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Christianity: origins & contemporary expressions

30 November, 1999

From the Veritas ‘Into the Classroom’ series: Thomas Norris and Brendan Leahy examine Christ’s vision for the world and how this vision has been received at important junctures of Christian history.

205 pp, Veritas, 2004. To purchase this book online, go to www.veritas.ie.


A selection of dates in the history of Christianity
1. The return to origins
2. The vision of Jesus in context
3. The message in conflict
4. The formation of Christian community
5. The Christian message today


Christianity: Origins and Contemporary Expressions identifies key features of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. It aims to develop an appreciation of the Early Christian Movement, including the distinctive features of Christianity within the historical, social and religious context of its time, and to correlate this with contemporary expressions of Christianity. It also highlights the diversity and adaptability of the Church in proposing the message of Jesus Christ to each new generations.

CHAPTER 1: The return to the origins
‘Christianity’ is the world religion made up of those who follow Jesus Christ as their Lord and leader, inspiration and teacher, Saviour and brother. It derives its name from the Greek word ‘Christos’, meaning the ‘Anointed One’ of God, a title given to Jesus of Nazareth who was born around 6-4 BCE and died around 30 CE.

In the Oxford Concise Dictionary of World Religions, we read: ‘Christianity exists in a vast diversity of different styles and forms of organization, but all agree that the figure of Jesus is the disclosure of God and the means of human reconciliation with him… Vital also is the fact that Christian life should be the manifestation of a pervasive quality of love’ (John Bowker, ed., Oxford, 2000, pp. 126-7).

The pervasive quality of supernatural love, typical of Christianity, means that as a religion involving more than a quarter of the world’s population, Christianity could never be simply a collection of individuals concerned solely with their own individual salvation. On the contrary, despite shortcomings and failures, Christianity is a worldwide network of people who work together for a better world offering the salvation that comes from Jesus Christ.

It could be said that Christians form a collectivity that renders the risen Jesus Christ present in the world today. They allow him to journey again today among humanity, building it up in unity and universal fraternity. In that sense, it is Jesus himself more than simply his message that Christians want to give to the world.

The conviction that lies behind Christianity’s missionary zeal is the belief that Jesus introduces the world to its true ‘home’, the Community of Communities: God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, three Divine Persons who love one another perfectly. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, God who is Love enables us to share in his own life, the source of happiness, peace, joy and dynamism. We become clothed in love.

In some ways, the implications of this central message of Christianity are only beginning to dawn on Christians. In essence, their religion wants to promote a vision of the world that is based on the realisation that we have only one God who is Father to us all and that we are all brothers and sisters of one another. Post 9/11, with the onset of world terrorism, Christians are coming to realise the extreme importance and contemporary relevance of their specific message.

The founding vision
One way to glimpse something of Jesus’ vision would be to imagine what must have been going through his mind on the last night of his life on earth, the night before he died. What must he have thought as he recalled the years of childhood with Mary, Joseph and his cousins in Nazareth, and then the years of his public ministry with its successes and disappointments? What sentiments did he feel as he could see again in his mind’s eye the crowds that followed him, the women that supported him, and the disciples that he had called? What must have darted through his heart as he thought about those whose lives had been transformed through meeting him and with whom he had kept in contact as friends along his journey: Mary, Martha and Lazarus of Bethany, Mary of Magdala, Joanna, the wife of Chuza, steward of Herod Antipas…?

In the light of Jn 14-17, we can only guess that on the last night he must have considered again the vision he had held up to his followers, a vision so powerful that it attracted many, some radically. He had spoken of a ‘kingdom’, not a kingdom of this world, but a whole new world, one imbued with a recognition of the one God whom he called Father (Abba in Aramaic), and marked by new relationships between men and women, between rich and poor, between locals and foreigners, between people of different social categories, backgrounds and traditions.

During the three years of his public ministry he had looked on the crowds who had followed them. He had loved them as himself. He had wanted to set up bonds that would link them to him, and to one another.

Praying by night to heaven above and to the heaven within him, filled with light, Jesus had gone out day by day to those blind to the vision of God within them and around them and he offered them light.

To those who were dumb to the Word of God speaking within them, he spoke words of Truth so that they in turn would transmit to others his liberating, fulfilling and unifying words that would re-awaken people to Life.

To those who were paralysed, not knowing what God wanted of them, he spoke straight to their hearts urging them to enter into the eternal movement that is God-Infinite Love. And he showed that in this movement of love it holds true that by transmitting the fire of his vision and life, you yourself are set alight with a new burning fire within you.

