Christianity as the myth that came true

Eucatastrophe

I started reading Northrop Frye (I discuss one of his books here) when I mentioned to a colleague that, for my lecture on Christianity and classical mythology, I had a final slide called ‘The Myth That Came True?’ He told me about how he discusses Frye’s book Words with Power in his class about theories of myth. Frye is neither here nor there for this post, though.

The idea of Christianity as the myth that came true is one associated with that group of creative thinkers and writers, the Inklings. It most famously comes up in the story of C S Lewis’ conversion from theism to Christianity. He was walking in one of the Oxford gardens with friends and fellow Inklings J R R Tolkien and Hugo Dyson about myth and truth and suchlike things. Lewis’ feeling at the time was that all that he found beautiful was untrue, and everything he believed to be true was grim. The myths, such as the Baldr and Adonis, were beautiful but ultimately empty and meaningless, not bearing truth.

This conversation with his Christian friends drove home to Lewis the idea that myths themselves carry truths, and the greatest myth of all actually was true. Christianity is the myth that comes true: the God leaves his habitation, comes down, dies, and rises again. (This is not exactly as Lewis tells it.)

In his book Miracles, when discussing the Resurrection, Lewis discusses the relationship between dying-and-rising myths and the Resurrection of the Son of God. He refers to the gods that die and rise again every year, people like Osiris or embodied at some level in Adonis, as ‘Corn Kings’, and says that there is a fundamental difference between the resurrection of Jesus Christ and corn kings, in that he rises never to die again, and sets us free from death itself. Or something like that. (It’s been a decade, people.)

These gods who die and rise, then, from Osiris in Pharaonic Egypt to Baldr in Viking Norway, are at a certain level shadows of Christ, but ultimately not the real thing. Mythology, which is the basic mode of speech of all civilization (and here I cite not merely Frye, Words with Power, but Barfield (an Inkling!), Poetic Diction), is itself an approach to divine revelation — a sort of storytelling version of St Justin Martyr’s philosophical logos spermatikos. Not only in philosophy but even in mythology has the Word of God hidden Himself only to be fully manifest in Jesus Christ.

J R R Tolkien’s idea of eucatastrophe from his essay ‘On Fairy Stories’ is another place where we see the mythic ordering of salvation history. Eucatastrophe is when everything goes horribly, horribly wrong, only to save the day. It is common in the best fairy stories, indeed, the best stories, according to Tolkien. The eucatastrophe par excellence is the death of Jesus on the cross. God dies. The Messiah is slain by foreign enemies having been betrayed by his people. And as a result, by his wounds we are healed.

These men did not simply think of myths in the way my colleagues and I like to problematise them in classes on Greek and Roman mythology. Sure, mythos is simply ancient Greek for story; Lewis and his colleagues all know that. But Lewis, having admitted that in the chapter on myth in An Experiment in Criticism goes on to discuss those particular stories that have a certain hold on us, many of which are repeated in different cultures. There is something powerful inherent in Orpheus and Eurydice, regardless of who tells us, whereas The Odyssey needs Homer’s poem.

This mythic mode, the sort also sought by their younger contemporary Joseph Campbell, is common to all cultures. And Christianity takes up the mythic mode and, rather than it being fabula makes it into historia — the stuff of flesh and blood, something you can stand on and rely on. It is beautiful and true.

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Sacramental reality

Today, I was explaining Vestal Virgins to my first-years, and I noticed that my slide said that the fire of Vesta was ‘symbolic of Rome’s power’. I took a moment to explain that that description is really inadequate. Symbols, I explained, were much more closely associated with that which they symbolised to the ancient Roman mind. You could almost say that the fire of Vesta was Rome’s power.

I went on to say that the world of the ancient Romans was interpenetrated by a sense of the numinous, that the divine interacted with daily life.

What I wanted to launch into was a discussion of the sacramental and transcendence.

But that wouldn’t necessarily fit a lecture on Roman mythology.

But I find even this Roman pagan view of the world much more appealing than the dead, inanimate world proffered by the Enlightenment. A world where the divine lurks behind every corner, where your hearthfire is an access point to another reality, where gods walk among mortals.

