My latest offering on YouTube is about Arthurian literature and how it represents an embrace of narrative fiction by Christians, with a discussion of symbol and a sacramental worldview that includes a digression about The Lord of the Rings.
Today is Corpus Christi. Because Baden-Würrtemberg is fairly balanced between Protestants and Roman Catholics, it’s a holiday here. So for the first time I’m aware of this feast and not by accident.
A few weeks ago, when the upcoming holidays were under discussion, someone asked what Corpus Christi is. I said that it celebrates the Body of Christ.
I was asked, ‘Yes, but what does it celebrate?’
I said, ‘The Body of Christ. The Eucharist.’
‘That’s what it celebrates.’
‘Yes, it’s a special feast just for the Eucharist, and Thomas Aquinas wrote a liturgy and a number of hymns for it. They had just come out of a time of debate about what the Eucharist is, and this feast was a way of celebrating the church’s official line. Although I wouldn’t go as far as a Roman Catholic about how it’s the Body of Christ, but that’s what Corpus Christi celebrates.’
‘I guess you would be the one to know!’
‘I guess so.’
Somehow, I remember my interlocutor asking about three times, ‘What does it celebrate?’ and me stubbornly say, ‘The Body of Christ,’ but I wonder if I’m remembering falsely, because that sounds dumb.
Anyway, it’s Corpus Christi, the feast of the Body of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, flesh historically broken on a Cross and mystically broken in bread.
A worthy celebration, whether you believe in Transubstantiation like the Roman church or in consubstantiation, or are defiant against saying more than, ‘Is means is,’ or believe that we eat it only after a heavenly and spiritual manner (Article of Religion XXVIII), or believe it is only a symbol — the celebration is worthy.
Why should we celebrate the Body of Christ? Why rejoice and commemorate the Eucharist? Because it is one of the two sacraments ordained of Christ during his lifetime on Earth, and the word sacrament signifies thus:
I mean an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace given unto us, ordained by Christ himself, as a means whereby we receive the same, and a pledge to assure us thereof. (Catechism, 1662 BCP)
Unlike baptism, this is a way we can repeatedly join with Christ in an outward and visible way, receiving his inward, invisible grace. We are psychosomatic unities; sacraments are how God uses our bodies to touch our spirits. And, if the Prayer of Humble Access from the BCP has anything to say about it, he can also touch our bodies:
… that our bodies may be made clean by his Body, and our souls washed through his most precious Blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him and he in us.
It is commended to us by Scripture, by both Jesus and St. Paul, and is repeatedly commended to us by the Fathers, mediaeval saints, magisterial Reformers, and more. John Wesley believed that weekly communion was important, and every day during certain feast periods of the church.
So be happy about the Body of Christ today!
I leave you with two things, then, this Corpus Christi. One is ‘Panis Angelicus’, one of Aquinas’ hymns for the feast, as sung by Pavarotti. The other is a quote from J. R. R. Tolkien, a devout Catholic:
Out of the darkness of my life, so much frustrated, I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament … There you will find romance, glory, honour, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves upon earth. –The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien
Having given you two Apostles, a martyr, an early mediaeval Celt, and an Eastern Father, I felt that it was time to give you a Protestant. My favourites are Thomas Cranmer, John Wesley (I think), and C.S. Lewis. The first two have feasts in the BCP calendar, so I’ve chosen the last for this week.
Dr. Lewis has been much discussed, of course, both in Christian circles and in literary ones. What can I say that will help you see him better or read him more? Very little, I imagine.
In grade 10, I wrote an essay about C.S. Lewis as my hero. I’m not going to reproduce that entity, but here are some reasons why C.S. Lewis is one of my favourite Protestants:
There is something to be loved in a non-Classicist (or anyone, really) who has read St. Athanasius’ De Incarnatione in Greek and proclaimed it, “As readable as Xenophon.” (See his “Introduction” to the same). Lewis was a scholar who knew lots of stuff. In fact, he was a scholar of Mediaeval and Renaissance English literature (hence his works The Allegory of Love and A Preface to Paradise Lost). Nevertheless, he had skills and knowledge beyond his own field. He knew Latin and Greek, and Italian (I think). He read more than simply Mediaeval and Renaissance English literature and the scholarship surrounding it. And when he read theology, he didn’t limit himself to the outpourings of the 19th and 20th centuries or even to his own language.
He had a deep respect for the ancient.
