Wednesday of Holy Week: The Ruthwell Cross

South side of the Ruthwell Cross
South side of the Ruthwell Cross

Ruthwell Cross Inscription (8th c)

Girded him then
God Almighty
When he would
Step on the gallows,
Fore all mankind
Mindfast, fearless,
Bow me durst I not.

Rood was I reared now
Rich king heaving,
The lord of light-realms;
Lean me I durst not.
Us both they basely mocked and handled,
Was I there with blood bedabbled,
Gushing grievous from his dear side
When his ghost he had uprendered.

Christ was on rood-tree,
But fast from afar
His friends hurried
To aid their atheling (prince).
Everything I saw.
Sorely was I with sorrows harrowed,
Yet humbly I inclined
To the hands of his servants
Striving with might to aid him,
With streals (shafts) was I all wounded.
Down they laid him limb-weary,
O’er his lifeless head then stood they,
Heavily gazing and heaven’s chieftain.

-Trans. Professor Stephens

For more on the Ruthwell Cross, see my posts The Ruthwell Cross and The Ruthwell Cross and Caution When Analysing Historical Christianity.

The Ruthwell Cross

Me at Caerlaverock Castle

Yesterday, on a madcap journey about the Scottish side of the Solway Firth, some friends, my wife, and I visited Sweetheart Abbey, Caerlaverock Castle, the Ruthwell Cross, and (accidentally) a section of Hadrian’s Wall. The most interesting of these items was, in fact, Caerlaverock Castle, being the only castle I’ve visited with a moat full of water.

But since this is my blog about Christian stuff, I’m here to talk about the Ruthwell Cross.

According to Historic Scotland, the Ruthwell Cross is a late-seventh-century (others say eighth-century) Anglo-Saxon stone cross erected in Ruthwell back in the days when this part of Scotland was part of the ancient kingdom of Northumbria. A few decades, then, after the Sutton Hoo ship burial with its very fine artefacts; probably within the lifetime of the historian/Biblical scholar/Latinist/antiquarian/monk Bede (saint of the week here).

St Wilfrid was alive and active at this time — the North of England and South of Scotland had been largely Christianised in this century through the efforts of people like Wilfrid and Sts Aidan (saint of the week here), Cuthbert (saint of the week here), and Kentigern/Mungo (saint of the week here). King Offa of Mercia (in the Midlands) has yet to be born, but his pagan predecessor Penda — last pagan king in England — is dead. We are still a century from the Vikings’ arrival as raiders in Northumbria, and less than a century from the (possibly) Ruthwell-inspired Dream of the Rood. Beowulf may have been written by the time the Ruthwell Cross was erected; then again, maybe not. The Ruthwell Cross is contemporary to the Lindisfarne Gospels.

All of this is the context of the Ruthwell Cross. The peoples of Britain are fighting one another, largely Christianised, producing world-class literature in both Latin and Old English, producing beautiful works of sculpture and manuscript illumination. The material culture of the Anglo-Saxon world of Northumbria bears the marks of its Celtic neighbours/enemies/subjects, the far-off Mediterranean world of Rome and Constantinople, and homegrown ‘Germanic’ images.

In what many of this isle would consider a far-off hinterland, someone erected this cross to the honour and glory of Christ, the true King and Champion:

North side of the Ruthwell Cross

I first heard of this cross in the Everyman Book of Anglo-Saxon Poetry that includes a translation of the poem inscribed on it in Anglo-Saxon runes. I had no idea it would be so . . . big (5.2 m tall). And full of pictures. And also have Latin on it. But it is and does and does. The faces are carved with images from the Gospels as well as a couple of saints, although I’m not sold that the image with ‘ST PAVLVS’ inscribed over it is actually Sts Antony and Paul because the rest are biblical. Maybe there’s more inscriptional evidence I could not figure out. The sides are carved with vine designs of high quality.