And my mind is turning this direction because I am reading Boersma’s Scripture As Real Presence, where he discusses a sacramental worldview, a world where God Himself is readily available to us hidden beneath the sacramental veil, and especially available to us in the words of sacred Scripture.

At the same time, I’ve begun reading a dissertation about the loss of a sense of transcendence in Canadian culture, including the Canadian church, and how this has led to the haemorrhaging of young people from our churches.

Maybe my excitement about divine immanence in the Roman world excited some young minds about finding that here and now.

Because these are realities we need — the transcendent, ever-present God who makes Himself known through symbol and sacrament.

Jesus our mother (wherein I court controversy)

What follows will likely either offend some Christians in different ways whilst leaving most thinking, ‘So what?’ I hope it will appeal to somebody out there (maybe a Classicist or two), and I have no doubt, if I’m right, a biblical scholar has already addressed the bit where I talk about Greek. #philologywillsavetheworld

In Chapter 8 of A World Transformed, ‘Being Reborn’, Lisa Deam discusses the Ebstorf Map, from c. 1300, where Jesus’ head, hands, and feet peek out from behind the round globe of the world. She argues that this represents Jesus pregnant with the world. Not being an art historian, I can neither affirm nor deny this idea. It’s kind of neat — I’ll take it from Deam, who is an art historian, that this is a feasible interpretation of the map. Here it is:

This leads into a discussion of medieval piety to Jesus as mother. Interestingly, Julian of Norwich doesn’t come up, possibly because Julian’s references to Jesus as mother are so fleeting as to be almost content-less (in my non-expert opinion). Instead, we get something much more powerful, much more vivid, combining late mediaeval crucifixion piety with the image of Jesus as mother. Deam quotes Marguerite d’Oingt (d. 1310), A Page of Meditations, one of whose passages is this:

Oh, Sweet Lord Jesus Christ, who ever saw any mother suffer such a birth! But when the hour of the birth came you were placed on the hard bed of the cross where you could not move or turn around or stretch your limbs as someone who suffers such great pain should be able to do; and seeing this, they stretched you out and fixed you with nails and you were so stretched that there was no bone left that could still have been disjointed, and your nerves and all your veins were broken. And surely it was no wonder that your veins were broken when you gave birth to the world all in one day. (World Transformed, p. 104)

First, given that this piety is around the same time as the Ebstorf Map, this lends weight to Deam’s interpretation.

Second, this is, I think, totally acceptable, along the same lines as ‘Jesus is my boyfriend’ (that is, keep it to yourself; don’t add it to the liturgy). It is a pious meditation upon the salvific event of the crucifixion of our Lord and Saviour. And it is a realisation that his death brings life. His agony allows me to breathe. The cross, as the ultimate kairos, is an event with trans-temporal significance, backwards to Abraham and Adam, forwards to Judgement Day. The true life of the world is brought forth in the cross.

The theology expressed in what, for us, is entirely novel, is also entirely in keeping with the theology of St Irenaeus of Lyons or St Ephraim the Syrian.

Deam also points out that has nothing to do with the historical gender of the real Jesus. God the Word Incarnate may have had two natures, but he had only one sex. Jesus was a man. This has more to do with seeing His role in our lives and in salvation history in a light we’re not used to.

The argument leading up to Marguerite is also of interest, reminding us of the various biblical passages where God and Jesus are discussed with maternal imagery. Jesus even uses it of himself, after all! I, however, am one of those people who are quick to say that a metaphor or image doesn’t have anything to do divine names or attributes, but points beyond itself to the divine Person in some other aspect of His Person(s). God the mother is about the oikonomia of God the Father acting in our personal and world salvation history, not about renaming the First Person of the Trinity.

God as Father fulfils all the functions of fathers and mothers perfectly. But God is not named Mother in Scripture; therefore, I refuse to use feminine pronouns for God and I refuse to call God ‘Mother’.

However, I am not sold on the reading of Acts 2:24 provided on page 101.

