are being made into the image of Jesus Christ by the indwelling Spirit of God (2 Cor. 3.12-18). Thus, they reflect the holiness of their heavenly Father and King (Matt. 5.48), and the Kingdom and glory to which He has called them (1 Thess. 2.12). They are a single body, everyone equal with his brethren, and they make “a pure progress” in following the Lamb “in swiftness” – nothing impeding them (Heb. 12.1, 2) – and “in brightness” as the true light of the world (Matt. 5.13-16). The saints follow the powerful but sweet voice of the One sent from heaven, echoing His words “without fault, full tenderly,/(like) multitudinous floods over every land,/or like the mighty sound of thunder.” God has called them by the Lamb to Himself so that He might lavish them with abundant goodness, both in their progress and in “their holy dwelling” with Him. So many are His benefits that “no one can relate even a hundredth part” of His kindness to His chosen ones.
Yet they assemble each in his own “grade” – or “rank”, as Carey has it in his translation. This military terminology suggests not only different callings and placements in the one great army of the Lord, but a life characterized by “battles”, specifically, “the battle of the flesh” (Carey). In this life the followers of the Lamb, though heirs and possessors of His heavenly domain and power, must struggle against the flesh, the world, and the devil to show the brightness of their new life as they proclaim like flood and thunder the coming of the King and His Kingdom. Progress is certain in this high and holy calling, but it is not without cost – struggle, suffering, sacrifice, and warfare. We have been seated with Christ in these heavenly places (Eph. 2.6), and so it is our privilege to envision, enter, and enjoy those lofty environs. By setting our minds on the things that are above, where Christ is, seated in glory (Col. 3.1-3), we are better prepared to take up the struggles that yet face us in this world as we seek in it a measure of that heavenly beauty and power.
At Christmas we rejoice because we recognize that Christ has come to us, among us, for us, and with us so that we, following Him in His resurrected glory and reign, might be the instruments of His Kingdom’s sure increase, on earth as it is in heaven. We do not understand the incarnation or the meaning of Christmas unless we see these with the eye of faith, in their full and eternal context, from our position in the eternal Kingdom of God, and with a view to seeking and advancing that eternal realm in all our daily endeavors. The riches of Christ are ours in the present, yet they are but pale foreshadowings of the glory which is to be revealed in the eternal realm of glory which our King is preparing for us even now.
So from “Joy to the world!” let us unite as one choir to sing, “Lead on, O King eternal!” as we follow the Lamb through this earthly strife to eternal glory and life.