Anyway, here are some images from our trip to see the cross:

Security was tight at the Ruthwell Cross
I have the key!
Unlocking the door to Ruthwell’s church
We survey the wondrous cross
Top carving: Christ’s feet being anointed by Mary; Below: Healing the man born blind
South side of the Ruthwell Cross; people don’t know what the archer dude up top means. Maybe, ‘Archers are awesome’?
Side view of the vine motif
Christ glorified, from the north side of the cross
Vine carvings on the other side of the cross
Some of the runes that make up the poem, on the narrow edges

It is housed inside the local parish church at Ruthwell. This, as I understand, is about where it stood for 1600 years, until in the 1630s it was broken into bits and stored beneath the floorboards of the church because it is, apparently, idolatrous. In the 1800s it was removed and taken outside to the manse garden. Later that same century, it was returned to the interior of the church. The cross arms are missing, and what you see on it is a nineteenth-century carving that is not based on anything other than fantastic Victorian whimsy.

The Anglo-Saxon runes say this (taken from the BBC):

God almighty stripped himself,
when he wished to climb the Cross
bold before all men.
to bow (I dare not,
but had to stand firm.)

I held high the great King,
heaven’s Lord. I dare not bend.
Men mocked us both together. I was slick with blood
sprung from the Man’s side…)

Christ was on the Cross.
But then quick ones came from afar,
nobles, all together. I beheld it all.
I bowed (to warrior hands.)

Wounded with spears,
they laid him, limb weary. At his body’s head they stood.
They that looked to (heaven’s Lord…)

Like the Dream of the Rood, the Ruthwell Cross inscription combines the suffering of Christ on the cross with the marital values of Anglo-Saxon society. Such a blending of imageries is also visible in the poem Andreas as well as in Beowulf — the difference being that in Andreas a Mediterranean Christian tale is given Germanic warrior virtues, and in Beowulf a Germanic warrior tale is given a few Christian morals and references. In the Lindisfarne Gospels, the blend of Anglo-Saxon and Mediterranean is visual, not ideological.

Anyway, this blending shows the might of Christ, mocked on the Cross but still the great King. He is at once in control, choosing to mount the Cross, and at the mercy of others, wounded with spears. It is the great mystery of the Cross, put into a form that Anglo-Saxon culture could comprehend.

All in all, it was a delight to see this large, magnificently-carved monument from ages past. May we today find ways of communicating the timeless power of the Cross to our own culture.

Saint of the Week: Caedmon

Tomorrow, Saturday 11 February, is the commemoration of a seventh-century Anglo-Saxon monk by the name of Caedmon. He made his claim to fame by being a poet in the monastery of St.  Hilda (a post about whom will soon be reblogged here). As we learn from the Venerable Bede (Saint of the Week here), Caedmon had no natural poetic ability but, rather, a supernatural ability:

He himself learned the art of singing, instructed ‘not by men nor through man’ (Gal 1:1), but he freely received the gift of singing from divine aid. The he could never put anything frivolous or needless in his poems, but only those things which pertained to religion were fitting for his religious tongue.

Since, indeed, he remained in the secular way of life up to the time of a more advanced age, at which time he had learned no songs. And so, sometimes at banquets because it was decreed for the sake of delight that everyone ought to sing in turm, when he saw the cithara draw near, he rose up from the middle of the dinner, left, and went home.

At a certain time when he had done this, leaving the house of the banquet, he went out to the stable of the livestock since their guardianship had been delegated to him that night. There he gave his limbs to sleep at a suitable hour. Someone came to him through a dream, greeting him and calling him by name, ‘Caedmon, sing me something.’

But he responded, ‘I don’t know how to sing; for I withdrew hither, leaving the banquet for that reason, since I could not sing.’

The one with him answered and said, ‘But, come, you can sing for me.’

‘What,’ he said, ‘ought I to sing?’

And the person said, ‘Sing of the beginning of the creatures.’