God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it. (ESV)

ὃν ὁ θεὸς ἀνέστησεν λύσας τὰς ὠδῖνας τοῦ θανάτου, καθότι οὐκ ἦν δυνατὸν κρατεῖσθαι αὐτὸν ὑπ’ αὐτοῦ

The word for ‘pangs’ here is τὰς ὠδῖνας. Following Margaret Hammer, Deam renders it ‘birth pangs’, because this is exactly what the word means in Greek. If you check your big, fat Greek dictionary, this is what you’ll find under ὠδίς. It can, however, be used metaphorically, in which case St Peter is not necessarily saying that Jesus was giving birth to the world. In fact, the ὠδῖνας under discussion are not necessarily those that Jesus went through, in the first place. They are what Jesus has loosed, has set free by his death (λύσας from λύω).

Thus, it is our ‘birth pangs’ that Jesus has loosed, not ours.

But I don’t think that St Peter said τὰς ὠδῖνας in the first place, because he would have been preaching in Aramaic, right? If you read the entry for ὠδίς in Liddel & Scott to the end, you’ll find citation of the word in the plural to mean ‘bonds’:

ὠδῖνες θανάτου, ᾄδου, the bonds of death, LXX 2 Ki.22.6Ps.17(18).56 (due to confusion of Heb. [hudot ]ēbel ‘pang’ with [hudot ]ěbel ‘cord’), cf. Act.Ap.2.24.

The ESV, translating Hebrew, gives us this as 2 Samuel 22:6 (LXX 2 Kingdoms):

the cords of Sheol entangled me;
the snares of death confronted me.

This is the same as Ps. 18:5:

the cords of Sheol entangled me;
    the snares of death confronted me.

The difference between ‘cords of Sheol’ and ‘pangs of Sheol’ is the length of the first vowel in Jebel. You can see how the translators of the Septuagint (the Greek Old Testament, aka LXX) could easily have mistaken the Hebrew, given that Hebrew is written in consonants with little markings to represent vowels. If we imagine that Acts 2:24 is, in fact, parallelling 2 Sam. 22:6/Psalm 18:5, then we see St Peter drawing a scriptural parallel, using scriptural language for the great, powerful, salvific act that is Jesus’ death and resurrection.

It works with both the wider and immediate context.

So, in sum: If you want to imagine Jesus as your spiritual mother, that’s totally legit. It’s a medieval thing. It’s not my style, but whatevs. However, I don’t think Acts 2:24 has anything to do with it.

Philo on Psalm 23

I am reading the chapter on Philo in Andrew Louth’s The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition, so it warmed my heart during devotions with my wife last night to see the Middle Platonist, Alexandrian Jewish exegete in the Mosaic Holy Bible readings for Easter, Week 4 — with the BCP readings, 1 Pet. 2:19-26 and John 10:1-30, and, of course, Psalm 23. I hope you enjoy his words as much as I do. Philo says:

Indeed, so good a thing is shepherding that it is justly ascribed not to kings only and wise men and perfectly cleansed souls but also to God the All-Sovereign. The authority for this ascription is not any ordinary one but a prophet, whom we do well to trust. This is the way in which the Psalmist speaks: “The Lord shepherds me and nothing shall be lacking to me” (Ps. xxiii, 1). It well befits every lover of God to rehearse this Psalm. But for the Universe it is a still more fitting theme. For land and water and air and fire, and all plants and animals which are in these, whether mortal or divine, yea and the sky, and the circuits of sun and moon, and the revolutions and rhythmic movements of the other heavenly bodies, are like some flock under the hand of God its King and Shepherd. This hallowed flock He leads in accordance with right and law, setting over it His true Word and Firstborn Son Who shall take upon Him its government like some viceroy of a great king; for it is said in a certain place: “Behold I AM, I send My Angel before thy face to guard thee in the way” (Exod. xxiii. 20). Let therefore even the whole universe, that greatest and most perfect flock of the God who IS, say, “The Lord shepherds me, and nothing shall fail me.” Let each individual person too utter this same cry, not with the voice that glides forth over tongue and lips, not reaching beyond a short space of air, but with the voice of the understanding that has wide scope and lays hold on the ends of the universe. For it cannot be that there should be any lack of a fitting portion, when God rules, whose wont it is to bestow good in fullness and perfection on all that is.

