Thursday, June 16, 2011

Ruthwell

E and CC are spending their last night in Scotland right now, and by the time I go to bed, will be up and on a train bound for the south and York.  So, in honor of Scotland, I thought I'd write about a Scottish treasure that captured my imagination in college, inspired me in grad school, and made me drag my sisters and a friend on a long journey in the spring of 2000.

I'm speaking of the Ruthwell Cross.  You know of it, of course.  Oh, you don't?  Well, at least you've heard of A Dream of the Rood, then, I'm sure.  This is an old English poem in which a dreamer imagines himself the tree which becomes the cross (or rood, which sounds like rude), on which Christ dies.  The tree tells the story of how it came to participate in the death of the savior.  It's a unique and beautiful way to tell the story of the cross, and every affecting to those of us reading it today with our 21st century understandings of the world.

However, several things make this poem a treasure to me.  For one thing, the earliest place a fragment of this poem has been preserved is on the Ruthwell Cross in a church near Dumfries, Scotland.  This cross was used as a preaching cross with depictions of the life of Jesus covering its four sides.  Lines from the Dream are inscribed in runes on the edges surrounding the images on the four faces of the cross.  This cross was constructed sometime in the late 7th or early 8th century.  We can deduce, therefore, that the poem was written long enough before the cross was built to be well-known. Just as we might see popular slogans written on billboards that we would all recognize immediately.

When my mother, sisters and I traveled to Great Britain in the spring of 2000, I had two specific destinations in mind to visit.  The whole trip was my harebrained idea, which, with very little trouble, I talked my sisters into joining.  Ireland was the aim, the 'research' aim, but Dumfries, Scotland was a close second.  A very close second.  Fortunately, while in seminary, I'd become friends with the wife of a visiting pastor from the west coast of Scotland.  She volunteered to drive us to Dumfries.  So my sisters and I left Mom to her own devices one day in Glasgow (and she got into a whole lot of trouble...er, spent a whole lot of money!), took the train south to the coast, met my friend, Dorothy, then drove for several hourse more where we had lunch in Robbie Burns' home town, then further down a country lane, where there was nothing but a church with a proper old graveyard surrounding it.  It was quaint and appealing, and we wandered for a long time among those old stones--many several centuries old.

Then we went into the old church, which reminded me of many little churches in rural areas from Oregon to Alaska.  Simple and rustic.  But for one glaring difference.  Right in the middle, beside the lectern and in front of the altar, stood the cross.  Extending from a deep well in the floor with a balcony around it so all could see the entire cross, and rising to a pitch in the roof, it was beautiful.  Larger than I expected, in better shape (though it's been restored, thankfully!), the runes are indecipherable, but lovely.  The pictures clear--Jesus in various parts of his ministry.  I stood beside it that day and pulled out my copy of the Dream I'd brought, and read the parts most clearly connected to the death of Jesus.

The Anglo-Saxons for whom this poem was written, and for whom the Ruthwell cross was used as a preaching tool were a people used to might and strength and military power.  They saw humility and voluntary submission as shameful and those who exhibited it were often cast out, or even killed for such weakness.  And because there was a tribal mentality, the chief held the collective identity of his tribe within his own personality.  What he did, they did; what he was, they believed themselves to be.

So missionaries found it easy to preach Jesus in one way, because if the chief converted, the tribe would follow.  However, the Cross was a bit of a problem.  No, that's an understatement.  It was a HUGE problem.  The Anglo-Saxons could understand the struggle between good and evil, and Jesus' battle over Satan.  But that that battle had been won by Him humbly submitting to death without a fight, without a word, made no sense to fighting Saxons.  It was, in fact, the worst shame imaginable to these people.

The Dream of the Rood was the answer to this. It casts Jesus as what is known as a Hlaford, or Chieftain, and the Cross as the thane, of underchief.  It is masterfully done.

Here is a bit of it (I realize not all of you have a taste for this kind of poetry, but if you do, it's worth looking up.  I'm using Charles Kennedy's translation here).

"Then I say the King  of all mankind
in brave mood hasting to mount upon me.
Refused I dared no, nor bow nor break,
Though I felt earth's confines shudder in fear;
All foes I might fell, yet I stood fast;
"Then the young Warrior, God, the All-Wielder,
Put off His raiment, steadfast and strong;
With lordly mood in the sight of many
He mounted the cross to redeem mankind.
When the Hero clasped me I trembled in terror,
But I dared not bow me nor bend to earth;
I must needs stand fast.  Upraised as the Rood
I held the High King, the Lord of Heaven.
I dared not bow!  With black nails driven
Those sinners pierced me; the prints are clear;
The open wounds, I dared injure none.
They mocked us both. I was wet with blood
From the hero's side when He set forth His spirit.
"Many a bale I bore on that hillside
Seeing the Lord in agony outstretched;
Black darkness covered with clouds God's body.
That radiant splendor. Shadow went forth
Wan under heaven; all creation wept
Bewailing the King's death. Christ was on the Cross."

See?
The gospel in terms a warrior people can relate to.  I love this.  All truth and all relevant.  That's how He works.  Or, as the kids might say, that's how He rolls.

Christ was on the Cross.  That was the powerful moment.  Not the submissive, weak one. But the moment when He was the HERO.  Both then and now.

If you ever get to SW Scotland, try to make your way to that little lane near Dumfries where the Ruthwell church stands. Inside there's a treasure worth going out of your way to see.

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