And yet, despite his words of fire and truth, many people, even though they understood him, didn’t want to understand, and decided to keep their eyes closed because their soul was dark. Jesus continued to look at them with love. He did not doubt. And so the night before he died, he summed up the whole of his mission in the prayer ‘May they all be one’. Yes, just as he was united to God the Father in the Holy Spirit, he wanted his followers to be one and so be happy. Peace, happiness and fulfilment flow from the gift of his unity.

Was this ‘founding vision’ of Jesus a utopia? If it were only the inspiration of a human genius, it might have been. And it would have ended in failure. But since Jesus is divine-human, gave his life for this vision of unity, and rose from the dead, his founding vision didn’t end up simply among the catalogues of wishful thinking. Christianity’s central faith statement is: ‘Jesus is risen’ and lives among us. Jesus’ founding vision lives on in the community that came to life out of his death and resurrection. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it: ‘Jesus rose as community’ and this community continues his founding vision.

The vision isn’t simply a religious or ‘spiritual’ idea. While Jesus is truly God, it’s vital to remember he is truly human. As perfectly human, Jesus summarised in himself all of humanity and all the truth about our human condition. His words and wisdom, his example and presence were directed towards making the concrete world we live in into a better place where peace and unity, justice and freedom, equality and diversity, fraternity and solidarity reign. The Christian community is, in a certain sense, a prolongation of his body now continuing this mission in the world.

Giving a soul to the world
Throughout the past two thousand years, the members and Churches of Christianity have contributed to the implanting of that founding vision in the socio-political contexts in which they lived. And it is always worth bearing in mind that Christians have lived through all kinds of political regimes from empires to kingdoms, from tribes to republican nation states, from tyrannies to absolute rulers, from dictatorships to democracies!

Some expressions of Christianity haven’t always lived up to the inspiring goal of the founder, but nevertheless, it is undeniable that the Christian family worldwide has built up a vast reservoir of experience, insight and, along the way, much self-discovery of what it means to be human in the light of Jesus Christ. He reveals both who God is, and who we are, since we are made in the image and likeness of God. It is the Gospel wisdom put into practice that Christianity wants to share with humanity today.

Undoubtedly, contemporary Christianity is witnessing a new search and a discovery of how best to communicate the Christian message. Jeanne Hinton of the Building Bridges of Hope project run by The Churches Together of Britain and Ireland has described the results of research she carried out among Christians recently by underlining what she calls ‘a great yearning for relationship, for meaning and purpose, for honesty and authenticity, for justice and freedom, for community… a desire to deepen one’s experience of God in a way that is life-giving and relevant to the world in which we live’ (Changing Churches, CTBI, 2002, p. xii).

Christians know they need to have this experience of God in order to communicate God! A German theologian, Karl Rahner, along with others, has commented that Christians of the third millennium will either be mystic – have, and be able to relate, their ‘experience’ of God – or they simply won’t be!

The point is that the founding vision of Christians isn’t based on ritual or prayers or customs (although all of this is important), but rather the life they are called to live. An early third-century Christian, writing to his high-ranking pagan friend, Diognetus, who had asked for information about the religion of Christians, tells us as much. He gives us a pen-picture of how Christians understood their identity in terms of giving a soul, a life, and a vision to the world:

Christians are not distinguished from the rest of humankind by either country, speech, or customs; the fact is, they nowhere settle in cities of their own; they use no peculiar language; they cultivate no eccentric mode of life. Certainly, this creed of theirs is no discovery due to some conceit or speculation of inquisitive people; nor do they, as some sects do, champion any doctrine of human origin. Yet while they settle in both Greek and non-Greek cities, as each one’s lot is cast, and conform to the customs of the country in dress, diet and mode of life in general, the whole tenor of their way of living stamps it as worthy of admiration and admittedly extraordinary… To say it briefly: what the soul is in the body, that the Christians are in the world. The soul is spread through all the members of the body, and the Christians throughout the cities of the world. The soul dwells in the body, but is not part and parcel of the body, so Christians dwell in the world, but are not part and parcel of the world. Itself invisible, the soul is kept shut up in the visible body; so Christians are known as such in the world, but their religion remains invisible… (Letter to Diognetus, quoted in J. Quasten, Patrology Vol 1, Westminster, Maryland: Newman Press, 1950, pp. 250-251).

