C. S. Lewis: “A Christmas Sermon for Pagans”

In December of 1946, Strand Magazine published “A Christmas Sermon for Pagans” by C. S. Lewis. Anyone who has read Lewis extensively will recognize many of the themes within this short essay, primarily that the journey to Christianity for a post-Christian may quite possibly include a short passage through paganism (paganism as it really is, not as we sometimes foolishly imagine it). From the essay: “If the modern post-Christian view is wrong—and every day I find it harder to think it right—then there are three kinds of people in the world. (1) Those who are sick and don’t know it (the post-Christians). (2) Those who are sick and know it (Pagans). (3) Those who have found the cure. And if you start in the first class you must go through the second to reach the third. For (in a sense) all that Christianity adds to Paganism is the cure. It confirms the old belief that in this universe we are up against Living Power: that there is a real Right and that we have failed to obey it: that existence is beautiful and terrifying. It adds a wonder of which Paganism had not distinctly heard—that the Mighty One has come down to help us, to remove our guilt, to reconcile us”

To date, this piece has not been included in any published collection of Lewis essays. It was only discovered several years ago. I have a copy and thought all Lewisians would enjoy seeing the essay and reading a transcription (included below).

Merry Christmas to all. Thanks be to God that because of King Jesus, we need never lament that it is always winter and never Christmas. Rather, it is always Christmas, always Immanuel, always God-with-us, no matter what the weather.

“A Christmas Sermon for Pagans” by C. S. Lewis

Strand magazine, Vol. 112, Issue 672, December 1946 

Writing religion for sceptics has made C. S. Lewis a best-seller. His books on Christianity—chief among them “The Screwtape Letters”—sell better, and read more easily, than most crime stories. This sermon is a characteristic piece of writing by the Oxford don who has become the most entertaining missionary of our time.

//

When I was asked to write a Christmas sermon for Pagans I accepted the job lightheartedly enough: but now that I sit down to tackle it I discover a difficulty. Are there any Pagans in England for me to write to?

I know that people keep on telling us that this country is relapsing into Paganism. But they only mean it is ceasing to be Christian. And is that at all the same thing? Let us remember what a Pagan or Heathen (I use the words interchangeably) really was.

A “Heathen” meant a man who lived out on the heath, out in the wilds. A “Pagan” meant a man who lived in a Pagus or small village. Both words, in fact, meant a “rustic” or “yokel.” They date from the time when the larger towns of the Roman Empire were already Christianised, but the old Nature religions still lingered in the country. Pagans or Heathens were the backward people in the remote districts who had not yet been converted, who were still pre-Christian.

To say that modern people who have drifted away from Christianity are Pagans is to suggest that a post-Christian man is the same as a pre-Christian man. And that is like thinking that a woman who has lost her husband is the same sort of person as an unmarried girl: or that a street where the houses have been knocked down is the same as a field where no house has yet been built. The ruined street and the unbuilt field are alike in one respect: namely that neither will keep you dry if it rains. But they are different in every other respect. Rubble, dust, broken bottles, old bedsteads and stray cats are very different from grass, thyme, clover, buttercups and a lark singing overhead.

Now the real Pagan differed from the post-Christian in the following ways. Firstly, he was religious. From the Christian point of view he was indeed too religious by half. He was full of reverence. To him the earth was holy, the woods and waters were alive. His agriculture was a ritual as well as a technique. And secondly, he believed in what we now call an “Objective” Right or Wrong. That is, he thought the distinction between pious and impious acts was something which existed independently of human opinions: something like the multiplication table which Man had not invented but had found to be true and which (like the multiplication table) he had better take notice of. The gods would punish him if he did not.

To be sure, by Christian standards, his list of “Right” or “Wrong” acts was rather a muddled one. He thought (and the Christians agreed) that the gods would punish him for setting the dogs on a beggar who came to his door or for striking his father: but he also thought they would punish him for turning his face to the wrong point of the compass when he began ploughing. But though his code included some fantastic sins and duties, it got in most of the real ones.

