It was great to go on a spiritual pilgrimage to the Isle of Iona, in Scotland, and it is great to be back among you again. Before I left, I knew a little bit about Celtic Christianity. Some years ago I heard J. Philip Newell lecture about it, and I recall there was a focus on being in tune with the earth, the cycles and seasons, the animals. But that lecture was a long time ago. So I picked up one of his books, Christ of the Celts: The Healing of Creation, and I’ll be drawing from that for this sermon. I’m going to talk about what I found in this book that was life-giving, that I thought you might be interested in, or things that made me say, “Huh, that’s interesting.” Iona, the island that I visited, is a key player in the history of Celtic Christianity. So today is Celtic Christianity; next Sunday, when we’re all online, I’ll talk more about the specifics of my journey there.
Let us pray.
Creator of all that is,
May I be a vessel for your word of love, for your good news.
May we all be willing participants in hearing and sharing your Word in the world. Amen.
You may recall that there are two origin stories at the beginning of the book of Genesis. In one account, God creates everything in six days and rests on the seventh day. God sends breath or Spirit out over the chaos of the deep and calls into being light, day and night, sky, water in the heavens and water on earth, dry land, plants, sun, moon, stars, creatures of the sea and sky, land animals, and finally humankind. And as we read today, “God created humankind in God’s image.” Every day, God looks at what God created that day and calls it good.
And then there’s a second, very different, creation story that follows immediately upon the first. In this second story, God creates a human out of the dust and sets that human in the Garden of Eden. God then makes to grow “every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Gen 2:9). So that the human will not be alone, God creates all the animals and finally, out of the human’s rib, God creates another human, a partner for the first. Their names are Adam, which means one who comes from the earth, adamah; and Eve, which is related to the Hebrew word for living, as she is the one who gives birth to new life. So you have the union of earth, Adam, coming together with new life, Eve.
We know what happens in the story of Adam and Eve: they eat the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, when they were expressly forbidden to do so. God banishes them forever from the garden—but sews them garments before they go, given that they are now ashamed to be naked. (I love this detail. God says, “You’re out of here! And oh, by the way, I made you these cute outfits.”) And ever since, humanity has been seeking that garden, that unity with God, that place of peace and harmony.
We’re focusing on two aspects of these creation stories: 1. we are made in God’s image, and 2. we are no longer in the garden.
Down through the millennia, people have used these texts to understand their origins and how things are supposed to be. That can be a good thing, or a not-so-good thing. The leaders of patriarchy have used the story of Adam and Eve to “blame women for the origin of sin in the world and to legitimate the subordination of women to men” [Theodore Hiebert, commentary on Genesis, The New Interpreter’s Study Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003), 10]. Kia googled “made in God’s image” as she was searching for music for today, and she came upon numerous hits saying we’re not apes and there is no such thing as evolution. Such is the power of these texts, and such is our capacity to interpret them according to our own lenses.
In writing about Celtic Christianity, J. Philip Newell has a different take. He writes,
The image of God is the essence of our being. It is the core of the human soul. We are sacred not because we have been baptized or because we belong to one faith tradition over another. We are sacred because we have been born. [J. Philip Newell, Christ of the Celts: The Healing of Creation (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008), 3-4. Unless otherwise indicated, page citations come from this book].
We are made, not in original sin, but in the image of God, and beloved as part of God’s creation. And of the Garden of Eden, Newell notes,
In the Celtic tradition, the Garden of Eden is not a place in space and time from which we are separated. It is the deepest dimension of our being from which we live in a type of exile. It is our place of origin or genesis in God. . . . Adam and Eve become fugitives from the place of their deepest identity. It is a picture of humanity living in exile [pp. 2-3].
In this exile from the Garden of Eden, it is easy for us to forget that we are beloved children bearing the image of God deep in our being: bearing the wisdom, the yearning for justice, the creativity, the desire to love and be loved, to give ourselves in love, the longing for union with God, the ache for that garden from which we came [p. 4].
In this forgetfulness, we set up false images of self that are prey to ignorance, falseness, and anxiety. But Christ comes to remind us of our true selves, to steer us back to God. That is the good news of the gospel: to remind us who we are and whose we are.