Centuries have gone by since that text was written. And although Christianity today exists in a wide gamut of forms of community life, structures, movements, as well as social, artistic and cultural initiatives, the specific goal remains the same: that of uniting the one world family in God and for God, thereby giving the world’s technological and global advances a ‘soul’.

Re-discovering the founding vision: returning to origins
In all of religious and secular history one finds examples of moments when people, groups and communities wanted to get back again to their roots, to their origins. Often it happens when there’s a crisis. A crisis is a situation where things hang in the balance, where old ways come to an end, but room for new possibilities open. It’s a time for decision leading to new direction. At times of crisis people go back to the original vision because they want to go forward holding true to the original inspiring spark that gave rise to their initiative, group or organisation.

We see this desire to return to their origins in many people of Irish origin now living in America, England or Australia. They want to be in touch with their ancestral roots. How often have people in Ireland met visitors seeking to trace their roots, wanting to know where their family lived, who their relations might be, what the conditions were like when their relations left Ireland? It’s important to them for their own self-identity.

On a more specific level, we can notice the pattern of return to origins in the Northern Ireland Peace Process. How often we have witnessed those involved return to the Good Friday Agreement to see what it was they all agreed upon or at least to examine again this foundational text in order to plot the way forward. This happens especially when there are crisis moments. People go back to the text and see in it the voice of the people, the majority of whom voted in favour of it. This text embodies the conclusion of a journey of dialogue that led up to it, so it contains the spirit, the principles, the objectives that people can look to as a roadmap for how to move forward from there.

After the horror of the destruction of World War II, the European Economic Community was established with a view to restoring stability, peace and economic prosperity. Recognising that a terrible vision of Europe had been pursued by Fascists and the Hitler regime, the founders of the new post-War Europe – Adenauer, De Gasperi, Monnet and Schumann – recalled the alternative vision of Europe, that based on an understanding of Europe whose origins lie in the marrying, especially in the light of Christianity, of the Greek/ Roman / Celtic cultures, providing a rich tapestry of culture, vision and identity.

The whole point of setting up a new European union was to continue the European project that had been handed down from previous generations in a way that would guarantee fidelity to Europe’s most noble ideals. Today too, in the newly extended Europe, there is a sense that we need to keep in touch with the Christian, Jewish and Islamic roots of Europe.

Recent events in the world of business speak of a return to origins taking place within economics. People talk of the climate of change in the post-Enron, or post-Parmalat contexts. Many in the business world are considering anew the origins and purpose of economics and business. Ethics has come back into fashion with people searching for a vision that will sustain business as directed towards the benefit of humanity and not humanity for the benefit of business.

Religious communities, too experience times when they return to their origins and start out again from there in the renewal of their religion. For instance, within Buddhism, the renewal movement of the Rissho Rosei-kai is one of the movements that seeks to renew Buddhism by highlighting Buddha’s original message of altruism, peace and harmony with the universe.

The Christian ‘return to origins’
Within Christianity the desire for contact with the origins is strong. Time and again throughout history, Christianity has witnessed moments when there has been a re-discovery of the founding vision of Jesus and the first Christian community. In recent times, too, many new movements and communities of renewal have come to life within the Catholic, Anglican, Protestant and Orthodox traditions. They help their members live a vibrant experience of the Gospel. We shall return to this in chapter five.

At this point, however, we want to note the pattern of return to origins within Christianity by examining some general features and then some specific instances from Christian history.

The first point to note is that Christianity is not a religion of the book only. Yes, the Bible is the Holy Book that recounts the founding vision. But the whole point is that the Christian vision is accompanied by the Visionary himself, the Founder of Christianity, Jesus Christ! Christians don’t simply read about their past in their Holy Book as if they were reading a catalogue in a museum, Christian faith is a living ‘today’ reality.

The reason for this is the work of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is the One who keeps Christianity as a living religion. The second century Christian theologian, Irenaeus, who was martyred in Lyons in France, called Jesus and the Holy Spirit, God the Father’s ‘two hands’ who keep the vessel of the Christian community (the Church) ever young.

