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St. Patrick's Day?

It's greener than you think

St. Patrick’s Day can evoke images of leprechauns, green beer and pubs filled with music late into the night. In Chicago, even the river is dyed green as part of the celebration. But there is something more powerful and transformational beneath this day. St. Patrick is credited with helping start Celtic Christianity, which has “green” roots in its awareness of creation, the environment and how God is involved in the natural world.

Last summer my wife, Marlene, and I spent a month in Ireland studying Celtic Christianity as a result of a sabbatical grant from the Lilly Foundation. We hoped the land of St. Patrick would renew, refresh and also teach us as Lutherans some new things about this strand of Christianity. One of the things that attracted us was Celtic Christianity’s heightened awareness of creation and God’s commitment to the world God made and loves.

Driving across Ireland we saw Celtic crosses everywhere. Small ones rested atop church steeples. Large stone crosses stood in churchyards out front. Cemetery plots were marked with them. At Monasterboice (an ancient, ruined monastery north of Dublin), giant Celtic crosses carved of heavy stone stand nearly 20 feet tall. Carvings on them outline the biblical story.

The Celtic cross
In Ireland, there are more Celtic crosses standing than Irish flags flying. The numbers don’t even appear to be close. Although its origins are unknown, the Celtic cross is also often referred to as “St. Patrick’s Cross.”

The design of Celtic crosses is said to be inspired by pre-Christian culture. Long before the early Christian missionaries began their work, Celtic people had a view of God and the world that centered on nature. Like many indigenous peoples, they were keenly aware of the land and the seasons. They chronicled the lengthening and shortening days, seeing the sun as a sign and source of life.

Five hundred years before Egypt’s pyramids were built, Celtic people built Newgrange, a huge mound with tunnels and chambers carefully aligned with the rising sun on the winter solstice — the shortest day of the year. Theirs was no casual fascination with the sun. It was a deep-seated awareness of the skies, the seasons and the passing of time.

Rather than try to change the indigenous people’s attraction to creation, Christians designed the Celtic cross to use their interest in the world as a connecting point to the gospel. The circle on the Celtic cross represents the sun and creation — the culture’s central concern.

It was a logical place to start. But look closely at a carved Celtic cross and you will notice that the circle is thinner than the cross. This is not a sun with a cross in the middle. This is a cross that stands at the center of creation.


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