In pre-Christian Ireland we find a common neolithic motif: the combination of the cross (signifying the four directions of the earth intersecting at the fifth point or centre) with the circle (signifying the movement of the heavenly bodies - sun, moon and stars - around the earth). The long passage graves in Newgrange and Knowth, built around 3200 BC, are essentially crosses within circles, while Dowth, from the same period, has an explicit carving of the cross-in-circle motif. And of course all three mounds have alignments to key intersections of the sun and earth: for Newgrange and Dowth at the winter solstice; and for Knowth during the spring and autumn equinoxes.
Chapter fourteen of the ICCA begins with St Patrick, whose deep feeling for the Irish and their culture makes it possible for him to find ways of communicating Christian revelation in terms they could understand. While it would be stretching things to say he himself drew on these neolithic symbols, it fits into St Patrick’s genius for what’s now called ‘inculturation’ that the Irish high crosses, unique in early Christianity, drew on this cross-in-circle motif to express an infinitely greater intersection of heaven and earth.
Instead of rejecting the symbols of pre-Christian culture, the monks at monasteries such as Monasterboice put Christ at the centre, at the intersection of heaven and earth. Their high crosses beautifully expanded and developed all the artistic resources of their pre-Christian Celtic heritage in order to reflect that the death and Resurrection of Christ was the fulfilment of all space and time and of all history.
Chapter fourteen introduces us to the celebration of Christ’s Paschal Mystery, which pours into our lives through the seven sacraments, especially through the Eucharist. Here’s one way we can connect the neolithic and the Christian experiences as perhaps those Irish monks did. Many people throughout history have expressed their dependence on the divine in a sacrificial act that signifies to their gods: ‘you are everything; we are nothing’. In Newgrange we can see that the moment of greatest darkness/nothingness, in which they focused on the longest night of the year, was their way of saying ‘we are nothing’. And that nothingness was offset by the divine ‘everything’ of the sun pouring in at dawn on the winter solstice.
But now, St Patrick’s followers place Christ at the centre point of this intersection. Why? Because as man, St Paul says Jesus ‘emptied himself’ (Phil 2, 7) and ‘for our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.’ (2 Cor 5, 21). We can see this as his saying to his Father on our behalf: ‘You are everything, I am nothing.’ But, as second person of the Holy Trinity, as God, he’s also saying to us: ‘No, you are everything, I am nothing’, since the One who ‘empties himself’ is also God or as St Paul puts it, ‘the Son of God…loved me and gave himself for me.’ (Gal 2, 20)
So at every Mass, in Christ we’re saying to the Father, ‘You are everything; I am nothing,’ and the Father, through his Son, is saying back to us, ‘you are everything, I am nothing’. In each Eucharist we receive the Son who on the cross became nothing for us, and under the form of a tiny host, he ‘disappears’ to vanishing point except to the eyes of loving faith. St Thomas Aquinas tells us that the primary effect, when we receive Jesus in the Eucharist, is to be turned into God (by participation).
Something similar happens in all the sacraments. Let’s take the sacrament of reconciliation. St. Nicholas of Fluë was a father of ten children who lived approximately eight hundred years ago in what is today Switzerland. When he was fifty, Nicholas, a famer, received a vision from God; with his wife Dorothy’s agreement, he withdrew to a corner of his farm to become a hermit, living a contemplative life for twenty years. Because of his deep unity with God, political leaders from Switzerland and elsewhere in Europe came to him for advice, and he is now regarded as the father of his country, Switzerland, saving it from civil war.
Once our Lord appeared and asked Nicholas to give him something. Nicholas didn’t know what he could give, until the Lord asked him: have you given everything? When he said yes, the Lord replied that there’s one thing he hadn’t given yet: his sins. Nicholas then went to confession. When I heard this story, I realised, for the first time, that when we go to confession, sharing our sins is one of the greatest acts of love we can make: we give to God the gift of our sins.
What is happening on my side during confession? When I tell my sins, it is, in the first place, an act of love on my part, as Jesus told Nicholas. With and in Jesus, I am saying to our Father: ‘you are everything; I am nothing’.
How does the Father answer when I confess my sins? Not only do we confess our sins in Jesus to the Father, but in Jesus, the Father - through the Spirit - forgives us. He acts through the priest’s absolution, when the priest says, ‘I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.’ It’s because Jesus is both God and man that he says to me, as he said to the Good Thief crucified alongside him: ‘No, you are everything; I am nothing.’
Because Jesus, as Son of God, made sin for us, bears away all our sins, and pours out on us, through his Sacred Heart, the love of his Father. So we can walk away tall, ready to begin a new life in his love. The ICCA quotes that great line from St Patrick, which the reception of these two sacraments will surely make us experience in the deepest way possible as we prepare for Easter: ‘I was like a stone in the mud and you lifted me up and put me on top of the wall.’