Summary: a Christian feast day remembering the abbot and missionary St Columba
2018 Date: 9th June
Celebrated by: Christians (especially in Scotland and Ireland), those influenced by Celtic Christianity
Linked Holidays: Feast days of Celtic Christian saints (e.g. St Adomnán)
Background and Theological Significance
St Columba’s Day is the annual celebration in the Christian liturgical year of the death of the great sixth-century figure St Columba. Columba (in Irish Gaelic ‘Colm Cille’ and in Scots ‘Columbkille’) was born in the year 521CE into a noble family on the northern coast of Ireland. He trained at several different monastic schools, eventually taking vows as a monk and later as a priest. In around 560CE Columba had a dispute with his teacher St Finnian, which escalated into a tribal battle in which many thousands of people were killed. Columba was exiled from Ireland as a result, and guilt over his indirect hand in causing the battle influenced him to become a missionary. In 563CE Columba and twelve companions travelled to Scotland in a wicker currach (coracle), first to Kintyre and then to a small island on the west coast called Iona. He was given the island of Iona by the King of Dál Riata, on which he founded a church and monastery. Iona Abbey quickly grew into a major centre of Christian spirituality, learning and missionary endeavour, and under Abbot Columba’s guidance it revitalised the Christian faith across Scotland. Columba was quickly identified as a holy man, and many stories of his wisdom and miraculous powers were told, including a famous encounter with the Loch Ness Monster. When Columba died on 9th June 597CE, he was already widely considered a saint. He was buried in Iona Abbey, and although his relics were removed elsewhere in later centuries, Columba’s place in the spiritual landscape of Scotland remains as strong as ever to this day.
St Columba’s Day commemorates the death of the great saint and is celebrated each year in many Christian denominations. It is particularly important in Ireland and Scotland, the places where Columba lived and ministered. Columba has often been identified with a distinctively ‘Celtic’ Church that flourished in Britain and Ireland in the first millennium CE. ‘Celt’ derives from the Greek word ‘Keltoi’ (possibly meaning ‘the tall ones’) and refers to the tribal peoples who lived in central and northern Europe during and after the Iron Age. ‘Celtic Christianity’ is the term used to describe the blending of Christianity, as it spread to northern Europe, with the Gaelic cultures of Ireland and Scotland, it was distinct from the ‘Roman Church’ and was far more in harmony with Celtic beliefs and practices. Columba and the church he founded on Iona are often seen as being part of this Celtic Christian tradition.
St Columba was already considered a saintly figure during his lifetime, and a cult quickly grew up around him after his death in 597CE. Many poems and hagiographical accounts were written about him, most famously the ‘Vita Columbae’ composed about a century after his death by St Adomnán, his successor as Abbot of Iona. The church on Iona remained a cradle of Christianity in Scotland and spread its influence far and wide, including to Lindisfarne and the religious community established there. Many consider Columba to be Scotland’s unofficial patron saint, as he enjoys more popularity than the official patron St Andrew (this can be evidenced by the ratio of churches dedicated to Columba compared to Andrew). His name is the dedication for churches, schools, hospitals and even the ancient Scottish Clan Malcolm.
The Reformation in the sixteenth-century left Iona Abbey in ruins, although St Columba continued to enjoy a strong folk following. It was in these centuries of ruin that saw the popular concept of ‘Celtic Christianity’ develop. The Celtic Church is perceived as being separate and even opposed to the Roman Catholic Church, and is characterised by its lack of dogmatism, its closeness to the natural world, its respect for women, and its integration of elements of pre-Christian religion. The influences for this movement are many; a Protestant desire for a pre-Roman Church in Britain, a Romantic ideal of a natural and poetic faith, and a New Age focus on spirituality rather than religion, are all factors. Whether or not a Celtic Christian Church has any substantial basis in history notwithstanding, it has proved to be a popular and inspirational movement that has influenced both those inside and outside the Church. In Scotland, this movement is often focused on St Columba and Iona. The Iona Community, founded by the Reverend George MacLeod in 1938, has rebuilt the ruined abbey on Iona as the centre of an ecumenical Christian society that focuses on spirituality, community, peace, justice, and healing. The Iona Community deeply draws on the life of St Columba and the early monks and represents the best strands of the Celtic Christian movement. It draws people from all over the world who are interested in discovering the life and spirituality of St Columba of Iona.
St Columba is honoured as a saint in the calendars of the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Episcopal Churches, and his feast day is commemorated on 9th June every year. This means that the celebration of the Eucharist on this day will be in his honour. The Church of Scotland, which as a Presbyterian denomination typically does not observe the feast days of saints, also commemorates St Columba’s Day due to his immense importance in the spiritual history of Scotland.
St Columba’s Day holds a particular importance for those who are influenced by Celtic Christianity. The Iona Community typically hold special services to remember the life and work of the great saint, both in Iona Abbey and in communities across the world. This is a time to remember St Columba and commit to the principles of the Christian faith and its Celtic tradition, which are seen as spirituality, harmony and respect for all of creation.
‘A stained-glass depiction of St Columba in Iona Abbey’ by Alex Taylor is used with his permission