When this answer was accepted, immediately he began to sing verses in praise of the creator God which he had never heard, whose sense was:

Now we ought to praise the maker of the heavenly kingdom,
the power of the Creator and his intent,

the deeds of the Father of glory:
how he, since he is the eternal God,
has been the author of all miracles
who in the first for the sons of men
created the sky like the top of a roof
,
and then the almighty preserver of human race
created the earth.

This is the sense, but not the precise order of the words, which he sang whilst asleep; for songs, although composed extremely well, cannot be translated from one language to another word-for-word without damage to their beauty and worthiness. And then, rising from sleep, he remembered all the things which he had sung whilst asleep and soon he joined many words of a song worthy of God into the same measure. (Bede, Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum 4.22.1-2 [SC 490, pub. 2005] or 4.24 [all previous edd], my trans.)

Caedmon is promptly sent to St. Hilda where, in front of ‘many learned men’, he sings the song. They test him by preaching a lengthy sermon which he is committed to put to verse. He succeeds, and Hilda convinces him to leave the secular life and join the monastery at Whitby. So he does.

Caedmon spent the rest of his life composing verse based upon the Scriptures and the salvation story as well as songs written to stir people up to shun vice and love virtue. He submitted himself to the discipline of the monastery’s rule and was harsh towards those who tried to live by their own rule.

Aware of his own impending death of a prolonged weakness, he moved into the house of the sick at the monastery and shared a few laughs with the men there. Then he received the Eucharist for the last time, made sure he and his monastic brothers were at peace, laid his head on his pillow, and died.

You can read my translation of the whole of Bede’s account of Caedmon’s life here. One of the things that is notable about Caedmon is the fact that he seems to have had an entirely oral/aural skill. Bede, throughout the account, refers to the things that Caedmon has heard being turned into songs. Caedmon was a Christian scop, an Anglo-Saxon poet who used the techniques of traditional oral poetry to compose songs about Christian themes.

We see here the fostering of the arts by St. Hilda; this is a recurring theme throughout the Middle Ages. The monasteries were in favour of the arts and of putting them to use of God’s glory. A reminder for us all.

And, since Bede laments the futility of translating verse, here is Caedmon’s hymn in Anglo-Saxon (found here):

Nu scilun herga hefenricæs uard
metudæs mehti and his modgithanc uerc
uuldurfadur sue he uundra gihuæs eci
dryctin or astelidæ he ærist scop aeldu
barnum hefen to hrofæ halig sceppend tha
middingard moncynnæs uard eci dryctin
æfter tiadæ firum foldu frea allmehtig.

Further Explorations (in anti-alphabetical order)

Cavill, Paul. Anglo-Saxon Christianity. A readable introduction to Christianity in Anglo-Saxon lands in the Early Middle Ages.

Bradley, S.A.J. trans. Anglo-Saxon Poetry. Everyman’s Library. A selection of a very broad swath of Anglo-Saxon verse translated into modern English.

Bede. The Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Trans. Bertram Colgrave. Oxford World’s Classics. Word on the street is that this is the recommended translation of Bede.

Saint of the Week: St. Andrew the Apostle

St. Andrew on a Column in Nicholson Square, Edinburgh

Since St. Andrew’s Day was this week, and St. Andrew is the patron saint of Scotland (where I live), he’s this week’s saint.

St. Andrew, judging from the Gospel accounts, was originally a fisherman, and then a disciple of St. John the Baptist.  But when the Baptist declared, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” Andrew and some of the others decided to go check out Jesus’ digs.

After having spent a little bit of time with Jesus, Andrew ran off to tell his brother Simon that he’d found the Messiah.  Simon is important because later on, Jesus calls him the Rock (Petros in Greek), and he goes on to be a great leader in the apostolic band.

During the brief years of Jesus’ ministry, although not of the closest three (the Rock, James, John), he was of the inner four, often coming in lists with the other three.

