The Celtic cross, with the circle forming a frame for the intersecting pieces of the Christian cross, is a beautiful symbol of the balance between heaven and earth, soil and seas, flesh and spirit, grace and grit that Celtic spirituality offers. In the Celtic cross we see divine beauty, symmetry, and balance demonstrated by the circle juxtaposed by the reality of suffering, injustice, sacrifice, and redemption demonstrated by the symbol of the Cross. These two contrasting symbols are held together by the non-dualistic theology and thought that exists within Celtic spirituality.
It makes sense for the circle to be a divine symbol. When we look into the heavens, we see the bright circular sun that lights and warms the day, and the translucent moon, when in its fullness, glows in the night sky, the most beautiful of circles. When we look out into the distance, we observe the curvature of the horizon, and with each passing day we watch the sun make its semi-circle journey from its eastern rising to its western setting; the moon following its path by night. Each year, the seasons come to us in their due time and order, marking the annual journey from the rest and conception of winter to the harvest and dying of autumn. This ancient and eternal pattern is seen in our own Catholic faith as we walk the seasons of the Christ, from his conception to his resurrection through the holy seasons of the church.
Here at St. Andrew, we have been contemplating the symbol of the circle and what it can teach us in our day; the idea that in a circle, people are facing each other offering mutual commitment to maintain the balance and integrity of the circle. A circle can only be a circle when left is in sync with right, when top and bottom maintain a rotational exchange of position. In a circle, members do not form parallel and opposing lines facing off against one another, but instead each hold a place at the periphery, living together in balance around shared ideas and purpose, even while holding diverse position and perspective.
Our lives consist of circles: the circle of our relationships, the family circles, the friendship circles, our community circles, our business, religious, political, and world circles. If mutual affection and respect are not practiced and maintained, then what we are left with ceases to be a circle: but instead become broken and opposing lines and fragments; and God in Christ is not fragment, but is the whole circle in which all move and breath and have their being.
When Patrick brought the message of Christianity to the Celtic culture of Ireland, he himself was converted to the divine symbol of the circle. The circle was the template by which the system of Celtic society was developed. He did not find the hierarchical pyramid, or distinct lines and strata of classes prevalent in the Roman Empire, but instead he found tightly formed and decentralized clans. Patrick introduced the message of Christ, a man in whom god was incarnate, thus joining heaven with earth, flesh with spirit.
Christ was the sacrament of God, the outward and visible manifestation of the invisible mystery and grace of the divine. In Jesus, the Christ, the circle was evident by the Lord of all becoming a servant, the almighty becoming vulnerable, the holy one taking upon the harsh realities of great suffering and cruelty and pain, eternal life taking upon death. The circle was shown with the shame of our lives being embraced and absolved by the grace of God’s love. The circle was shown by how this Jesus himself became a chieftain, who gathered around himself a small circle of disciples and followers, who, though he was the eternal light, did not seek a throne or a kingdom, but instead walked the way of the poor, the powerless, the sick, the peasant, and the poet.
Being the eternal light he entered the darkness of the tomb. Jesus did not rule, he taught. Jesus did not condemn, he absolved. Jesus did not hurt or threaten, he healed and redeemed. Jesus was the great circle who turned our lives and our world upside down. He brought together, east with west, north with south, jew with gentile, male with female and showed all of creation that we are not fragmented or separate from each other, but co-exist in the great circle that is the Christ.
We are in a time of examining and contemplating the conditions of the circles in our own life and time; the way we live with ourselves, our family, our parish, our community, our nation, and our world. We are contemplating the conditions of our culture and society, and we are asking what will heal our own sense of isolation, what will mend our tattered and torn society?
I believe the Celtic cross, with its marriage of the encompassing circle around the harsh but redemptive cross gives to us the path of bringing together the great diversity and contrasting perspectives of our times. This symbol for us becomes a powerful totem that heals where the circles and bonds of community have been broken, with the love and redemption that God has made incarnate in the world through the life, teaching, and suffering of Christ symbolized by the Cross.
May our own circles be healed as we practice the ways of humility and forgiveness, grace and hospitality. May our own circles be healed as we renew our attention and our affection for all who share the circles of family, of parish, of city, of nation, and of world. May we choose to be healers and teachers. May we choose to serve instead of control, may we choose to listen instead of opinionate. May we build bridges instead of walls. May we see our life and our world with same view as that of the countless satellites that orbit our planet see – a beautiful and holy circle; guided along a symmetrical path by invisible forces. Held together by diverse and countless factors working together to sustain and inspire our world.