The above image was used to illustrate the center of a liturgical calendar. The following is a commentary on its symbolism and meaning:
Using motifs from the Book of Kells, a beautiful illuminated book of the Gospels decorated with intricate Celtic knotwork and symbolic designs, Kathy Sullivan presents us with a portrait of Christ that is direct and mysterious at the same time.
Celtic Christianity has given the Church a unique prayer language that is both tender and allusive. The Celts seem to possess a special talent for recognizing that everyday life, far from being boring, overflows with meaning, perennial and fresh as the green hills of Ireland: “Almighty God, Creator: The morning is yours, rising into fullness, the summer is yours dipping into autumn, eternity is yours, dipping into time. The vibrant grasses, the scent of flowers, the lichen on the rocks, the tang of seaweed, all are yours. Gladly we live in the garden of your creating” (George Macleod).
The figure of Christ stands in the center of the calendar, inviting us into this tender and cosmic vision of creation. As we contemplate the particular “Celtic” face of Christ that Sullivan has offered us, we are drawn yet again into the fascination of this person who loves us beyond any love we can imagine, through whom we live and move and have our being. How often we have wondered about him! How many times we have sought in the Bible to deepen our understanding of our beloved Lord! How many times we have approached the Eucharist in order to encounter him, to join up with him, to live in his love! Yet, even today, the question still lingers in our hearts:
Who is Jesus of Nazareth? Who are you, Lord?
We can begin to understand him by first contemplating his Father, the one who sent him into the world.
Who Is God?
When we look up into the night sky with a telescope and see the moon, the sun, the countless stars, the planets, and galaxies, we can see the work of the one whose strength, power, and intelligence goes way beyond anything we can imagine. For centuries people have been staring into the heavens to ponder their beauty, study their order, and discover their origin.
At what moment did people recognize the presence of the one who set the cosmos in motion with a mere breath? When did we begin to listen for the voice that speaks us into being? Even very ancient peoples knew, with a deep sort of knowing, that they did not make themselves, that the world in its complexity and splendor tells the history of the God who provides all we need to live: air to breathe, the warmth of the sun, the materials to build shelters, such a dizzying variety of foods to sustain us, and other materials that make it possible to construct all the amazing human inventions that fill the world today. Even our intelligence and resourcefulness does not come from us!
The ancient Hebrew people stood before this knowledge, just as everyone who really takes a close and careful look at the world must, and they realized that the one who had given them so many countless gifts wants to communicate with us, wants to share his superabundant life with us. The ancient Hebrew people were the first to listen to God, to pay attention to him with their whole selves. And God, in his infinite mercy for their littleness and imperfection, spoke to them.
The mystery of God is that he is inaccessible, far away, larger than cosmic--but also as near as our own heartbeat, tender as the touch of a parent, quiet as a whisper.
When we look at this world, so vast and various, we come to understand that the God who made all these things made them for us. God wants to delight us!
If he placed us in this phenomenal world in order to delight us, then we can only conclude that he loves us in a way so rich and full that we cannot ever hope to grasp the extent of it.
Each day, when we open our eyes, God fills our senses with new delights and wonders. Everything, absolutely everything we see and hear, feel, inhale and taste is given to overwhelm our senses with his miraculous loving kindness!
Who Is Jesus Christ?
We could say that God is present in his creation in much the same mysterious way that Michelangelo is present in the Sistine Chapel, or Leonardo is present in The Last Supper. We can sense the hand of the maker in every element of nature, in every cell, even in our thoughts and words. But in fact, God has made himself present within his creation in a more personal and direct way. Unlike Michelangelo or Leonardo, God does not ever walk away from his work. He will never turn his back on his people.
One day, in Bethlehem of Judea, God gave us this gift that far surpasses all the others, a gift of good news of great joy for all people. The God whom the Hebrew people had met in the wonders of creation, the same God who had walked with them, spoken to them, shared his concerns with them, freed them from abject slavery, fed them bread from heaven and initiated them into his secrets, now came to meet them in the midst of their lives. That small, helpless baby born of the young girl, Mary, was also the one through whom the cosmos had been made.
“In the fullness of time . . .” God sent his only Son to save us and set us free. We have heard this statement so often, but what if we were to imagine a complete stranger in our midst--someone who had never heard this phrase before. How would we explain it? What would we say if that person were to ask, How does Christ save us? What does he set us free from? And what do you mean by the fullness of time?