And this leads us to the third great difference between a Pagan and a post-Christian man. Believing in a real Right and Wrong means finding out that you are not very good. The Pagan code may have been on some points a low one: but it was too high for the Pagan to live up to. Hence a Pagan, though in many ways merrier than a modern, had a deep sadness. When he asked himself what was wrong with the world he did not immediately reply, “the social system,” or “our allies,” or “education.” It occurred to him that he himself might be one of the things that was wrong with the world. He knew he had sinned. And the terrible thing was that he thought the gods made no difference between voluntary and involuntary sins. You might get into their bad books by mere accident, and once in, it was very hard to get out of them. And the Pagan dealt with this situation in a rather silly way. His religion was a mass of ceremonies (sacrifices, purifications, etc.) which were supposed to take away guilt. But they never quite succeeded. His conscience was not at ease.

Now the post-Christian view which is gradually coming into existence—it is complete already in some people and still incomplete in others—is quite different. According to it Nature is not a live thing to be reverenced: it is a kind of machine for us to exploit. There is no objective Right or Wrong: each race or class can invent its own code or “ideology” just as it pleases. And whatever may be amiss with the world, it is certainly not we, not the ordinary people; it is up to God (if, after all, He should happen to exist), or to Government or to Education, to give us what we want. They are the shop, we are the customers: and “the customer is always right.”

Now if the post-Christian view is the correct one, then we have indeed waked from a nightmare. The old fear, the old reverence, the old restraints—how delightful to have waked up into freedom, to be responsible to no one, to be utterly and absolutely our own masters! We have, of course, lost some fun. A universe of colourless electrons (which is presently going to run down and annihilate all organic life everywhere and forever) is, perhaps, a little dreary compared with the earth-mother and the sky-father, the wood nymphs and the water nymphs, chaste Diana riding the night sky and homely Vesta flickering on the hearth. But one can’t have everything, and there are always the flicks and the radio: if the new view is correct, it has very solid advantages. 

But is it? And if so, why are things not going better? What do you make of the present threat of world famine? We know now that it is not entirely due to the war. From country after country comes the same story of failing harvests: even the whales have less oil. Can it be that Nature (or something behind Nature) is not simply a machine that we can do what we like with?—that she is hitting back?

Waive that point. Suppose she is only a machine and that we are free to master her at our pleasure. Have you not begun to see that Man’s conquest of Nature is really Man’s conquest of Man? That every power wrested from Nature is used by some men over other men? Men are the victims, not the conquerors in this struggle: each new victory “over Nature” yields new means of propaganda to enslave them, new weapons to kill them, new power for the State and new weakness for the citizen, new contraceptives to keep men from being born at all.

As for the ideologies, the new invented Wrongs and Rights, does no one see the catch? If there is no real Wrong and Right, nothing good or bad in itself, none of these ideologies can be better or worse than another. For a better moral code can only mean one which comes nearer to some real or absolute code. One map of New York can be better than another only if there is a real New York for it to be truer to. If there is no objective standard, then our choice between one ideology and another becomes a matter of arbitrary taste. Our battle for democratic ideals against Nazi ideals has been a waste of time, because the one is no better than the other. Nor can there ever be any real improvement or deterioration: if there is no real goal you can’t get either nearer to it or farther from it. In fact, there is no real reason for doing anything at all.

It looks to me, neighbours, as though we shall have to set about becoming true Pagans if only as a preliminary to becoming Christians. I don’t mean that we should begin leaving little bits of bread under the tree at the end of the garden as an offering to the Dryad. I don’t mean that we should dance to Dionysus across Hampstead Heath (though perhaps a little more solemn or ecstatic gaiety and a little less commercialised “amusement” might make our holidays better than they now are). I don’t even mean (though I do very much wish) that we should recover that sympathy with nature, that religious attitude to the family, and that appetite for beauty which the better Pagans had. Perhaps what I do mean is best put like this.

