Water from an Ancient Well: The Crux of Life-The Hero of the RoodPosted by Kenneth McIntosh on September 19, 2011, 9:01 am
The crucified Christ, from the Durrow High Cross, at the site of Saint Columba’s first monastery in Ireland. Christ’s death is central to most forms of Christian faith: but believers across time and space have differing understandings of the significance of that event.
Like many other followers of Jesus, my faith and my heart are deeply attached to Christ’ death on the cross. Researching the ancient Celtic faith, I’ve come to understand the crucifixion in a whole new way—one that works powerfully and with integrity, for my own faith. I don’t claim these insights are necessary for everyone to embrace—just that they help me. I’d love to see what you think after reading this piece, from my new book Water from an Ancient Well: Celtic Spirituality for Modern Life.
C.S. Lewis, the great Celtic theologian of modern times, reminds us in Mere Christianity of the significance of the cross: “We are told that Christ was killed for us, that His death has washed out our sins. . . . That is the formula. That is Christianity. That is what has to be believed.” From there, however, Lewis takes our thoughts in another direction, reminding us not to become overly dogmatic.
“Any theories we build up as to how Christ’s death did all this are, in my view, quite secondary: mere plans or diagrams to be left alone if they do not help us, and, even if they do help us, not to be confused with the thing itself.”
Despite Lewis’s warning, many Christians tend to see one particular theory of Christ’s death on the cross as being “true” to the exclusion of all others. When we do that, we are falling into the danger Lewis described, focusing on our theories, our mental “plans or diagrams”—concepts we can understand—rather than the reality that will ultimately be beyond our comprehension. In his blog The Rebel God, modern theological thinker Derek Flood writes something similar about our experience of the cross:
We shouldn’t try to squeeze it into a formula, to domesticate it, because in doing so—in explaining and categorizing—we automatically reduce it to much less than it is. We need to think of these things in analogies, we need to seek to understand and explain, this is good, but we need to also realize that these are always just two-dimensional pictures of something much bigger. We should never mistake our limited explanation of something for the reality itself.
Unfortunately, we tend to do exactly that. In the process, we often separate ourselves from other Christians who may believe differently.
The theory of the cross most Protestants hold today is that of “substitution.” It goes like this: all humans are sinners who deserve punishment, but God the Father chose to punish his Son in humanity’s place. Scripture cited to support this view is Isaiah 53: “He was punished for our transgressions.” While common today, this theory of redemption has only been popular since Archbishop Anselm of Canterbury promoted it around the year 1100, more than a thousand years after the birth of Christianity.
The Celts and their ancient Christian neighbors understood Christ’s work on the cross quite differently; their understanding was based on the perspective of the “Christus Victor” model of atonement. The Christus Victor premise was that Jesus’ death was not a legal settlement with God (God had to punish someone for human sin, so Jesus substituted himself for humanity) but instead, a battle against the forces of darkness. On the cross, Christ stepped into the human arena where we all confront death and the other works of Satan. Like the bravest of knights, he fought with these terrifying enemies and was victorious; he forced them to release humanity from their grip. This theology is based on passages like Colossians 2:15: “And having disarmed the powers and authorities (evil spiritual powers), he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross,” and 1 John 3:8: “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.”
The Battle between the white wizard Gandalf and the demonic Balrog in The Lord of the Rings provides a vivid image of Christ’s victory over Satan at the crucifixion and descent into hell).
The film Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers presents a powerful picture of this battle against evil. In the dark caverns of Moria, the wizard Gandalf (a Christ figure in Tolkien’s epic) stands against a fiery demon called the Balrog. As they grapple with each other, they both fall into a chasm, hurtling down into the Earth’s depths, clawing and slashing at one another as they descend. As the wizard and demon plummet into this dark and fiery underworld, Gandalf’s companions flee to safety. They are grief-stricken over Gandalf’s apparent death, but later in the story, he reappears, now dazzling white and possessing even greater powers than before. He has defeated the Balrog and emerged victorious. In the same way, early Christians imagined Christ dying, battling with Satan in the nether realms, and then rising as the victorious hero.
In a world where battle was common and warriors honored, this perspective must have been particularly appealing. The ancient Celts and their Saxon neighbors spent long evenings around the fire extolling the triumphs of their heroes. Christ’s feats were as brave and thrilling as Beowulf’s, the Saxon champion who wrestled with the demon Grendel, descended into the monster’s subterranean lair, and then emerged victorious.
Lesser known than Beowulf, yet equally poetic, is the Saxon Dream of the Rood, in which a talking cross (the Rood) tells its story. The cross has been badly abused—felled, nailed, and blood-soaked—yet it is now “the victory beam, ” bejeweled and worshiped. Saxon scholar Robert Boenig writes, “Christ is no sacrificial victim in this poem; he is a hero with whom a Germanic warrior could readily identify.”
Then the young hero ungirded himself,
He who was God almighty,
strong and stern.
He ascended the wretched gallows,
mighty in the strength of many,
when he wanted to redeem mankind.
Afterward, “He rested himself awhile, weary after the great war.” Finally, “The Son, mighty and successful, was victorious in that quest when he came with many, a host of spirits into God’s glorious kingdom.” Saxon bards sung this tale of Christ’s death on the cross as though it were a warrior’s victory song.
Many of the ancient Christian Celts would have known this poem, for they were a literate people who loved words. They not only studied the Christian scriptures but also other Christian writings, and the monks of the ancient Iona monastery included The Acts of Pilate among the treasured documents of their library. In this book, Satan rushes to hell after Christ’s death on the cross, “fleeing in fear” as Christ pursues him. When Christ reaches hell’s gates, he demands, “Open thy gates that the King of Glory may come in.” The demons refuse him entrance, but then “suddenly Hell did quake, and the gates of death and the locks were broken small, and the bars of iron broken, and fell to the ground, and all things were laid open.” Christ then frees a jubilant crowd of captives. Afterward, “all the saints of God besought the Lord that he would leave the sign of victory—even of the holy cross—in hell, that the wicked ministers thereof might not prevail to keep back any that was accused, whom the Lord absolved. And it was so done, and the Lord set his cross in the midst of hell, which is the sign of victory; and it shall remain there forever” (italics mine).
For the ancient Celts and Saxons, the cross was a symbol of Christ’s heroic and eternal victory over hell and death. They believed if they descended to the very depths of hell, they would find the cross waiting for them, offering them hope and salvation even there. The psalmist wrote, “If I make my bed in hell, behold, you are there” (139:8 kjv), and the Apostle Paul was “convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love” (Romans 8:38 nlt).
Many of us recite the Apostle’s Creed, including the phrase, “He descended into Hell,” but we don’t think of that very much. Does it play a role in your own theology? Can you see ways in which it provides hope and makes sense of the crucifixion? I’d also invite your thoughts on atonement: can you see the value of other perspectives, besides “substitutionary atonement?” Which theory of atonement makes the most sense to you-and why?
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