The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever. Isaiah 40:8
It has been called the most beautiful book ever written. Its name: The Book of Kells. And who was Kells? More properly the question should be where was Kells? Because the answer is that Kells was a village in Ireland where dedicated scribes living in the Monastery of Kells in County Meath painstakingly copied the pages of the first four books of the New Testament and decorated the pages with the most exquisite calligraphy ever done, with pictures rivaling those in the finest museums of the world. And this was done by nameless monks between the seventh to ninth centuries using dyes made from local products, long before the advancements of the modern era.
Eventually this magnificent work made its way to Trinity College Library in Dublin, Ireland where it is on public display today. This old book was number one on my “must see” list, and I have to tell you it far more than met my expectations.
As I stood in line with people from various and sundry nations, I thought, “This is remarkable. Here we are standing in line on a chilly morning, waiting to see a book that was written and decorated years ago. Then I began thinking of the dedicated scribes who painstakingly copied Jerome’s Vulgate translation into Latin, cutting the sheets of animal skin, known as vellum, into pieces (we would call them pages) about 9 by 13 inches, preparing the covers of wood overlaid with leather.
Long before Stephen Langton, an Anglican priest, put divisions of chapters and verses into the text, these monks made notations by inserting slight pin marks in the text. The colors are remarkably well preserved, and how these gifted men ever conceived something so intricate and yet so beautiful is part of the mystery that surrounds it today. Never putting their names to their work, they emphasized the importance of what they were writing and drawing.
Then I also thought of the message recorded in this book, the Gospel according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—not four different ones, but the same marvelous Gospel as recorded by four men who lived and walked with Jesus or, in Luke’s case, wrote from the recorded eye-witness accounts. I also thought of the centuries-old religious battles that have wracked Ireland along with the rest of the world, as the advice of Jesus to love your neighbor and your enemy was pushed aside, much as we put the book in the library under glass, well-preserved, but not terribly accessible, and certainly not obeyed.
The pages of The Book of Kells are replete with artist’s renditions of what the Gospels are all about—angels, beasts and demons, saints and sinners, and, of course, Jesus and the disciples.
The remarkable thing to me is that the message of The Book of Kells is just as refreshing and important today as it was when, year after year, the monks painted the vivid pages, never having time to go beyond the preparation of these four books.
The same message that you find in Latin has been translated into literally thousands of languages and has been spread around the world. It’s a marvelous story of God’s love in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ, who set aside His royal robes and became fully human, giving His life that those of us who had wandered far from God could come back home, find forgiveness and restoration.
If you have never read the New Testament, start with the Gospel of John, then go back to Matthew, then read Mark and Luke. But get to know the story! The Book of Kells is God’s love letter to a world that has lost its way and needs to come home.
Resource reading: 2 Timothy 3:10-17