If the modern post-Christian view is wrong—and every day I find it harder to think it right—then there are three kinds of people in the world. (1) Those who are sick and don’t know it (the post-Christians). (2) Those who are sick and know it (Pagans). (3) Those who have found the cure. And if you start in the first class you must go through the second to reach the third. For (in a sense) all that Christianity adds to Paganism is the cure. It confirms the old belief that in this universe we are up against Living Power: that there is a real Right and that we have failed to obey it: that existence is beautiful and terrifying. It adds a wonder of which Paganism had not distinctly heard—that the Mighty One has come down to help us, to remove our guilt, to reconcile us.

All of the world (even in Japan, even in Russia) men and women will meet on December 25th to do what is a very old-fashioned and, if you like, a very Pagan thing—to sing and feast because a God has been born. You are uncertain whether it is more than a myth. Well if it is, then our last hope is gone. But is the opposite explanation not worth trying?

Who knows but that here, and here alone, lies your way back not only to Heaven, but to Earth too, and to the great human family whose oldest hopes are confirmed by this story that does not die?

//

The First Night of Christmas (signs of humble with-ness)

‘Tis the first night of Christmas. The heavens proclaim:

  • Emmanuel.
  • God with us.
  • Deity made flesh.
  • Lord sent to earth.
  • Christ the Savior is born.

This story of Jesus’ birth (and all it portends) is foolish in all worldly ways. Collective humanity is far more wont to desire:

  • Myself.
  • Us as God.
  • Flesh made divine.
  • Earth bereft of Lordship.
  • Death of saving doctrines.

This list of worldly desires (and all it portends) is a fools’ game, leading to nothing but empty souls full of self.

Surely the arrival of humanity’s Savior indicates this, at the very least: humanity is in desperate need of saving.

Surely the Savior of humanity deserves this at his arrival, at the very least: a crown, a robe, a throne. These are signs worthy of God made flesh, Christ the Savior, Lord of all, Creator of heaven and earth.

As so often happens in the Real Story, things do not progress as one might expect, for the actual signs of Christ’s arrival are shockingly unspectacular and superlatively unpowerful.

And you will recognize him by this sign: You will find a baby wrapped snugly in strips of cloth, lying in a manger.

No crown. No robe. No throne. Not a single thing that speaks of royalty or divinity in even the smallest degree.

Sign One: “You will find.”

The finding itself is a sign, for without a specific roadmap or address, how is one to find the Savior of the world, especially a Savior who on the first night of his life was hidden among the vast masses of lowly ordinary folk? Simply by looking. “Let us go and seethis thing which the Lord has told us about.” It really is that simple.

Sign Two: “A baby, wrapped snugly in strips of cloth, lying in a manger.”

A baby. A baby.

This is the sign of Christ’s arrival? This is the proclaimed Savior and Lord of all? This is God among us?

“Sign” (sēmeion – σημειον) means this:

a mark, a token, by which a person or a thing is distinguished from others and is known; transcending the common course of nature.

The grown Jesus was often asked for miraculous signs that would prove his identity, that would distinguish him from others, that would transcend the common course of nature. As a general rule, he refused such requests. He knew that signs, spectacular as they may be, can be misused and finicky things.

Still, the grown Jesus, at the most inopportune and unexpected times, displayed sign after sign after sign – most often to the benefit of the vast lowly masses among whom he was born rather than for the morbid curiosity of those who would deny and disown him.

But the newborn Jesus did not display any signs that would qualify as signs, per se. There was no crown. There was no robe. There was no throne. There was no blinking neon sign splattering the peaceful night with its urgent message: MESSIAH ON TAP! OPEN!

The signs, rather than distinguishing Jesus from others, identified him with others. He arrived as a helpless babe, just as we all do.

The signs, rather than proclaiming Jesus as one who transcends the common course of nature, identified him as one who descends to the common course of nature. Humanity. Suffering. Rejection. Death.