Even from the first moment that people recognized the majesty and unlimited power of the God who spoke the world into being, people could also see flaws in this beautiful, rich, and bountiful world. Looking in our hearts, we can also see that even though we are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14b), we are also weak and do not live up to the wonderful way we were made. We are sometimes unkind, even cruel to others. We often wish to hide from the truth. We ignore the reality of our identity as children of God and try to make ourselves into gods. Rather than living in peace, we stir up trouble, hatred, and gossip; we introduce pain and suffering into God’s beautiful world. Because the world and all it contains (including our very selves) is not ours but rather belongs to the one who made us, when we do wrong and embrace lies we are not merely harming ourselves. We sin against God.
Not one of us is free from this reality. If we take an honest look at the world around us, we will see that all humanity sins. Even when we want to do good, we still sin. In fact, wanting to be good will never be enough to make us good. We often sin against our will. This is what it means to be enslaved by sin.
Because God is All Life, anything we do against him is an act of death, of nothingness. Our mortality is one more consequence of our sinfulness.
God has seen our reality. He has heard our prayer of sorrow and sadness over the wrong we do. He knows that we long to be free from sin and nothingness and death. Out of his great and infinite loving kindness he has given us a way to break the chains of slavery so as to live in the light or way of his love. This “way” is Jesus Christ, who is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (John 14:6).
At this point, the stranger we have been speaking to might ask us, How can a person be all that? Who is this Jesus Christ?
Jesus lived, walked, ate, taught, and healed in the land of Israel around two thousand years ago. How he taught and healed were remarkable, but the events of his human life were only a prelude to his most astonishing and miraculous act, an event that has changed the whole course of human history in visible and also invisible ways.
“Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him’ " (Matthew 28:5b - 7a).
If we can imagine for a moment that the cosmos is a seed, then we could say that the Resurrection of Jesus Christ is the germ that has been present in the seed from the beginning. That germ first began to sprout from its seed casing in Jerusalem two thousand years ago. Through the work of the Holy Spirit, the plant continues to grow, adding “branches” as the risen Christ shares his redeemed and eternal Life with each person at the moment of Baptism.
Sofia Cavalletti, a scripture scholar and founder of an international catechetical movement in the Church (the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd), says this about the Resurrection: “In the Resurrection the power of the Holy Spirit takes hold of the weakness of human flesh, permeating it with the life-giving breath of the Sprit, empowering it and transforming it” (History’s Golden Thread, p. 152).
Out of love for us and tremendous pity for our weakness, Jesus voluntarily accepted death, a miserable, tortuous, and humiliating death on a cross. This pure sacrifice of love made it possible for the power of the Resurrection to seize Christ’s human body, and through his body, to seize us: heart, soul, and body. And we will never be the same!
Now that same death-defying power can strengthen us to overcome evil within and around us. That same life-giving breath of the Holy Spirit can even overturn the power of death. As Cavalletti says, “The resurrection is the great event of the world, compared to which any other historical event pales. The very creation at the beginning of the world loses its importance when seen in the light of the second creation, a creation on a higher plane, a new life, the very life of God” (Living Liturgy, p. 52).
In the ancient art of making religious icons, Christ is often shown within a circular or oval frame. That frame is called a mandorla (“almond” in Italian), and it represents the “hole” or “window” that opens between our world and the world of heaven. When we call Christ our “Mediator,” we mean that he is the one who passes from the realm of God to meet us here, in our realm. He is like a living bridge who creates a passage for us. Without him, we could never reach the Father. The mandorla or window allows us to see beyond the physical, human body of Christ, to the divine and eternal Christ who sits at God’s right hand.
The circle in the center of our liturgical calendar is like a mandorla that recalls the portal or door of the liturgy through which we may enter the kingdom of heaven, live in eternity, and meet God in his divinity. It is thus so fitting that within this mandorla or opening onto the sacred, the resurrected Christ himself stands with palms facing us in a gesture of welcome--because it is this same Christ whom we meet and adore when we take part in the Mass. Jesus himself said, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. . . . Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture” (John 10:7, 9).
The Garment of Light
The figure of Christ in the center of the calendar is clothed in a magnificent robe, a garment of golden light. The Bible tells us that clothing is tremendously significant. The psalmist describes God as “robed in majesty” (Psalm 93:1). In the book of Revelation, Saint John saw saints “from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands” (Revelation 7:9b). And the risen Jesus promised the coming of the Holy Spirit with these words: “And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49).
The garment of light that Christ wears also recalls the white baptismal garment, the outward sign of our Christian dignity and the acceptable wedding garment needed to participate in the Father’s banquet of love. Christ’s golden robe is decorated with purple, the royal color that the guards placed on Jesus to mock him during his trial, never realizing that the path to Christ’s ultimate kingship lay precisely through the humiliation he suffered at their hands:
Father . . . you anointed Jesus Christ, your only Son,
with the oil of gladness,
as the eternal priest and universal king.