Many of us grew up with the concept of original sin, which says that, at the heart of our being, we are evil, sinful, corrupt, and we are opposed to God rather than of God. Pelagius of Wales, an early Celtic Christian theologian, understood that if you tell people enough times that they are bad, they believe it—and they become easier to dominate and control. When Christianity became the state religion in the fourth century, controlling the people through religion made the concept of original sin important. Newell writes,
The doctrine of original sin was a convenient “truth” for the builders of empire. They could continue to conquer the world and subdue peoples. And now they could do it with the authority of a divine calling. . . . [P]art of the conflict with Pelagius and other teachers in the Celtic mission was that a people who believed they were made in the image of God and were therefore bearers of an ancient wisdom and an unspeakable dignity were not a people that could be easily cowed by power and external authority [p. 20].
Pelagius’s message was dangerous to the powers that be. He was eventually banned and excommunicated from the Church. Teaching people that they bear the image of God and hold divine wisdom was heretical.
Some mainline interpretations of Christianity emphasize the split between body and soul. The physical, bodily world is full of evil, disease, and corruption, whereas the soul is of God. But in Celtic Christianity, we are invited to listen to the rhythms of life, to connect with our physical bodies, to heed the wisdom of animals living in harmony with their surroundings and being fully themselves. If we are not connected to our physical planet through love, how much easier it is to destroy that planet, to strip off the trees, mine the ores, dump toxins in the rivers. If, however, we see the planet as made of God just as we are made of God, then we must connect to it and treat it with respect. When we disconnect from our physical bodies, we disconnect from what it means to be incarnate, in the flesh, as a creature of God.
Another aspect of being embodied, of course, is sexuality. Emphasizing Mary’s virginity sidesteps the physical nature of human sexuality and makes it seem dirty, not of God. Over the centuries, the Church became more insistent that Mary was a perpetual virgin, even though the gospels refer to Jesus’ siblings. Celtic Christianity encourages us to connect with and celebrate our incarnate, enfleshed selves, made in the image of God. All of it. So we are invited
If we discard the concept of original sin, what do we do with the cross? Don’t we say that Christ died for our sins? That he atoned for us so that an angry God would have mercy and spare us from the punishment that we sinners deserved?
We get to let that go. Celtic Christianity points to the cross rather as a pouring out of God’s love. Newell writes,
[The crucifixion] is real blood. This is real self-giving. Jesus knew full well the cost of loving his nation and his religious tradition the way he did, enough to weep over the falseness of the city he loved and to cleanse the injustices of the temple at its core. This is real suffering at the hands of a corrupt religious leadership and an inhumane empire that would not tolerate the challenging implications of the law of love. But it is not a payment to God; it is a disclosure of God. It is not a purchasing of love; it is the manifestation of love [p. 90].
The Celtic cross does not show Jesus hanging on it. Rather, it becomes a sacred metaphor: connection with the Divine through the vertical axis, connection with the earthly on the horizontal axis, and connection with the circle of life and solar energy in the sphere at the intersection of the two axes.
Notice as well the Celtic knots present on the cross. Everything weaves together; everything is connected. Horizontal, vertical, spiritual, physical—it is all one.
We need both axes: divine and earthly. Our bodies stand at that intersection. We are both made in God’s image and incarnate in this garden of earth. If we connect only to the Divine, we may think that our own personal salvation is all that matters. But when we connect to all of creation, and see all of it as coming from God, we recognize that until all of it comes into harmony, none of it is in harmony. And so we are called to love—love God, love each other, love creation. Newell says,
[The cross] is in no sense an expiation or payment to God. It is a revelation of the Presence at the heart of the universe. It reveals the greatest truth, that we will keep our heart only by giving our heart away, that we will find ourselves only by losing ourselves in love, that we will gain salvation only by spreading our arms wide for one another and for the earth, and that we will be saved together, not in separation (p. 104).
Body and soul, we are made in the image of God. We carry that divine light, that holy wisdom, that yearning for justice and peace, that abundant love, deep within us. And it is good. We are good. May we connect with that presence through the Christ who reminds us of our true selves, the God who creates us and loves us, and creation perpetually being born around us. Amen.