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Stones to Crosses

Like God's own creativity.

Irish High Crosses (8)

On the early Christian crosses it is possible to show how the pre-Christian sun symbols affected its metamorphosis into the Christian period. Previously menhir, dolmen and cromlech united man, earth and the cosmos in the ritual centre. In the sixth and seventh centuries the stone cross was erected in the open air to replace them. It proclaimed the new cult of the Logos that had come down to the earth…

 - Jakob Streit, Sun and Cross[1]

Long before the days of Christianity, in the Celtic West there were sacred stones…standing stones or pillar stones are very relevant, for they symbolize the Axis Mundi or world axis, the pole or link between heaven and earth.

 - Bryce, Symbolism of the Celtic Cross[2]

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new. Now all things are of God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation, that is, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them, and has committed to us the word of reconciliation.

 - 2 Corinthians 5.17-19

The Ardamore standing stone[3] in Kerry, Ireland is typical of many other such stones which survive from the pre-Christian period. Standing nearly ten feet tall and decorated with a variety of Celtic ornaments, it speaks of ancient mankind’s need to connect with otherworld realities.

Standing stones were a vital part of pre-Christian Celtic life. Menhir, dolmen, and cromlech are names given to various forms of these stones, according to their shape, arrangement, and function. Standing stones were central features of religious life, representing connecting points between heaven and earth. As worshipers gathered around these large stones—some of which are more than twenty feet high—their eyes would have been directed upward to the heavens, providing a sense of solidity, transcendence, and fullness of life.

A story in the Life of Brendan illustrates the passing of Celtic pagan life into the new “cult of the Logos”, the Christian faith. During one of his itinerations, Brendan came upon a man who was fleeing brigands. Brendan told him to stand in front of a local standing stone, in its shadow. When the brigands arrived, they mistook the stone for the man they were pursuing and struck it, lopping off the top. Whereupon Brendan confronted their folly, told them to desist in seeking the man, and called them to repent and believe the Gospel. They all did, and the man, stepping out of the shadow of the standing stone, was saved and reconciled to his enemies in the Name of Jesus. The old order which was once a source of refuge and safety, now was dead, and the new order of life in Jesus was taking its place.

Celtic Christian leaders understood the role these standing stones had played in Irish society, and they brought that heritage, tradition, and raft of meanings into the service of the Gospel by replacing standing stones with standing crosses. Gathering around a cross to meditate, pray, or learn would have made perfect sense to the Celtic peoples of Ireland. It does not appear that Christian leaders undertook to destroy the standing stones, only to “rewrite” the narrative they represented. Craftsmen carved the message of the cross onto existing standing stones. Others they sculpted into cross shapes. But most of the Irish high crosses are original works of art, wholly dedicated to the new economy of faith that had taken firm hold in Ireland in less than two hundred years.

Christianity need not be iconoclastic in its proclamation of the Good News. Since all art and other forms of culture are grounded in the common grace of God, Christians can usually find something to admire and build upon in bringing the message of Jesus to the world. Leaders and artists of the Celtic Revival understood the basic human longing for connection with ultimate realities. They were firm and clear in relating the Gospel and insightful—like Paul on Mars Hill (Acts 17)—in drawing from the wisdom, traditions, and practices of those they sought to convert for making the Good New clear and relevant.

We can observe, note, and build on the evidence of God’s grace we see at work in the people to whom God sends us. By listening well, thinking with the mind of Christ, and making sure our speech is gracious and edifying, we can affirm God’s work in others and lead them into deeper understandings of His message of redemption, reconciliation, and the renewal of all things.

For Reflection
1. Can you think of a film you’ve seen that could serve as a “meeting point” for talking with someone about Jesus and His love?

2. What do we mean by “common grace”? What would be some examples of God’s common grace at work?

Psalm 104.12-23 (Creation: The Spacious Firmament Above)
The birds beside the waters dwell and sing in the branches, full and well.
You drench the mountains from above; the earth is sated by Your love.
You cause the grass for beasts to grow, and plants for food to feed us so;
and wine to gladden man’s poor soul, and bread and oil to make us whole.

The trees You water with Your grace, the mighty cedars in their place.
In them the birds their dwellings build, and goats inhabit every hill.
You made the moon the times to mark. The sun declines; You made the dark.
By night the beasts pursue their prey, and man to labor goes by day.

Lord, give me eyes to see your grace at work in the world so that I...

[1] Streit, p. 125

[2] Bryce, p. 11

[3] All illustrations in this series are by Victor Furious.

T. M. Moore

To learn more about the Celtic Revival, download our free PDF, The Celtic Revival: A Brief Introduction, by clicking here.

Support for Crosfigell comes from our faithful and generous God, who moves our readers to share financially in our work. If this article was helpful, please give Him thanks and praise.

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All Psalms for singing from The Ailbe Psalter. Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved

T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in the Champlain Valley of Vermont.
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