If you expect God to give you a sign that Christ IS, perhaps you must do as the shepherds did:

Go and look for this thing that has happened, this Person who has arrived.

Look in the least likely of places, where worldly power is absent and heavenly humility reigns.

The shepherds hurried to the village and found it … the baby, lying in the manger. After seeing him, they told everyone what had happened and what the angel had said about the baby. Then they went back to work, praising and glorifying God.

“Do not dare not to dare.” (In which Lewis did write but did not mean what we probably thought he meant.)

“Do not dare not to dare.”

This favorite Lewis quote shows up all over the worldwidespiderwebthatensnares.

Google search it and you will freely receive almost half-a-billion hits. If you can’t trust that, what can you trust?

But here’s the thing. If you read this quote as a self-standing phrase, you’ll likely get it wrong. By itself, it sounds like, “Whatever it is that you want to do, whatever adventure it is that you want to pursue, whatever big thing it is that is dangling in front of your eyes – perhaps surrounded by crowds and acclaim, fame and fortune – then for goodness sake just go do it. I dare you! I dare you to not do it! Do not dare not to dare! Or some such thing. Indeed

Glory be, this is Lewis at his how-we-like-and-imagine-him finest, encouraging us to be Amazing People Who Do Amazing Things (And Hopefully Probably Get Noticed In The Doing).

Or not.

This real quote is from The Horse and His Boy. The setting: Aravis (human), Shasta (human), Hwin (horse), and Bree (horse) had just recently arrived at the Hermit of the Southern March’s humble dwelling after a long and dangerous journey. Just prior to arriving, Shasta had done both the bravest and most frightening thing of his life. Like his companions, he looked forward to a long rest. But instead, he was immediately sent on another dangerous and difficult quest.

“Shasta’s heart fainted […] for he felt he had no strength left. And he writhed inside at what seemed the cruelty and unfairness of the demand. He had not yet learned that if you do one good deed your reward usually is to be set to do another and harder and better one.”

His new task? To go alone in pursuit of a King he’d never met, who lived in a place he’d never been, travelling through a land he’d never visited, to deliver a message he didn’t understand. And because of the urgent circumstances, he must run. Always run, and never walk. Woohoo. The stuff of fame and fortune.

Meanwhile, back at the Hermit’s habitat, Aravis, Hwin, and Bree rested from their exhausting journey. They began discussing Aslan – primarily who and what he is.

Aravis: Bree, why do you keep swearing By the Lion and By the Lion’s Mane? I thought you hated lions.

Bree: So I do. But when I speak of the Lion of course I mean Aslan, the great deliverer of Narnia who drove away the Witch and the Winter. All Narnions swear by him.

Aravis: But is he a lion?

Bree (in a shocked voice): No, no of course not.

Aravis: All the stories about him in Tashbban say he is. And if he isn’t a lion why do you call him a lion?

Bree (in a rather superior tone with his eyes half shut): Well, you’d hardly understand that at your age.

[And then a lion, the Lion, who is in fact 100% LION, approached from behind so that Aravis and Hwin saw him, but Bree did not.]

Bree (still in a rather superior tone with his eyes half shut): Even a little girl like you, Aravis, must see that it would be quite absurd to suppose he is a real lion. Indeed it would be disrespectful. It he was a lion he’d have to be a Beast just like the rest of us. Why! (and here Bree began to laugh) If he was a lion he’d have four paws, and a tail, and Whiskers!….Aie, ooh, hoo-hoo! Help!

You can guess what had happened. The Lion, the Only Lion, the One True Lion, approached the group, and the Lion’s very real whiskers brushed against Bree’s very real ear, and all of Bree’s puffed up worldly wisdom was shot to pieces as he shot like an arrow to the other side of the enclosure, unable to escape the horror behind him.

Hwin, who’d always been the wisest and bravest of them all, “though shaking all over, gave a strange little neigh and trotted across tO the Lion.”