As priest he offered his life on the altar of the cross
and redeemed the human race
by this one perfect sacrifice of peace.
As king he claims dominion over all creation,
that he may present to you, his almighty Father,
an eternal and universal kingdom:
a kingdom of truth and life,
a kingdom of holiness and grace,
a kingdom of justice, love and peace . . .
(from the preface, Christ, the King of the Universe)
The Priestly Stole/the True Vine
In addition to the robe of light, Christ wears a stole, out of which grows a beautiful, symmetrical fruit-bearing vine. This vine recalls the parable of the true vine that Jesus shared with his disciples during the Last Supper: “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). These simple lines express the mysterious union that exists between Christ and those who love and follow him. We share in the very life that flows from Christ into us and back, just as the sap in a vine travels from branch to branch. His grace is as vital to us as our own blood. When we stay connected to him, when we live in him, Jesus promises us that we will thrive. Our lives will bear heavenly “fruit,” the “fruit of Christ.” This fruit is the visible and tangible sign of the hidden life that we receive in the Eucharist.
“Jesus put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches’ ” (Matthew 13:31 - 32).
This parable of the mustard seed has caused so many English speakers problems. The mustard seed that Jesus describes is not the same “mustard” that we have in North America. The seed is much, much smaller and the plant it produces grows far larger than the “mustard” plant with which most of us are familiar. The smallest of seeds that Jesus describes may be found in Israel, and when it is grown, it can indeed put out branches where birds do make their nests.
The birds that the artist has placed in the branches of Christ’s vine are no ordinary birds! The early Christians used peacocks to symbolize the life of the Resurrection. Peacock flesh is so hard that they believed it to be incorruptible. Even more significant, though, when the peacock molts, it loses all its beauty and dignity; however, its new feathers grow in even more beautiful than before. To the Celtic imagination these symbolic birds are a reminder of the new life Christians receive in the kingdom of heaven.
The Four Evangelists
“Around the throne, and on each side of the throne, are four living creatures. . . : the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with a face like a human face, and the fourth living creature like a flying eagle . . . Day and night without ceasing they sing,
‘Holy, holy, holy,
the Lord God the Almighty,
who was and is and is to come’ ” (Revelation 4:6b, 7, 8b).
When the Church Fathers read about the four beasts that appear in the book of Revelation, they sought to understand them in light of the Resurrection of Christ. Taking the number 4 very seriously, they asked themselves what are there four of? There are four compass points and four arms on the cross. But in the end, Saint Irenaeus, Saint Augustine and Saint Jerome each thought that the four beasts must somehow represent the four Gospel writers: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. In the end, Saint Jerome’s interpretation--that the beast with a human face must represent Saint Matthew, that Saint Mark is represented by the winged lion, that the ox stands for Saint Luke, and that the eagle represents Saint John--was the insight that struck the imagination of artists. Gospel books were decorated with these four symbolic beasts. One of the most striking examples is the Book of Kells, from which Sullivan takes her inspiration.
The Lion: Saint Mark
The lion is a beast filled with majesty and power. The Gospel of Saint Mark recounts Jesus’ many deeds of power, his clashes with the priestly class of his day, and his victories over unclean spirits. Thus the lion calls to mind the strong and kingly portrait of Jesus found in the Gospel of Mark.
The Eagle: Saint John
Saint John became associated with the eagle, the bird who is famous for strong eyesight and swift flight. In his Gospel, Saint John’s teaching seems to penetrate deepest into the mystery of Christ. It contains Jesus’ two great Christological parables, the good shepherd and the true vine. In the same Gospel, Jesus refers to himself as bread, light, water, life, word, door, way, and truth, and he preaches at great, passionate length about his desire that all may be One as he and the Father are one. For these reasons, Saint John’s Gospel seems to take flight and to see furthest into heavenly realities.
The Ox: Saint Luke
The Gospel according to Luke is most concerned with communicating who Jesus was, how he fits into sacred history, and who he is now: the Lord, God’s anointed Son and redeemer who suffered and was crucified to save us, rose from the dead and is now glorified above all. Because Saint Luke highlighted the sacrificial natural of Christ’s suffering and death, the sacrificial ox became Luke’s symbolic beast.
The Man: Saint Matthew
The Gospel of Saint Matthew opens with a long genealogy of all the past generations leading up to the birth of Jesus, and it highlights the Jewish origin and identity of Jesus Christ. Because Saint Matthew places Jesus so squarely in his human context, his Gospel became associated with the symbolic beast with the most human character, a human face.
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