Historians are agreed that the arrival of Irish monks on the continent of Europe between the 5th ,and 9th centuries had a major impact on the revival of Christianity in Europe. St. Columban, for example arrived in Luxeuil in France around 570 and died in Bobbio in Lombardy in 615. While the rule in Irish founded monasteries was quite strict, in comparison to the Benedictines in terms of fasting and recitation of the psalms, awareness of the presence of God in creation was almost universal. Columban, himself, in his sermon Concerning the Faith counselled the monks, those who wish to know the great deep (God) must first study the natural world.
The love of creation and the ability to find God in creation is very much present in Celtic art which developed during the succeeding centuries. The historian, Fr. Gerry Rice, calls attention to this particularly as it is found in the most celebrated Irish manuscript, The Book of Kells, At the beginning of St. Matthew’s gospel, the scribe directs our attention to the chi-rho sign. These two Greek letters superimposed on each other was a common way of referring to Christ in the early Church. The chi-rho dominates the page and grabs the attention of the reader. The text begins with the words – Christi Generatio – the genealogy of Christ. By deftly juxtaposing this text and the illustration the scribe wishes to affirm that the birth of Christ is good news, not just for men and women, but for all of God’s creation.
To further his argument, Rice points to the illustration on the left side of the page where an otter is eating a fish. The Greek work, Ichthus, meaning fish was traditionally understood within Christianity as an acronym for Jesus Christ, Son of God and Saviour. This convergence of both the text and the image proclaims that nature is also nourished by Christ’s birth. As if that were not enough to convince even the most sceptical reader, Rich goes on to call attention to a drawing on the page portraying two mice feeding on the host, calmly observed by their traditional enemy, two cats. To complete the picture the cats are carrying rats on their shoulders.
Rice argues that the scribe and illustrator are drawing the reader’s attention to the vision of peace and harmony which is found in the prophet Isaiah, chapter 11: 6 – 9. Traditional enemies in the natural world are reconciled and living together peacefully. All the creatures give up eating meat and return to being herbivores, as originally envisaged in the covenant with Adam and Eve in Gen. 1: 28 – 31.
The world lies with the lamb,
the panther lies down with the kid,
calf and lion cub feed together
with a little boy to lead them.
The cow and the bear make friends,
their young lie down together.
The lion eats straw like the ox.
The infant plays over the cobra’s hole:
Into the viper’s lair
the young child puts his hand.
They do no hurt, no harm,
On my holy mountain,
For the country is filled with the knowledge of Yahweh
As the waters swell the sea.
The point of all of this, according to Rice, is that Christ is seen as bringing peace and salvation to all creation, not only humans, by his life, death and resurrection. This is all framed within the theology of the Cosmic Christ which we find in both John gospel and Paul’s epistles. (Jn 1: 1- 18)
Paul puts it very clearly in the letter to the Church at Colossae; he is the first born from the dead, so that he should be first in every way; because God wanted all perfection to be found in him and all things to be reconciled through him and for him, everything in heaven and on earth, when he made his peace by his death on the Cross. ( Col. 1: 18-20).
In the Western Church the Irish theologian John Eriugenia, (9th century) who taught at the court of Charles the Bald, elaborated the doctrine of the Cosmic Christ after reading the works of Greek Fathers such as Gregory of Nyssa. Rice, however, is convinced that Eriugena’s enthusiasm for the Pauline doctrine owed as much to his Celtic roots, where the natural world was seen as pregnant with images of the divine, as to his reading of the Greek Fathers.
On Easter morning, the preface of the Mass proclaims the wonderful message that, The joy of the Resurrection renews the whole world.