The blessing of God who sought us, the blessing of the Son who bought us, the blessing of the Spirit who taught us be with us this day. Amen
About 20 years ago, I became interested in the Christian Tradition that grew up in the land of the Celts of Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Two things drew me to this early expression of our Christian tradition. One was the strong women’s leadership, and the other was that these Christians were not very interested in a theology of Original Sin.
This Celtic Christian theology of was grounded in the story of creation in Genesis where God declares everything that God makes as Good. The earth is good; the skies are good; vegetation is good; the animals are good; and human beings are good.
God’s blessings abound in scripture. God says he will bless Abraham with descendants as numerous as the stars, and Abraham’s name will be a blessing to others. Isaiah writes that God “will pour water upon those who are thirsty, and floods upon the dry ground, and will pour out his spirit and his blessing on your offspring.” Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.”
This theology is very different from that of Augustine who said we are born in sin, a sinner from my mother’s womb, like the theology we see in Psalm 51. For Augustine, humankind was born in sin, and this sin and it was transmitted through sexuality. Augustine also declared that only man was created in the image of God. Woman was assigned the role of helpmate, and her purpose was simply procreation. Sin came into the world through Eve, not Adam. Eve was the one who listened to the serpent, not Adam.
Pelagius was an early Christian writer who disagreed with the Doctrine of Original Sin. Pelagius said that beginning with this negative image of humanity would only damage people’s spiritual development. He saw creation as good and a revelation of God just as Genesis said.
Pelagius was a very learned theologian and a persuasive speaker. Originally from Britain, he moved to Rome in his twenties, and eventually went to Carthage in Northern Africa. Pelagius got into a theological bru-ha-ha with Augustine who was the Bishop of Hippo also in North Africa. Augustine and other bishops, put pressure on the pope, and eventually Augustine’s theology of original sin won. Pelagius was declared a heretic and thrown out of the church in 418 A.D. His writing was destroyed and he was heard from no more.
Around this same time that Pelagius and Augustine were arguing over the human soul, there was a young person named Patrick living in Britain. Patrick was raised in a Christian family. His father was a deacon of the church and his grandfather was a priest. Christianity had been known in Britain for about 300 years by the time Patrick was born. Christianity had come to Britain with the Roman soldiers who occupied Britain as a colony for hundreds of years. But, not everyone in Britain was a Christian. The peasants who lived in rural areas continued to worship their old gods.
When Patrick was 16, he was captured by Irish slave traders and sold into captivity in Ireland for 6 years. It was during this time while Patrick worked as a shepherd that he truly took on the beliefs of Christianity and he became fluent in the Irish language. Patrick managed to escape and get on a boat back to Britain. He went to France to study Christianity and was eventually ordained a priest. And then Patrick had a vision calling him back to Ireland to be a missionary to the Celts.
This was a courageous thing to do considering that he knew too well what could happen to a man alone among the Celts. In fact, Patrick was without legal protection when he returned to Ireland, and he was once beaten, robbed of all he had and put in chains, and on another occasion, he was held captive for 60 days. Patrick did his missionary work without benefit of military back up that could make people convert or face death. Patrick was on his own and had to use persuasion to convert the Celts to Christianity.
Now the religion of the Celts was tied to the solstices and equinoxes. They had gods and goddesses who were celebrated at different seasons. Samhain was the god of winter and death when the fields were lying fallow. Lugh was the god of the harvest and his celebration was Lughnasa. The goddess Brigit was the goddess of fertility of the herds and flocks and the people. She was in charge of the rebirth of the earth in spring. Brigit was a life-giving mother goddess. And there were (and are) many sacred wells to Brigit. So if a woman wanted to get pregnant she would visit Brigit’s well and so would people who were sick and wanted to be healed.
Patrick helped people move from many gods and goddesses to one God who was in charge of all Creation. And, sometimes he baptized people at Brigit’s wells telling them they were born again into life with Christ. There were other old Celtic celebrations that Patrick Christianized. He gave the Celts a Christian interpretation of the own celebrations. And as the converts grew in number, small Christian communities were established.