[The faith transmitted by the Church] by the work of the Holy Spirit, like a precious deposit contained in a valuable vase, is ever rejuvenated and also rejuvenates the vase that contains it. To the Church, in fact, was entrusted the gift of God (cf. Jn 4:10) like the breath that is blown into the living being shaped from the soil of the ground (cf. Gen 2:7), so .that all her members, by participating in it, are vivified by it; and in her has been deposited the communion with Christ, that is, the Holy Spirit… In fact, ‘God has appointed, in the Church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers’ (cf. 1 Cor 12:28) and imbued her with all the remaining operation of the Spirit (cf. 1 Cor 12: 11)… For where the Church is, there too is the Spirit of God; and where the Spirit of God is, there too are the Church and every form of grace… (Adversus Haereses 3.14.1., ed. by A. Rousseau and L. Doutreleau, Sources Chrétiennes, vol. 211, Paris: Cerf, 1974, pp. 472-475)

More recently, in the twentieth century, the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras wrote: ‘Without the Spirit, God is far away, Christ remains in the past, the Gospel is a dead letter, the Church is a simple organisation, authority a domination, mission a propaganda, worship mere evocation, and Christian action a slave morality. But in the Spirit the Gospel is the power of life, the Church signifies Trinitarian communion, authority is a liberating service, mission is a Pentecost, the liturgy is memorial and anticipation, human activity is deified’. (Olivier Clément, Dialogues avec le Patriarche Athénagoras, Paris: Fayard, 1969, p. 496)

The Spirit has been active throughout the history of the Church, guaranteeing our contact with the origins of the Christian story in two ways.

Firstly, through sacraments and the preaching of the faith. The Apostles and their successors, the bishops, together with their collaborators, the priests and deacons, administer sacraments and preach the faith in Church. They do so in an institutional capacity as ordained ministers. In fact, St Augustine (354-430), one of the great intellectuals in the life of the Church, pointed out that the sacraments are efficacious regardless of the worthiness or otherwise of the bishop or priest.

In other words, from a Roman Catholic and Orthodox perspective, the risen Jesus Christ binds himself to the sacraments in such a way that when Mass is celebrated validly, the person receiving communion actually encounters the Risen Christ sacramentally present in the Eucharist. Likewise, in hearing the words of absolution at confession, the penitent is hearing the Risen Christ speak words of forgiveness and peace. So there is a ‘guaranteed’ presence of Jesus, the Origin of our religion, present in the sacraments.

But, alongside the sacraments and preaching of the faith, there is also what is called the charismatic or prophetic dimension of the Church. Throughout its history, the Church community has witnessed the emergence of numerous prophetic figures who cause the Gospel novelty to erupt again in each new era. We can think of a few names: Benedict, Francis and Clare of Assisi, Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila, Ignatius of Loyola. Through these charismatic people, together with the communities they form, Christianity is brought into a renewed contact with the Gospel, opening up windows onto the Gospel that are appropriate for the new circumstances in which Christianity is to be lived out concretely. So, for example, Francis emphasised how we can live the whole Gospel from the perspective of poverty and this was very important for his era.

In a sense, therefore, the pattern of the Christian ‘return to origins’ is twofold. It comes about through sacraments and the preaching of the faith as well as through the Holy Spirit’s action in providing prophetic impulses along the Church’s journey. In Christianity, the return to origins is not simply a case of remembering the past more vividly. Since Jesus is risen and the whole of the world’s history is in his hands, he is calling us to work with him and move towards him. He promised to be with us until the end of time (Mt 28:20).

The Christian return to origins is, paradoxically, also a movement to the future. Since Jesus contains all time, including the future, he is drawing us, like a magnet, towards our fulfilment in him. As well as being the beginning point for Christians, Jesus is also the end point. That is why, drawing on the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, the author of the Book of Revelation called Jesus the ‘Alpha’ and the ‘Omega’. He is our beginning and our end.

So our return to origins is a going forward to what we were originally meant to be in God’s plan: totally united with the whole world reconciled in Jesus Christ. And he who is our origin and our end has promised to be with us along our journey: ‘For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them’ (Mt 18:20). Jesus Christ is alive and travels with us so that in opening up the past to us again (i.e. helping us rediscover the Gospel with new eyes), through the work of the Holy Spirit, Jesus inspires enthusiasm in us and propels us not backwards but forwards.

Let us now examine the pattern of returning to origins in Christianity in the case of a number of examples.

The Céilí Dé
Christianity arrived in Ireland around 432. We know that monasticism was of huge significance in the first centuries of Christianity on the island of Ireland. Communities of monks literally dotted the Irish landscape, presenting a vibrant face of the Church that attracted so many friends and neighbours that the monastery became almost like a diocese in its extension and impact. Monasticism itself was a current of renewal within Christianity that had begun in the desert in Egypt and spread throughout Europe. Ireland, therefore, benefited straightaway from the arrival of a renewed and renewing life of Christianity.