He knew reason and logic, as seen in his analysis of the rationality of miracles and the supernatural in Miracles or in his lucid explanations of Christianity in Mere Christianity. He had been an atheist, but at some point (1930?), due to his long, reasoned conversations with friends (such as Dr. J.R.R. Tolkien) became a Christian — reluctantly, for Galilean fishermen hold little allure for men steeped in the glories of mediaeval literature. Once convinced of the reality of the Christian Gospel, he gave himself over to it and its defence (see the essays in God in the Dock).
He knew the poetic. He wrote poetry, some of it even in Greek metres. He wrote the flashingly brilliant prose of his Space (or Cosmic) Trilogy, as in the vision of the Divine in Perelandra. Indeed, here we see also that, although he was acquainted with reason and logic, he did not limit himself to these two modes of operation. He took in the poetic and likely even the mystical and seemed to revel in it.
If we return to him as a scholar, the fact that he wrote books about his discipline (others not mentioned being Studies in Words, An Experiment in Criticism, The Discarded Image) and loved it did not prevent him from writing about matters theological (as in Fern-Seed and Elephants, The Abolition of Man) nor from writing more literature for others to read (The Chronicles of Narnia, the Cosmic Trilogy, Till We Have Faces) and creatures in between theology and “literature” (The Screwtape Letters, The Great Divorce).
That last paragraph reflects the sort of scholar I want to be.
Also, he saw why to avoid Prayer Book revision — we are too divided theologically and have no one with the brilliant synthesising mind of Thomas Cranmer (Prayer: Letters to Malcolm). This last point is one that rings clearly to me as an Anglican living on the other side of the liturgical “renewal” of the sixties and seventies.
How could I not admire this prolific writer and Christian man? If there were more C.S. Lewises, the world would be a brighter place.
From AD 381 to some point in the Renaissance or Enlightenment, the Western world was ostensibly Christian. And as the pagans were converted, the only non-Christians left were Jews. The Jewish holy book forms the bulk of the Christian holy book, and the Christian holy book was the foundational text for Western culture. Knowing the Bible, then, means knowing your own culture better and being better equipped to understand the thought-patterns of those who come before you. And their allusions. And what exactly is going on in their art. And, understanding your heritage and culture, you can begin to fulfil the Delphic Oracle’s command: ΓΝΩΘΙ ΣΑΥΤΟΝ· KNOW THYSELF. We shall begin with literature.
The PG Wodehouse post demonstrates the first unspiritual reason to read the Bible: the biblically illiterate simply will not enjoy literature as much. Byron’s “The Destruction of Sennacherib” means less to those who don’t know the Bible. CS Lewis’ The Last Battle loses much meaning without the book of Revelation. There is other literature directly inspired or based upon the Bible: Paradise Lost by John Milton, Ben-Hur by Lew Wallace, Many Waters by Madeleine L’Engle, The Red Tent by Anita Diamant, to name a few. Knowing the Biblical story and how it unfolds adds a deeper layer of meaning as you read literature that plays off it. The intensity of Many Waters was deep for me, as I knew how the story worked out in the Bible — so how would the twists of this plot dovetail with the Bible? And I saw characters whom I knew from Genesis characterised and enfleshed by L’Engle. My familiarity with Genesis increased my enjoyment of the novel.
Other literature is explicitly Christian, even if not directly inspired by the Bible, and an understanding of the Bible will help understand it. This is the case with Helena by Evelyn Waugh, The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, and Godric by Frederick Buechner. Some literature by Christians is not explicitly Christian; nonetheless, an understanding of the Bible still helps you understand the literature. We see this in The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, and Father Brown stories by GK Chesterton (although these are at times quite explicitly Christian).
How do you expect to delve into the depths of the riches of John Donne, Gerard Manley Hopkins, George Herbert, Edmund Spenser, TS Eliot, Prudentius, et al., if you have not investigated the Book that is the foundation of their hearts, minds, souls — yea, their very lives! Take “Prayer (I)” by Herbert (chosen at random from a selection of Herbert’s poems). Ideas/allusions that, from my vantage point, clearly originate from Scripture: “Gods breath in man returning to his birth,” “Christ-side-piercing spear,” “The six-daies world-transposing in an houre,” “Exalted Manna”. Four in three stanzas, and one could argue for a biblical theology surrounding the rest of the poem. If you seek to woo a poet, get to know his or her holy book and worldview.
Not that this use of the Bible is restricted only to Christian writers. The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, an atheist, displays a notable intimacy with the Bible, including controversy surrounding interpretations of some of Jesus’ sayings. The very deaths that propel the plot are fixed around the book of Revelation as a core, and many biblical ideas flow in and out of the conversations had by the monks through the course of the book. His novel Foucault’s Pendulum also shows a knowledge of the Bible.
Now I must sleep. My message is: Cure your biblical illiteracy! Read the Bible! It can only do you good.