How the Church Came Quietly Into the West
Christianity, like its parent religion Judaism, began on eastern soil. The cradle for these faiths, and Islam to follow, stretched from Israel north into what is now Turkey, south into Egypt, and then east into the land between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates.
The early church moved west steadily from the beginning, however, sometimes brought by missionaries, sometimes carried in the knapsacks of Roman soldiers who, when mustered out of the army, often settled where they were released. It came without violence or imposition, in most cases. It was not imposed with the sword. Already by the end of the 2nd century, the church was prominent as far west as what are now France and England. This was a remarkable achievement by any reckoning. How did the church expand so quickly?
One legend is that Joseph of Arimathea, who took down the body of Jesus from the cross and buried it in his own tomb, was a well-to-do tin merchant who traveled the Mediterranean basin west to the British Isles. He is also reputed to have been the uncle of Jesus and he took the boy with him on journeys – hence the tradition that the child Christ trod on English soil before his ministry began, as the poet William Blake wrote.
Legends aside, the early writer Tertullian (155-222) tells us that Christianity had made it to Britain during his lifetime. Eusebius (260-340), a thorough historian for his age, also wrote that Christianity had been long established in the British Isles.
The Irish embraced Christianity before the time of St Patrick, who represents really the second wave of Christian influence in Ireland. He was Roman by birth but embraced his adopted land with great love and vigor. Once the faith reached the western boundary of the world, the Atlantic Ocean, it bounced back, more fully equipped, to parts of Europe not previously visited.
The marginal part martyrdom unto death played in the west gave impetus to the development of a total philosophy. The Celtic church counted three kinds of martyrdom: white, green, and red. Red martyrdom is the witness that led to death, giving up one’s life for the faith. Green martyrdom is accessible by all Christians, and comprises our daily struggle for goodness and compassion by shedding bad habits, routines, and morals that separate us from God.
White martyrdom means to spend your life for the faith by traveling on mission. This concept of martyrdom gave rise to extraordinary efforts by Christians from the British Isles. Sts. Brendan and Columban are wonderful examples of those who left home to spread the faith. These pioneers bounced back into Europe from France to Italy and beyond, and they brought with them a vision of church as a total way of life and a complete approach to thought. The main engine for these efforts was education, and the main vehicle was the monastery. St Benedict, who was hugely influential in developing the monastic movement, thought of monasteries as schools for women and men.
Christian faith grew early into a comprehensive philosophy, which is surely part of the reason for its quick expansion even in times of persecution. Quite simply put, Christianity offered new and better ideas beyond the limited scope of religion at that time – a point made already in second century writers like Irenaeus and Justin Martyr. Faith joined to intelligence overturned superstition and prejudice.
In our era, when it often seems that Christianity has retreated into a niche called “religion,” all Christians need to shun prejudice and superstition and anti-intellectualism. We need that breadth of vision that can expand our faith into a comprehensive philosophy of life.
published 15 October 2010