He also spoke up and pointed out the boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish.  He is mentioned once in Acts.

So much for the biblical record.

As my previous post about St. Matthias tells us, there is a document known as The Acts of Andrew and Matthias in which St. Matthias goes to the land of the cannibals, and St. Andrew rescues him from being gormandized.  The OE poem Andreas (alluded to here) is about Andrew realising Matthias’ trouble through a dream and his journey there.  Jesus is the helmsman of Andrew’s ship and awesomeness ensues.  Andrew shows up and preaches to the cannibals then sets Matthias free.  More awesomeness follows this.

Following this, I believe that these apostolic fellows go and preach to some barbarians.  They show a little caution this time, not wishing to be had for dinner.  But the barbarians prove not to be cannibals.  Thankfully.

As tradition has it, Aegeates, a pagan proconsul whose wife Andrew converted, was angered by his wife’s Christianity.  He accordingly had Andrew crucified in the shape of an X — hence the Saltire on Scotland’s flag.

What do we take from all this?  St. Andrew was a man who found the Messiah and wasn’t afraid to bring others to him.  He brought his brother.  According to the old stories, he brought the good news about the Messiah to the cannibals as well as the people of Greece.  We may not all be the Rock — a great public leader — but can we not all be Andrew?  I reckon we can.

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The Cult of the Cross & Christ the King Sunday

Tomorrow is Christ the King Sunday.  Rick Dugan has a good meditation on the topic over at St. George the Dragonslayer.  The image of Christ as the King he is was one easily taken up by the Anglo-Saxon world, reflected in many pieces of literature, such as Andreas where Christ is portrayed as a King and the Apostles his thegns.

One piece of devotional poetry that comes from the earliest days of English writing and is preserved for us in the tenth-century Vercelli Book, a manuscript containing various pieces of Old English literature.  It describes a dream the narrator had wherein he beheld the Rood (ie. Cross), and the Rood spoke to him, relating in dramatic verse and forceful power the scene of Christ’s crucifixion.  There is a translation of the whole poem here.  Read it; it’s worth the time, trust me.

For our purposes, I’ll quote the following from that translation:

The young hero stripped himself–he, God Almighty–
strong and stout-minded. He mounted high gallows,
bold before many, when he would loose mankind.
I shook when that Man clasped me. I dared, still, not bow to earth,
fall to earth’s fields, but had to stand fast.
Rood was I reared. I lifted a mighty King,
Lord of the heavens, dared not to bend.
With dark nails they drove me through: on me those sores are seen,
open malice-wounds. I dared not scathe anyone.
They mocked us both, we two together. All wet with blood I was,
poured out from that Man’s side, after ghost he gave up.
Much have I born on that hill
of fierce fate. I saw the God of hosts
harshly stretched out. Darknesses had
wound round with clouds the corpse of the Wielder,
bright radiance; a shadow went forth,
dark under heaven. All creation wept,
King’s fall lamented. Christ was on rood.

And this, later on:

Death he tasted there, yet God rose again
by his great might, a help unto men.
He then rose to heaven. Again sets out hither
into this Middle-Earth, seeking mankind
on Doomsday, the Lord himself,
Almighty God, and with him his angels,
when he will deem–he holds power of doom–
everyone here as he will have earned
for himself earlier in this brief life.

This is a clear, unequivocal statement of the Kingship of Jesus.  Jesus is King.  He truly reigns on high, perfectly indivisible from the Father as true God.  Each age and culture tries to cast him into its own image of the ideal leader — we smile at the Dream of the Rood and Christ’s thegns and grimace at Thomas Bradwardine (d. 1349) when he says that God can do whatever He pleases since He is a Lord — and what we have to realise is that Christ is unlike any earthly ruler.

Christ is the King who laid down His life for His subjects.

His crown is of thorns.

His throne is the seat of his own execution.