Hwin: Please, you’re so beautiful. You may eat me if you like. I’d sooner be eaten by you than fed by anyone else.

Aslan (planting a lion’s kiss on her twitching, velvet nose): Dearest daughter. I knew you would not be long in coming to me. Joy shall be yours.

And then Aslan said this – and pay close attention because here comes the Dashing Adventurous Big Amazing quote.

Aslan (in a louder voice): Now, Bree, you poor, proud, frightened Horse, draw near. Nearer still, my son. Do not dare not to dare. Touch me. Smell me. Here are my paws, here is my tail, these are my whiskers. I am a true Beast.

Bree (in a shaken voice): Aslan, I’m afraid I must be rather a fool.

Aslan: Happy the Horse who knows that while he is still young.

Did you catch that? Did you see what Lewis did there? He flipped “do not dare not to dare” on its everloving self-focused big-and-amazing-things head.

Do not dare not to dare:

  • to draw near to Christ
  • to see him as he truly is – the True King incarnate
  • to shed one’s foolish fears
  • to shed one’s foolish pride
  • to cast aside one’s foolish notions that are based on rubbishy blather
  • to deny oneself so that the Creator can refashion you into your true self
  • to be undone by the Lord’s almighty presence
  • to be embraced by the Lord’s patient and faithful love.

There is nothing “me” about this quote. There is nothing particularly “dashing and daring” about this quote.

Mostly, there is repentance, surrender, humility, trust, and obedience.

Which makes it, in fact, quite a stunning truth for all to consider.

Isn’t it interesting how even when we quote Lewis correctly, we are quick to make it mean what we want it to mean? Human nature is so very predictable that way.

“I can’t breathe” (in which I reflect on many things, including death, murder, Pentecost, and the breath of God)

On December 6th, 2019, my mother breathed her final breath.

After four years of living with Stage Four breast cancer, her body betrayed her over the course of four weeks.

During the final four days, her organs shut down one by one. In the last four hours, family arrived to gather around her bedside. In the last four minutes, her lungs methodically continued their appointed task of breathing in-out, in-out, in-out, in-out. In the last four seconds, she breathed in-out a final time, and most assuredly her eternal spirit was wrapped up in the arms of her Lord and joyfully carried into her new home.

Though my mother did not necessarily breathe her last breath on her own terms, she did indeed breathe her last breath of her own volition, surrounded by loved ones, in a safe place, without any outside external constraint – which is how everyone’s final breath most certainly and surely ought to be breathed.

Breath is a grace, freely given by an All Powerful and Loving Creator who in the beginning breathed his own breath into mere dust of the ground, and behold – humanity came alive, made in the image of God to fellowship with him, to work alongside him, to worship and adore him, to be his representative in the earthly realm.

In the beginning, humanity (undeservedly and miraculously) breathed the Spirit of Yahweh, in-out, in-out, in-out, in-out, just as the Lord himself designed.

Until they didn’t.

Much too soon, the created rejected the Creator, vomited up the Spirit, spewed out the Breath, and proudly declared they would breathe only their own spirit, would determine their own fellowship, would work for their own ends, would worship their own desires, and would represent their own image. They said, “We won’t breathe You.” And the Creator’s intended image was shattered.

“We won’t breathe” (spoken to God) sowed seeds of “you won’t breathe” (spoken to a brother, then countless others) which led to “I can’t breathe” (gasped by a brother, then countless others) that have infiltrated and infected every corner of God’s good creation. What started as a single bite of blame and shame (“But it…”, “But he…,” But she..”) quickly seeped into the soil and the souls, growing into poisoned jealousy, jealous hatred, and hate-filled murder.

Humanity’s path was remapped by humanity itself – from loving light and life into defiled darkness and death.

Until it wasn’t.

Much sooner than we deserved, the incarnated True God-Man arrived, born into earth’s air, breathing with human lungs, revealing with shocking clarity the true Image of God. He lived, he loved, he healed, he taught, he preached.