Just before Patrick died, a baby girl was born and named Brigit. Her mother was a Christian slave who was baptized by Patrick and her stepfather was a Druid priest. Brigit grew up knowing both of these spiritual traditions. She became a nun and established a several monasteries for men and for women and was the abbess. Villagers who wanted to live in a Christian community gathered around the monasteries to farm and raise their herds. Brigit was greatly loved and revered for her leadership. Brigit, the nun, established an abbey at Kildare that had formerly been a sacred site to the goddess Brigit. Like Patrick, Brigit was giving new meaning, Christian interpretation, to old Celtic customs.
As Brigit’s life was drawing to a close, a baby boy was born named Columba. Columba was born into a royal household and at an early age showed a fascination with Christianity and the spiritual life. He became a monk, studied in the Christian schools in Ireland, and he established several monasteries in Ireland. But, after a bloody battle that was started in part by Columba, he was exiled from Ireland.
He and 12 companions sailed in a little boat from Ireland to the coast of Scotland and settled on the Island of Iona, a wide swept isle that faces the cold North Atlantic. From here Columba and his companions began their missionary work to the Picts of Scotland who were just as fierce as the Celts. And little by little, monastic communities of Christians began to take root in Scotland.
But the Christian traditions that were practiced in Ireland and Scotland and Wales, were not always the same as the traditions of the Church in Rome. The Celtic Christian Church said that the word of God could be seen in two places—the Bible and Creation. This Celtic Christian church looked to the teachings in the Gospel of John rather than seeing Peter as the foundation of the Church. John, they said, listened to the heartbeat of God when he lay on Jesus bosom during the last supper and looked after Mother Mary after the crucifixion.
Eventually in the 7th Century, the Roman Church suppressed the Celtic Church. Rome was in charge, but in-out-of-the-way villages in Scotland, Ireland and Wales, the Celtic Christian tradition survived into the 20th Century. It is a tradition of many blessings and a great love of creation.
Most of us take the Christian tradition as something that has been handed down to us already formed and shaped. These are the doctrines, these are the rituals, don’t mess with them. But, when you look at the ministry of Jesus, you see a spirituality that was unfolding. Jesus was grounded in the Jewish traditions, but he is pushing and pulling all around the edges making it bigger to include more people—women, children, sick people, sinners, the blind, the poor, the Samaritan woman, the Greeks.
The early Celtic Christian leaders were also experiencing a spirituality that was unfolding, growing, transforming. Pelagius saw human beings blessed with goodness rather than created in sin. Patrick overcame his negative feelings and brought Christianity to include the very peoples who held him a slave. Brigit showed how a Christian community could honor women’s leadership in the monastic life of men and women. And Columba who knew his own capacity for anger and murder, gave the Picts a message of penitence and forgiveness.
Jesus spent three years trying to enlarge people’s thinking about God and what is sacred and who is holy. His actions and his parables challenged people’s old ideas. Is it really against God’s law to heal the sick on the Sabbath? Should a priest on his way to the Temple stop to help a man lying in a ditch or walk on by so he can remain clean and enter the Temple? Should a Jewish man ask a Samaritan woman for water and carry on a conversation with her? Over and over, we see that Jesus was concerned for people, all types of people, more than he cares about the rules.
Jesus said “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Sometimes our old ideas have to die. Our fear of those who are different from us must die. Our grasping for power over others must die. Our clinging to self-righteousness must die. Sometimes even church doctrines must die.
When we open ourselves to the love of God, our lives may be transformed and bear much fruit for others. Do not let anyone tell you that Christianity is just so and can only be practiced one way. Do not let anyone say that only people who fit into a small box can be Christians. The love of God that has been given to us through Jesus is so great that it is worth dying for, letting our old ways of life die so that we can be transformed and be a blessing to others.