XIII. Magnificent is the call to holiness sounded by the psalm just quoted; for the man is poor and incomplete in very deed, who, while seeming to have all things else, chafes at the sovereignty of One; whereas the soul that is shepherded of God, having the one and only thing on which all depend, is naturally exempt from want of other things, for it worships no blind wealth, but a wealth that sees and that with vision surpassingly keen.-De Agricultura or ‘On Husbandry’ 50-54, Loeb translation by F.H. Colson and G.H. Whitaker

Boethius on divinity and happiness

Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy 3.10:

Since it is through the possession of happiness that people become happy, and since happiness is in fact divinity, it is clear that it is through the possession of divinity that they become happy. But by the same logic as men become just through the possession of justice, or wise through the possession of wisdom, so those who possess divinity necessarily become divine. Each happy individual is therefore divine. While only God is so by nature, as many as you like may become so by participation. (Trans. V.E. Watts)

Boethius (or, rather, Philosophy) goes on to argue that happinessgoodness, so you are not truly happy unless you are truly good. This is part of the argument that only God, the Supreme Good, is ultimately happy. That’s a necessary piece of context. (For more context, read my review.) It’s important, because if committing murder or lying to people or stealing make you have feelings you call ‘happy’, this does not mean you are participating in divinity. In fact, according to Boethius, you wouldn’t be happy at all because evil is itself a tendency towards non-existence.

Upon reading this passage, those of us who spend time with the Eastern Orthodox will immediately cry aloud, ‘Ah, theosis!’ And, indeed, it is part of what is going on here, part of the passage from praktike to theoria symbolised by Philosophy’s gown as she stands before the senator in his prison cell. Of these latter two words, theoria is usually Englished as contemplation. So we are back in our sixth-century contemplative context, a few decades before Gregory the Great and Augustine of Canterbury.

This, I would argue, is the philosophical basis of Christian mysticism. God is good. To be truly happy, one must be good. God is wholly good, so he is perfectly happy. Therefore, for us to become happy, we have to connect with God and have communion with Him.

New Testament Canticles

I recently wrote three pieces on the New Testament Canticles over at the blog my brother and I share. These are the Benedictus (song of Zacharias at the birth of John the Baptist), Magnificat (song of Mary), and Nunc Dimittis (song of Simeon upon encountering the Christ Child) — all known by their first word or two in Latin. All sung/recited during the daily office. All in the Gospel of Luke.

The reflections are devotional exercises considering the content of the canticles and their historical context. I hope they are a blessing to you:

New Testament Canticles 1: Benedictus

New Testament Canticles 2: Magnificat

New Testament Canticles 3: Nunc Dimittis

Adventus

Two days ago Advent began. Many ministers will have noted from their pulpits that the English word Advent comes from the Latin aduentus, which means ‘arrival’. Although my minister did not do this, when he said that the Kingdom of God has come, is coming, and will come, I couldn’t help but write down in my notebook:

ADVENTUS

As soon as I’d written Adventus, I thought about the Emperor in the late Roman world (un-coincidentally, the title of a course I’m teaching this semester) and the Adventus ceremony that surrounded his arrival in a city. This event was known well enough that it is used analogically by St Athanasius in On the Incarnation of the Word (as observed by S. MacCormack, Art and Ceremony in Late Antiquity), one of this season’s popular Patristic texts:

And like as when a great king has entered into some large city and taken up his abode in one of the houses there, such city is at all events held worthy of high honour, nor does any enemy or bandit any longer descend upon it and subject it; but, on the contrary, it is thought entitled to all care, because of the king’s having taken up his residence in a single house there: so, too, has it been with the Monarch of all. 4. For now that He has come to our realm, and taken up his abode in one body among His peers, henceforth the whole conspiracy of the enemy against mankind is checked, and the corruption of death which before was prevailing against them is done away. For the race of men had gone to ruin, had not the Lord and Saviour of all, the Son of God, come among us to meet the end of death. (Ch. 2, 9)

The imperial Adventus was a big deal, and people knew what to do when the emperor came to town. It was the sort of event that people would remember for years, and use as a peg to mark other events. It was especially important in Rome, the imperial city, the mother of Empire. There, after arriving, he would meet the Senate, give a speech to the crowd, distribute largesse. He would also hear speeches. The speechmaking was a way to negotiate the emperor’s relationship with the City (or a city) and its leading men. He would then spend some time sightseeing, and move into his quarters on the Palatine.