Until he didn’t.

Until he breathed his last breath.

… for all of creation (which against its will was subjected to sin’s curse).

… for all of humanity (which by its own volition is subject to sin’s utter destruction).

Christ breathed his last – so we could be forgiven. (Oh Lord, we need your forgiveness.) [Romans 4:25]

Christ breathed again – so we could be made right with God. (Oh Lord, we need to be reconciled to you.) [Romans 4:25]

Christ breathed his Spirit on his few frightened followers – so they could be comforted and at peace. (Oh Lord, we need your comfort. Oh Lord, we need your peace.) [John 20:19-20]

Christ poured out his Spirit on his many gathered people – so they could be re-created into the image of God, as he had planned from the beginning. (Oh Lord, we need to be recreated into people who both breathe your Spirit and love others … all others.) [Acts 2]

It is Pentecost Sunday. Today we remember and celebrate God’s Spirit-Breath in a world where people too often breathe their last breath from disease, from hatred, from suffering, from murder – all because humanity still vomits up and spews out the Breath of Life.

Oh Lord: heal us.

Oh Lord: forgive us.

Oh Lord: comfort us.

Oh Lord: correct us.

Oh Lord: guide us.

Oh Lord: gather us.

Oh Lord: we need your Breath to fill our souls, to soften our hearts, to shape our thoughts, to heal our relationships, to reconcile your children one to another.

Oh Lord. Oh Lord ….

C. S. Lewis (not) on the Coronavirus

For almost a week, friends have been sending me emails and texts about this blog post (“C. S. Lewis on the Coronavirus”) asking if it is in fact genuinely Lewisian. Are these the words of Clive? The truths of Jack? During this time of COVID19 lockdowns and social distancing, does Lewis really want me to not only pray, read, and listen to music but to also chat with my friends over a pint and a game of darts in the local pub or tavern where presumably there are many other people for whom social distancing is a thing to be eschewed by smart folk who smirk?

They ask me this, I presume, because I get mighty curmudgeonly about the glut of Lewis misquotes in print, digital, and spoken discourse (see here and here and here for starters) as well as the egregiously errant mis-numbering of the Narnian books – but I digress).

In answer to my friends’ questions: Yes. Lewis did write the three paragraphs quoted in the blog post. And thirteen subsequent paragraphs, which are definitely not about the Coronavirus (not even obliquely) and not even about the atomic bomb (primarily). Instead they are about acknowledging and admitting (being “waked” as Lewis put it, which I suppose is akin to being “woke” in this, our superlatively advanced and intellectually brilliant 21st-century)

“that the important question is not whether an atomic bomb is going to obliterate ‘civilization’. The important question is whether ‘Nature’ — the thing studied by the sciences – is the only thing in existence.” (“On Living in an Atomic Age,” Informed Reading, vol. VI [1948], pp 78-84, par. 7)

Lewis wrote this essay in 1948, when the possibility of a civilization-obliterating atomic bomb was a very real thing, and when most Europeans, including Lewis, were living not just under but within and among the realities of a gruesome war that often pounded on their backdoor.

In other words, Lewis wrote this essay under circumstances that were entirely unlike those in most of today’s world, especially America, and were absolutely unlike our current battle (skirmish? combat? struggle?) with covid19.

We have been asked to wash our hands scrupulously. To not stockpile more than we need. To avoid unnecessary travel. To stay home if possible, as much as possible. And for certain to avoid such things such as crowded (or even under-crowded) taverns and pubs where one might be “chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts.” (par. 3)

Certainly do read Lewis’s full essay since true meaning is most assuredly found in full reading. And certainly do take the time to discern if there are relevant ideas and concepts worth pondering (e.g. the limitations of naturalism, the existence of a Creator, the true essence and meaning of life).

But as you read, contextualize wisely. Do not pluck a Lewis quote – even a real one – out of context in order to either satisfy yourself or to be smirkingly provocative (which is not what the referenced blog’s author seemed to be doing, but is certainly what some re-posters are doing).

