It has often been on the margins in history, outside established power centers, that fresh social and religious movements have begun. This may be true again today globally as a world stricken by plague faces the shifting winds of sudden change. It was true in the fifth and sixth century onwards, as on the Western and Eastern fringes of the Roman Empire movements would grow, bringing new life and dynamism. In the West it was the Celts of Ireland and Scotland, establishing monastic mission centers in places like Iona and Lindisfarne that would send out missionaries into continental Europe and multiply translations and learning.
Outside the Roman Empire to the East it was the Church in Asia, growing from the first century onwards, evangelizing throughout the Persian Empire and on into India, Central Asia and China and also contributing to an expansion of learning through translations.
Recently I taught an online series of four lectures on the history of the Church of the East in Asia up to the year 1500. My good friend and colleague Sarah J was in that series. As part of her learning journey, she painted the gorgeous cross pictured with this post. She was also inspired to write the section below, which I have included with her permission. Thank you, Sarah, for your gifts of visual art expression as well as words.
‘On the fringe of the known and accepted Christian circles, Holy Spirit fire burns and living water flows. This is true historically and continues to prove true now.
The Nestorian Stele, discovered in 1625 after having been buried for over 800 years, gave evidence to the fact that Christianity had long been established in China, way beyond the fringes of the Roman Empire. Generally, when we consider Christian history, we cite the Roman Empire as literally paving the way for Christianity to spread west. What we often fail to recognize is that early Christians also traveled east along the Silk Road and other established trade routes. They courageously faced isolation, persecution, and outright slaughter in the lands of Persia, China, and India.
The idea from this painting grew during an online class about the Church of the East. A beautifully symmetrical statue of a cross sits in Xi’an, China to this day bearing witness to the fact that Christianity is not a Western religion. This painting honors the persistence and passion of those early missionaries who headed past the edge into the great unknown. May God give us such courage.
Everything moves outward from the cross. The water flows and the fire burns….forward, ever forward. This fact gives us courage. The Gospel is good news that cannot be contained or extinguished. We are called into the Missio dei to places where people dwell on the fine line between life and death.’