Learning Jesus (6)
Celtic Christians saw Jesus in the works of creation.
All Your works shall praise You, O LORD,
And Your saints shall bless You.
They shall speak of the glory of Your kingdom,
And talk of Your power,
To make known to the sons of men His mighty acts,
And the glorious majesty of His kingdom. Psalm 145.10-12
God in His works
Celtic Christians believed that, if you wanted to talk intelligently about God, you had to know Him from His Word and His works. That is, you had to “read” both books of divine revelation – Scripture and creation – and employ these in knowing Him and making Him known. Columbanus, that great missionary to Europe, wrote, “Understand the creation, if you wish to know the Creator; if you will not know the former either, be silent concerning the Creator, but believe in the Creator” (Sermon 1).
Mission-driven as they were – Celtic Christians knew that talking to their pagan neighbors about the Bible, while important in proclaiming the Good News, would not be the best place to start a conversation. Start with where these people were, because the Celtic peoples of Ireland were deeply enmeshed in the world of creation. Trees, lakes, streams, animals, plants, skies, clouds, hills, caves, wells – all these were important to pagan Celts, and were a significant focus of their religion. Talking about Christ through creation would have been like a “bunker bomb” for the Gospel proclaimed through Scripture, opening a door for the light of truth to invade lost souls.
To talk to unbelievers about Jesus, you have to be able to show that He is God and Lord, not merely in the Bible – which few in those days could read, and few in our day will read – but in all of creation. The riches of the knowledge of the Lord in creation can open the door for the greater riches to be found in His Word.
The more Celtic Christians learned to see Christ in His works, the more their faith in Him grew, the more they loved Him, and the better equipped they were to bear witness to Him and speak of the glory of His Kingdom.
Here’s an important lesson we can learn from these ancient believers. “Understand the creation!”
Let’s look at some examples of their love for the world Jesus created and upholds.
Celtic Christian poetry from the period of the Celtic Revival (ca. 430-800) shows us believers seeking to increase in the knowledge of Jesus along several of the avenues of knowing we have considered in this series. First, poets took the time to observe and reflect on creation, as if they were scientists, trying to understand the nature and possible uses of the world around them. They sifted their observations through the grid of theology, both Biblical and systematic, as they sought to connect their observations with their convictions. Finally, some of them cast their conclusions in art forms – poetry, painting, and sculpture – as a way of expressing what they had come to understand about the creation, and of communicating their views to others.
Here, for example, is an excerpt from the Psalter of the Quatrains, Canto I, from late in this period. It is one of several stanzas in this lengthy poem which asserts the sovereignty of Christ over all of creation:
King over creation, on which the sun looks down,
King over the depths of the ocean,
King south, north, west, and east,
against Whom no struggle can be maintained…
We hear in this verse echoes of many of the psalms, such as Psalm 24: “The earth is the LORD’s, and all its fullness…” Because this is so, all creation points to the Lord, to praise and magnify His greatness, as we see in a line from Colum Cille’s Noli Pater:
Let the summits of heaven, too, praise you with roaming lightning,
O most loving Jesus, O righteous King of Kings.
Jesus made the world and assigned us to care for it, to understand its “mechanism and harmony”, develop and use its potential, and use it in serving the purposes of His Kingdom. Here again is Colum Cille in his poem, Altus Prosator:
The Most High, foreseeing the mechanism and harmony of the world,
had made heaven and earth, established sea and waters,
and the seeds of plants, and the bushes in thickets,
sun, moon, and stars, fire and [all] needful things,
birds, fish, and cattle, beasts and animals –
and last of all the first man, to rule them through foreknowledge.
Other poets celebrated the delight of creation, its variety and beauty, the way God uses it to meet our needs, warn of His power, remind us of His grace, or even suggest courses of action in following Him. The world, for Celtic Christians, was not merely there to be used and worn out. It is the creation of God, ruled by Him, delegated to us, to be received, honored, appreciated, used, and preserved for His glory and praise. Our own experience in the world can be greatly enriched by paying attention to these ancient poets.
The same is true in art. For pre-Christian Celtic peoples, art and poetry played a major role in their lives and their religion. It was only natural that Celtic Christians should use these media to proclaim Jesus and His Kingdom.
The Book of Kells is the best-known work of art from this period. It consists of a Latin version of the gospels, lavishly framed and interspersed with a wide variety of artistic embellishments. Zoomorphs - plant and animal figures – weave around the edges and through the text of pages in stylized, exaggerated form, as if to remind readers of Scripture that God also reveals Himself through His works.
So also on the carved high crosses that began to appear late in this period. Reliefs of flora and fauna frame and embellish panels of Biblical scenes and Bible stories, asserting the sovereignty of God and the centrality of Christ in both Scripture and creation.
For Celtic Christians, creation was more than just the temporal/material setting for their spiritual journey. Using a variety of disciplines, poets, artists, theologians, missionaries, and everyday folk drew on the creation to increase their knowledge of Christ, and to outfit themselves to live for Him. Studying their art can provide us with many insights to the Lord Jesus through the avenues of art, theology, and creation, and can help us to be better prepared to worship and bear witness to Him.
1. What might we expect to learn about Jesus by paying more attention to creation?
2. Why are poetry and art useful means for communicating Gospel truths? Why is there so much poetry in the Bible?
3. What can we learn from Celtic Christians about using various disciplines to improve in the knowledge of the Lord?
Next Steps – Preparation: Online, look at some images of the Book of Kells or Celtic carved crosses. How do plants and animals figure into these works of art? How can this help us in appreciating creation’s role in helping us to increase in the knowledge of the Lord?
T. M. Moore
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Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Christ and Creation
- T.M. Moore
- February 28, 2020
Celtic Christians learned Jesus from the world around them.
Learning Jesus (6)