Celtic Christianity and the Legend of the Wild Goose

IMG_0894A cool bonus about attending St. Stephen’s University is that they have a professor who loves Celtic Christianity. Sadly enough he was on a trip during the two weeks I attended class so I was unable to meet him. However I did take advance of the school’s library which had excellent collection of Celtic Christianity books thanks to this gentlemen’s influence. =D

Buried within this collection was a copy of Ian Bradley’s “Celtic Christianity: Making Myths and Chasing Dreams.” This was a book that I have been wanting to read since 2006 – yeah, nine years is a long time to wait…but wow, the book was worth it!

Ian Bradley is a British academic, author, and theologian who teaches at University of St Andrews in Scotland. With over 30 books in print, Bradley is one of the most well-known experts on Celtic Christianity and spirituality. His book “Celtic Christianity: Making Myths and Chasing Dreams” reflects the depth of his knowledge in this area as he traces the development of Celtic Christianity from the early days of the Celtic church to today.

History, while only lived once, is never really static with folks of the current time reading their own wishes and desires back into the actions and thoughts of their forefathers. The various quests for the historical Jesus is a prime example of this human tendency. Bradley, being a professor of church history, not only looks at what actually happened on the British Isle, but also at how folks interpreted the historical events.

In other words just like there has been three quests for the historical Jesus within modern times, there have been multiple movements in which the Celtic Christianity was used as a political pawn. Bradley looks at all these movements, from the time when Celtic Christianity was used as a standard against the Roman Catholic Church (i.e. the Celtic church developed independent of Rome in ancient times so its descendants need not look towards Rome) to the time when the Roman Catholic Church used it against the Protestants (i.e. the Celtic saints of old honored Rome, therefore its descendants need to do so). Etc., etc.

All in all, Bradley’s book Celtic Christianity: Making Myths and Chasing Dreams” is definitely worth reading if you are at all interested in Celtic Christianity and spirituality. It gives you a frame work to understand all the different players and political/religious motivations behind the books.

Wild Goose Chase PaintingOn a personal note, the primary reason I wanted to read this book was that I had heard that Bradley addressed the historical origins of the legend of the Wild Goose. And in reading the book, I found that he does in fact address the legend…only it is not an origin that I particularly like…granted, it was the origin that I figured I would find. =P In other words, the legend of the Wild Goose, according to Bradley, was most likely started in the early 20th century by George Macleod, the founder of the Iona Community which operates the Wild Goose Publications and Wild Goose Worship Group.

However even though the ancient historically of the legend isn’t quite there, I have to mention that I’m still going to promote the legend (just without the historical claim). The reason I’m going to do this is not just because I have a vested interest in the legend (even though having a painting, tattoo and blog site connected to the legend does mean I have a lot to lose if I give up on the story!). Rather, my decision to retain the legend is due to cultural and biblical reasons. Allow me to explain.

If one was to search the Scriptures, you would find that the only time the Hold Spirit is symbolized as a dove is at Jesus’ baptism (as recorded in all four Gospels). This is very telling at all other times within the Old and New Testaments, the symbols of the Spirit are oil, water or fire. So why do the four Gospel writers use the symbol of a dove?

R. Alan Streett answers this question in his book “Heaven on Earth: Experiencing the Kingdom of God in the Here and Now.” In this book, Streett talks about how the Romans practiced augury divination (i.e. interpreting omens from the observed flight of birds) with the eagle being especially important to them as eagles were the sacred animals of Jupiter (supreme god of the Romans). When a new emperor took over, they would seek to have an eagle land on their arms and/or body as a testimony of the good pleasure of Jupiter towards themselves.

In the baptism of Jesus, the Gospels tell us that God the Spirit descended upon Jesus in the form of a dove. This was, as the spoken words of God the Father confirmed, a testimony of the good pleasure of the Supreme Creator toward Jesus, the Son. In other words, the reason the Gospel writers use the symbol of the dove (or should I say, the reason God revealed himself as a dove) was that they were contracting the rule and kingdom of Jesus over and against the rule and kingdom of the Roman Emperor.

The kingdom of Rome was symbolized by the eagle (a meat-eating birds of prey)while the kingdom of God was symbolized by the dove (a gentle, nonviolence bird). Rome ruled through fear, violence and war; Jesus rules through love, peace and his self-sacrificing death on a cross. Two different views of kingdom; each symbolized by a bird.

So what does this have to do with the Wild Goose legend?

The point of this back story is that the Gospel writers used the dove as a symbol for the Holy Spirit because it fit the culture of the time. In today’s culture and time, I believe there is a need for a new symbol that will catch the imagination of a new generation of people.

For me, I love the picture of the Wild Goose and the wild mystery that it represents. The age of the symbol is not as important as whether or not the symbol captures the essence of God and pulls you into the radical nature of the rule of Jesus. Geese, after all, are prey animals like doves – highlighting the value of the Cross and the way of peace.

Thank you George Macleod for creating/promoting the symbol of the Wild Goose.

2 Comments

  1. The potential risk of modernizing scriptural symbols is the confusion that can create, as well as running the risk that you just might not be as adept as symbol creation as is God.

    Reply
    • Thanks Paul for your comment. There is a risk of confusion whenever one adapts a new symbol, but I would say that its a small risk as human cultural is always changing. The symbol of the cross, for example, has a different meaning now than it did in the 1st century when the early church adapted it as a symbol. And yes, I don’t see God as creating the symbols per say as much as I see him working with people within a culture to create a symbol that resonates with the followers of Jesus in that culture. Hence I don’t see a problem with the creation of new symbols as long as they direct people back to Jesus.

      Reply

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