One of the most documented Adventus ceremonies was that of Constantius II (son of Constantine, r. 337-361) in 357. Here’s a meaty passage from the historian Ammianus Marcellinus:

1. While these events were so being arranged in the Orient and in Gaul as circumstances demanded, Constantius, as if the temple of Janus had been closed and all his enemies overthrown, was eager to visit Rome and, after the death of Magnentius to celebrate without a title a triumph over Roman blood. …

4. So soon, then, to pass over what was dispursed in preparation, <on 28th April> in the second Prefecture of Orfitus he passed through Ocriculi, elated with his great honours and escorted by formidable troops; he was conducted as if in battle array and everyone’s eyes were riveted upon him with fixed gaze. 5. And when he was nearing the city, as he beheld with calm countenance the dutiful attendance of the senate and the august likenesses of their patrician ancestry, he thought, not like Cineas, the famous envoy of Pyrrhus, that a throng of kings was assembled together, but that the sanctuary of the whole world was present before him. 6. And when he turned from them to the populace, he was amazed to see in what crowds men of every type had flocked from all quarters to Rome. And as if he were planning to overawe the Euphrates or the Rhine with a show of arms, while the standards preceded him on each side, he himself sat alone upon a golden chariot in the resplendent blaze of shimmering precious stones, whose mingled glitter seemed to form a sort of shifting light. 7. And behind the manifold others that preceded him he was surrounded by dragons, woven out of purple thread and bound to the golden and jewelled tops of spears, with wide mouths open to the breeze and hence hissing as if roused by anger, and leaving their tails winding in the wind. 8. And there marched on either side twin lines of infantrymen with shields and crests gleaming with glittering rays, clad in shining mail; and scattered among them were the full-armoured cavalry (whom they call clibanarii), all masked, furnished with protecting breastplates and girt with iron belts, so that you might have supposed them statues polished by the hand of Praxiteles, not men. Thin circles of iron plates, fitted to the curves of their bodies, completely covered their limbs; so that whichever way they had to move their limbs, their garment fitted, so skilfully were the joinings made.

5. Accordingly, being saluted as Augustus with favouring shouts, while hills and shores thundered out the roar, he never stirred, but showed himself as calm and imperturbable as he was commonly seen in his provinces. 10. For he both stooped low when passing through lofty gates, and as if his neck were in a vice, he kept the gaze of his eyes straight ahead, and turned his face neither to right nor to left, but, like a figurine of a man, neither did he nod when the wheel jolted nor was he ever seen to spit, or to wipe or rub his face or nose, or move his hands about. 11. And although this was affectation on his part, yet these and various other features of his more intimate life were tokens of no slight endurance, granted to him alone, as was given to be understood. 12. Furthermore, that during the entire period of his reign he neither took up anyone to sit beside him in his chariot, nor admitted any private person to be his colleague in the insignia of the consulship, as other anointed princes did, and many like habits which in his pride of lofty conceit he observed as though they were most just laws, I pass by, remembering that I set them down when they occurred.

6. So then he entered Rome, the home of empire and of all virtues (imperii uirtutumque omnium larem), and when he had come to the Rostra, the most renowned forum of ancient dominion, he stood amazed; and on every side on which his eyes rested he was dazzled by the array of marvellous sights. He addressed the nobles in the senate-house and the populace from the tribunal, and being welcomed to the palace with manifold attentions, he enjoyed a longed-for pleasure; and on several occasions, when holding equestrian games, he took delight in the sallies of the commons, who were neither presumptuous nor heedless of their old-time freedom, while he himself also respectfully observed the due mean. 14. For he did not (as in the case of other cities) permit the contests to be terminated at his own discretion but left them (as the custom is) to various chances. Then, as he surveyed the sections of the city and its suburbs, lying within the summits of the seven hills, along their slopes, or on level ground, he thought that whatever first met his gaze towered above all the rest: the sanctuaries of Tarpeian Jove so far surpassing as things divine excel those of earth; the baths built up to the measure of provinces; the huge bulk of the amphitheatre, strengthened by its framework of Tiburtine stone, to whose top human eyesight barely ascends; the Pantheon like a rounded city-district, vaulted over in lofty beauty; and the exalted peaks which rise with platforms which can be climbed, bearing the likenesses of former emperors; the temple of the City, the Forum of Peace, the theatre of Pompey, the Odeum, the Stadium and amongst these the other glories of the eternal city.