Lewis played by the rules – whether he was teaching, tutoring, soldiering, rationing, caring for sick and elderly, or quarantining himself during illness. His letters reveal a man who, for all of his worldly renown, did not presume to knock aside the rules or guidelines delivered by those in authority, which isn’t to say he didn’t grumble or grouse about them if he was having a grouchy day or if the occasion warranted.

To those who have read just three paragraphs of Lewis’s 1948 essay addressing the very real fear of atomic annihilation and see within it Lewisian approval to toss aside what may feel like unnecessary and life-squelching limits on certain types of social interaction, I get it. No one likes to be told what to do. And maybe in months or years, the telling will turn out to have been overly reactionary and unnecessary.

But unless the telling defies the laws of decency or requires one to deny Christ, we would all do well to pay attention.

We would also do well to pay attention to Lewis’s underlying and ultimate messages in the essay.

Be sensible: do the necessary daily work (such as bathing babies) as though they matter and have value, which they do.

Be joyful: read books, listen to music, chat with friends as though such things matter to our souls, which they do.

Be thoughtful: consider how the deeper truths of life, the supernatural world, and the Divine inform and intersect with our very existence, which they do.

Be Christlike: sacrifice humbly, love deeply, embrace the here-and-now earthly things that embody this present life, but pursue the now-and-not-yet heavenly things that point towards and reflect the only Real & Lasting Life itself, which they do.

Postscript: And if the current events provide occasion to read (joy!), and if you should choose to read the Chronicles of Narnia (joy, indeed!), then be literarily and Lewisianly orthodox: read them in the order the books themselves propound and the author himself planned:

  1. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
  2. Prince Caspian: The Return to Narnia
  3. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
  4. The Silver Chair
  5. The Horse and His Boy
  6. The Magician’s Nephew
  7. The Last Battle

The Twelve Nights of Christmas (a dozen thoughts about birth, life, love, hope)

Stained glass depicting the Virgin Mary holding baby Jesus
Stained glass depicting the Virgin Mary holding baby Jesus

For those who are not quite ready to move beyond the miracle of Emmanuel …

Night One

Night Two

Night Three

Night Four

Night Five

Night Six

Night Seven

Night Eight

Night Nine

Night Ten

Night Eleven

Night Twelve

First Sunday of Advent, Second Coming of Christ

The First Sunday of Advent has arrived. In congregations all across the universal Church, chosen families will light the first candle in a liturgical wreath. In homes all across the globe, countless families will decorate a fir tree and open the first tiny door of the numerical calendar.

On this day, followers of Christ begin looking forward to his sacred birth – to that holy night when a helpless newborn babe was lain in a manger, God in flesh, wrapped in lowly swaddling clothes.

The season that begins today resonates in all the deepest corners of our soul wherein lie our heartfelt desires for hope, for joy, for peace, for goodwill, and for love.

‘Tis the season. Today it begins. Our spiritual longings quicken and engage. Come, thou long expected Jesus, born to set they people free.

But long ago, the First Sunday of Advent was not so much about awaiting the newborn babe but rather awaiting the returning victorious Christ. The Epistle reading was Romans 13:11-14, which in today’s language reads:

This is all the more urgent, for you know how late it is; time is running out. Wake up, for our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is almost gone; the day of salvation will soon be here. So remove your dark deeds like dirty clothes, and put on the shining armor of right living.Because we belong to the day, we must live decent lives for all to see. Don’t participate in the darkness of wild parties and drunkenness, or in sexual promiscuity and immoral living, or in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, clothe yourself with the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ. And don’t let yourself think about ways to indulge your evil desires.