Since ‘the great monasteries were the indispensable framework of the Christian church in Ireland’ (Patrick Corish, The Irish Catholic Experience: A Historical Survey, Dublin: Gill and MacMillan, 1985, p. 13), it is also true to say that the monasteries helped shape Irish culture. The Abbots wielded enormous influence and people in the locality had a sense of belonging to a particular monastic region. The monasteries became centres of learning, worship, healing and missionary outreach.

The Monastic movement or renewal did great good not only in Ireland, but also throughout Europe. However, it’s also true that the monastic communities themselves needed every now and then to be reformed! In the eighth century there were many reform movements in the Western Church. Ireland too was in need of this renewal. In fact, one can read of various abuses, not to mention battles, between monasteries, as well as armed conflicts between monasteries and local princes. Hardly an ideal situation for Christian communities!

In the mid eighth century a reform movement began in Ireland, the leaders of which called themselves ‘Céilí Dé’. A rough translation of this Irish term would be ‘Servants of God’ (the Anglicisation of this expression is ‘Culdees’). They wanted to bring about renewal of the monastic life in Ireland.

The Céilí Dé was a movement of people that felt a strong calling to put God first in their lives and make themselves true servants or clients of God. No matter how important the abbot or the monastery, other people, family, possessions or their own lives might be, it was more important to choose God as their all in life. It seems this movement may have come from abroad, but it took root and developed in Ireland in its own way. Mael Ruáin (d. 792) of Tallaght is the one most associated with the beginnings of this current of renewal, but its radical nature can be seen in the establishment of isolated foundations such as Sceilig Mhíchíl off the Kerry coast.

It is not easy to sum up the ideals of these reformers who also called themselves ‘sons of life’. The spirituality and way of life of the Céilí Dé is best known to us from three related texts: The Monastery of Tallaght Text; The Rule of Tallaght; and The Rule of the Céilí Dé.

The renowned historian, Professor Corish, provides a good brief outline of what characterised them: ‘Essentially they called for a renewal of the ancient ascetic tradition, with special emphasis on study and the anchoretic or hermit life. The devotional literature of the Culdees is very distinctively Irish, with its imaginative freshness and its constant repetition of phrases expressing trust and abandonment… Above all, this spirituality expressed itself in highly personal religious poetry…’ (Corish, p. 22). Indeed, the Céilí Dé movement in the Church generated a considerable literature, in particular in the monasteries of Tallaght and Finglas. Much of the early Irish nature poetry is attributed to them.

The Céilí Dé spirituality attributed great importance to the Word of God. Gospels were read at mealtime. It is said that a certain Adamnán succeeded in calming monastic troubles in far-off Clonmacnois by raising the Gospel. Afterwards, he said that ‘the sign of the Cross by the power of the Gospel travels quicker than the wink of an eye… and vanishes every obstacle’ (see Michael Maher, Irish Spirituality, Dublin: Veritas, 1981, p. 30). The epistles of St Paul and Gospel of St John were given special prominence.

The development of the Céilí Dé movement was not uniform. It was a current of renewal rather than a movement setting up new structures. Though critical of the laxity and secularisation they saw in the monasteries around them, the Céilí Dé didn’t establish new monasteries. Rather they set to work to reform the monastic movement from within. In the monasteries at Tallaght and Finglas, ‘the two eyes of Ireland’ as they were called, all the monks were Céilí Dé. In others they lived the life of anchorites or hermits within the monastery.

They were very much devoted to the saints and hagiography was very important for them. They promoted recognition of Patrick as a ‘national’ figure and they encouraged devotion to him.

Although the central weakness of this reform movement was that it lacked structure, the Céilí Dé were interested in the general pastoral mission of the monasteries. They brought a new spirit rather than new structures, but this new spirit bore good fruits. They worked to ensure that there were more and better-educated priests. They concerned themselves with the observance of Sunday as a day of rest.

The Céilí Dé underlined the importance of following the guidance of one’s ‘anam chara’ or ‘soul friend’. Mael Ruáin saw it of great importance. It was through the context of soul friendship that private confession took root in the Irish Church and later spread throughout Western Christendom. Christianity moved forward renewed by this wave of renewed life that had blown through the Church at that time. It was the fruit of the Gospel origins of Christianity rediscovered.

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