The Celtic cross is a Latin cross combined with a nimbus or halo. There is a Celtic cross on the doors of our tabernacle, and there is a Celtic cross for our new steeple. These two modern examples have much more ancient precedents, however. Presuming that the first Celtic crosses were made out of perishable wood that decays over time, it is impossible to tell really how old those first Celtic crosses were, but we have ancient stone ones that we know go back to the 8thcentury, and some are so large that it is likely that the nimbus probably served the practical purpose and adding strength to the arms and head. Still, it is that added nimbus or halo that makes it a Celtic cross. The Celts were a people who extended throughout Asia and Europe, including what is today Turkey, Greece, Poland, Italy, Germany, France, Spain, and the British Isles. In most of these places, the Celts integrated into the population at large, but in a few places, the old Celtic languages are still spoken, and it is from what is today Ireland and Scotland from whence comes our Celtic cross.
Interestingly, these Celtic crosses originate from what was once thought to have been on the end of the world. The imperial world of ancient Rome reached all the way to Britain, the northern edge upon which they built a famous wall. What is today Ireland and Scotland were beyond Roman civilization, but not beyond the reach of the Church. The former slave, St. Patrick, was ordained a bishop and returned to his captors to preach the Gospel. He famously converted the Irish in the fifth century (whilst the Franks were still heathens). Less than one hundred years later, it was an Irish monk, St. Columba, who founded a famous monastery on the remote and windswept island of Iona. Far away from everything, Iona became a great center of European learning where monks from far and wide would come to copy books and build up a great library. It was also on Iona where many beautiful Celtic crosses were carved in stone over the centuries.
From the Holy Island of Iona, missionaries went to what is today Scotland and England to evangelize the pagans, and as they went, a great missionary spirit was enlivened within the Church. The world needed to be re-evangelized, and these monks were up to the task. The once civilized, old imperial Roman world had collapsed into a million pieces, so it was these monks from beyond the edges of that broken-down world who went east to help rebuild that world. Into the darkness of chaos, a world torn apart by barbarians and heretics, amid political and social collapse, the Celtic monks and missionaries from the island of Iona and other offshoots took with them both learning and faith.
These men had a fabled reputation as great explorers. For example the “Papar” (or Celtic Fathers) predate the Norsemen in Iceland, and some insist that St. Brendan got all the way to North America in the sixth century. But mostly these Celtic missionaries went east, and they did so for centuries. They were (just to name a few) St. Samson and St. Fiacre who went to what we think of as France today, St. Killian who went to what we think of as Germany today, and St. Columbanus who went as far east as the Italian peninsula. There were many more of these missionary saints who founded or restored many of the great monasteries in what are today Germany, Austria, and France. And thus the Celtic cross is a reminder of these largely forgotten men upon whose shoulders we stand. These were great and heroic men with a hearty faith taking with them books and traditions that made their way into the wider Western tradition of Church.
Just consider that our whole practice of going to confession to a priest in a confessional was more or less their idea. Confessions and reconciliation had been done heretofore in a very public way (imagine confessing your sins in front of everyone in the parish!), but the Celtic Fathers taught us to confess our sins privately. The Irish people sought out a holy man to confess their sins, and that holy man often lived as a hermit or in a monastery, and so public confession evolved into private confession over time. So this gets to the point of motivation, because first and foremost, these monks were loyal churchmen, anxious for the salvation souls. In a very real sense, these monks saved western civilization in that they preserved the accumulated knowledge of the western world and helped establish order in dark times, but also, even more importantly, they restored Christianity.
So the Celtic cross reminds us of Iona, that Holy Island where those heroic missionary monks in our fabled past began. In our own dark times, when so many have forgotten the Gospel, and when so many have wandered off from the Church, the Celtic cross is meant to remind us of the ancient renewal that the Church underwent in the Dark Ages through the efforts of those venerable missionaries, known and unknown. Those Celtic missionary monks set before us a challenge in our own age for the New Evangelization, when we must again turn our efforts to the task of saving souls and bringing order and light to a world that has wandered into darkness. If you want to learn more about these crosses, read “The Song of the Holy Rood” on our website in the Liturgical Music section under our Ministries tab. We also hope to be learning more about those Celtic missionaries in the months ahead as a parishioner, Mr. John Roger, is setting out to carve for our Narthex a beautiful high cross in the Celtic style. In all of this, we are claiming Our Lady of the Mountains to be something like a new Iona – an island of hope in a world that needs hope – a place of renewal – and a center for the New Evangelization here in North Georgia.