15. But when he came to the Forum of Trajan, a construction unique under the heavens, as we believe, and admirable even in the unanimous opinion of the Gods, he stood fast in amazement, turning his attention to the gigantic complex about him, beggaring description and never again to be attempted by mortal men. Therefore abandoning all hope of attempting anything like it, he said that he would and could copy Trajan’s steed alone, which stands in the middle of the vestibule carrying the emperor himself. 16. To this prince Hormisdas, who was standing near him, and whose departure from Persia I have described above, replied with native wit: ‘First, Sire,’ said he, ‘command a similar stable to be built, if you can; let the steed which you propose to create range as widely as this which we see.’ When Hormisdas was asked directly what he thought of Rome, he said that he took comfort in this fact alone, that he had learned that even there men were mortal. 17. So then, when the emperor had viewed many objects with awe and amazement, he complained of Fame as either incapable or spiteful, because while always exaggerating everything, in describing what there is in Rome, she becomes shabby. And after long deliberation what he should do there, he determined to add to the adornments of the city by erecting in the Circus Maximus an obelisk, the provenance and figure of which I shall describe in the proper place. (Res Gestae 16.10, tr. J.C. Rolfe, lightly adapted by G. Kelly)

This blog has now run on too long! So I won’t give you my commentary on the above. However, here’s an image of the gem-encrusted Emperor Constantius II in his glory:

Constantius in the Chronograph of 354
Constantius in the Chronograph of 354

And another image of him in the Missorium of Kerch:

Missorium of Kerch
Missorium of Kerch

It is, of course, a contrast to the Nativity of Christ. ‘Once in royal David’s city / stood a lowly cattle shed / where a mother laid her baby / in a manger for his bed’; and, further, ‘with the poor and weak and lowly / lived on earth our Saviour holy’. However, he did have the chorus of the heavenly army, as Constantius had his earthly army in glittering array.

However, as my minister said on Sunday, the Kingdom of God has come, is coming, and will come. In Advent we look not only back to that first Adventus but also ahead to the second:

And I saw heaven opened, and behold a white horse; and he that sat upon him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he doth judge and make war. 12 His eyes were as a flame of fire, and on his head were many crowns; and he had a name written, that no man knew, but he himself. 13 And he was clothed with a vesture dipped in blood: and his name is called The Word of God. 14 And the armies which were in heaven followed him upon white horses, clothed in fine linen, white and clean. 15 And out of his mouth goeth a sharp sword, that with it he should smite the nations: and he shall rule them with a rod of iron: and he treadeth the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God.

16 And he hath on his vesture and on his thigh a name written, KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS.

17 And I saw an angel standing in the sun; and he cried with a loud voice, saying to all the fowls that fly in the midst of heaven, Come and gather yourselves together unto the supper of the great God; 18 That ye may eat the flesh of kings, and the flesh of captains, and the flesh of mighty men, and the flesh of horses, and of them that sit on them, and the flesh of all men, both free and bond, both small and great.

19 And I saw the beast, and the kings of the earth, and their armies, gathered together to make war against him that sat on the horse, and against his army. 20 And the beast was taken, and with him the false prophet that wrought miracles before him, with which he deceived them that had received the mark of the beast, and them that worshipped his image. These both were cast alive into a lake of fire burning with brimstone. 21 And the remnant were slain with the sword of him that sat upon the horse, which sword proceeded out of his mouth: and all the fowls were filled with their flesh. (Rev. 19:11-21 KJV)

Not the happiest image Christianity has to offer — but what it does remind us is that justice will be served. And, as Miroslav Volf argues in Exclusion and Embrace, Revelation’s Rider on the White Horse means that we do not need to execute judgement here, for judgement will be rendered in the fulfillment of all things, by the returning King. Just a few Late Antique thoughts as we begin this Advent(us) season.