He calls us to obedience and to follow his own example of self-giving love and endless charity.  We are to give of ourselves for others, give our lives for life.  We are to be humble.  We are to turn the other cheek.  We are not to consider our own esteem as something to be grasped.  If we live walking in His path, then we shall see Him when He comes to “deem . . . everyone here”.  He is King and, unlike any modern monarch, demands complete and utter obedience — an obedience, a service, that is perfect freedom.

So, “worship the King, all glorious above.”  He is seated on a sapphire throne today; let us remember the glory of the Cross of yesterday.

Saint of the Week: St. Matthias the Apostle

Do you ever wonder about St. Matthias and what he did before and after his one and only appearance in the Bible, when they cast lots and choose him as the replacement for Judas Iscariot in Acts 2?  So does most of the world, as it turns out.

Regarding his life before his apostolate, we can assume he was among the 70 whom Jesus sent out because in Acts Peter says that Judas’ replacement must have been with them from the beginning.  His Wikipedia entry cites Clement of Alexandria as saying that St. Matthias was possibly the same person as Zacchaeus (Lk. 19:1-10).

Some agreement surrounds his preaching enterprise beginning in Judaea (Wikipedia and abbamoses agree).  This makes sense, since all of the apostolic activity began in Judaea before spreading throughout the known world.  According to one tradition, poor St. Matthias was stoned to death in Jerusalem.  Although not entirely unbelievable, there comes to be a certain sameness to the stories told about lesser-known apostolic characters, so this may be pious fiction.  According to Hippolytus he died of old age in Jerusalem.

Another and more exciting tradition places him in Aethiopia following his stint in Judaea.  Aethiopia most likely did not mean Ethiopia, though.  Wikipedia says that Nicephorus thinks “Aethiopia” is actually “Colchis” on the Black Sea, now in Georgia (the famous destination of Jason and the Argonauts).  The basis for this, I reckon, is the presence of his alleged remains there; although, if those are St. Matthias’ remains, then whose remains did St. Helena allegedly pick up?  Regardless, I have no idea why someone would think that Aethiopia would be Colchis of all places.  Aethiopia, speaking Hellenically, is the place of the burnt-faced people and is always south, usually south of Egypt and Libya, thus Nubia/Sudan/Ethiopia, but never north of Greece at Colchis.

Anyway, so St. Matthias brought the Gospel to Aethiopia, wherever that is.  Not only is he in Aethiopia, he’s in the city of man-eaters in Aethiopia, in fact.  The tradition that asserts the cannibals includes the apocryphal Acts of Andrew and Matthias, although the country is merely identified as “the country of the man-eaters” — perhaps Colchis?  Are Georgians cannibalistic? (I don’t think so.)  Said Acts are interesting because they are clearly related to the Old English poem Andreas (in OE here, in Mod English in the Everyman book Anglo-Saxon Poetry) in which St. Andrew the Apostle rescues St. Matthew from a city of cannibals in Mermedonia, not Aethiopia.  In fact, most of the manuscripts say the Acts are of Andrew & Matthew, but the earliest says of Matthias (see CCEL).

St. Matthias (or St. Matthew or no one at all, given that anthropophagy is rare and the story is of dubious origin) was imprisoned by the man-eaters and lined up to be their next feast.  He prayed for deliverance, and Jesus brought him St. Andrew on a ship (so maybe Colchis?).  Andrew gets there, sneaks into the city, and finds Matthias sitting in his prison cell singing (ala Sts. Paul & Silas).  Then the two apostles performed some miracles, culminating in Matthias being transported in a cloud along with Andrew’s disciples and showing up on a hill where Peter is preaching.  Andrew stayed behind to perform a few more miracles, debate with the Devil, and convert the man-eaters.

The Acts do not tell us about what St. Matthias does next.  At some point he died, possibly in Jerusalem, possibly in Georgia, possibly in Africa south of Egypt and Libya.  It’s all rather vague, revealing the paucity of information we have about first-century Christianity outside of the New Testament.