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.

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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.