The gospel reading was Matthew 21:1-11, verses we usually reserve for Palm Sunday:

     As Jesus and the disciples approached Jerusalem, they came to the town of Bethphage on the Mount of Olives. Jesus sent two of them on ahead.  “Go into the village over there,” he said. “As soon as you enter it, you will see a donkey tied there, with its colt beside it. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone asks what you are doing, just say, ‘The Lord needs them,’ and he will immediately let you take them.”
     This took place to fulfill the prophecy that said,
“Tell the people of Jerusalem,
‘Look, your King is coming to you.
He is humble, riding on a donkey—
riding on a donkey’s colt.’”
     The two disciples did as Jesus commanded. They brought the donkey and the colt to him and threw their garments over the colt, and he sat on it.
     Most of the crowd spread their garments on the road ahead of him, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. Jesus was in the center of the procession, and the people all around him were shouting,
“Praise God for the Son of David!
Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Praise God in highest heaven!”
     The entire city of Jerusalem was in an uproar as he entered. “Who is this?” they asked.
     And the crowds replied, “It’s Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.”

The focus of Advent has shifted measurably over the centuries. As best I can remember, I’ve never heard about the second coming of Christ in conjunction with the First Sunday of Advent. How would that even work? In this holy season of tree and feast, candle and creche, glory and gifts (indeed, let us be sure to remember gifts, amen), how would we make sense of Christ’s triumphal return and his final judgment?

And yet, Christ’s first coming (an event that even non-followers and non-believers are often quite ready to celebrate) is intrinsically and necessarily tied to his second coming (an event that even followers and believers are often quite hesitant to consider).

The gentle newborn babe – accessorized with swaddling cloths and radiant stars – fills our hearts. The triumphant Rider on a White Horse – accessorized with blazing eyes and armies of heaven – unsettles our sensibilities.

And yet they are the same. The gentle newborn babe is the returning and reigning Lord.

We celebrate the First Sunday of Advent most truly and sincerely when we are willing both to sing with carolers, “Come, thou long expected Jesus,” and to declare with John of Patmos, “Come Lord Jesus!”

___________________

Anonymous, c. 1538, The pystles and gospels, of every Sonday, and holy daye in the yere (fol. ii recto) [Transcription below.]

Advent 1538 Here Beginneth the Epistles Advent text

The Pystels and Gospels in Englysshe
Here begyn=neth the Pystles & Gospels / of eue=ry Sonday & holy day in the yere.

The Pystell on the fyrst Sonday in Aduent.
The xiii Chapiter to the Romayns.
Brethren we knowe that it is tyme nowe that we awake out of slepe / for nowe is our saluaciō nerer thē we be=leued. The nyght is passed and the daye is come nye / let us therefore cast awaye the dedes of darkens / & let us put on the armour of lyght. Let us walke honestly as it were ī the daye of lyght / nat ī eatyng & drynking / neyther ī chāmbryng & wantōnes / neyther ī stryfe & en=uyeng / but put ye on our lorde Jesus Christ.

The Gospell on the fyrste Sondaye in aduent.
The xxi chapiter of mathewe.
Whē Jesus drewe nye unto Je=rusalē / & came to Betphage unto the mounte Oliuete / thē sēt Jesus two of his disciples / sayeng to thē. Go into the castell that lyeth ouer agaynst you and anone ye shal fynde an Asse boundē / & her Colte with her / lose thē & brynge thē un=to me / & yf any mā say ought unto you / saye ye that your lorde hathe nede of thē: & strayght way he wyll let them go. All this was done to fulfyl that whiche was spokē by the ƥphet / sayeng Tel ye the doughter of Syon beholde they kynge cōmeth unto the meke: & sytting upon an Asse & a Colte / the fole of an Asse used to the yoke. The disciples wente & did as Jes (end of fol. ii recto)

[For those unused to early English orthography, give it a try. It starts to make sense as you work through it.]

Discipleship Resources

Below are new Young Life discipleship resources that can help both church and parachurch ministry leaders 1) focus and synthesize a discipleship framework, 2) generate conversations about discipleship and discipling, 3) self-reflect on their own life of discipleship, 4) envision ongoing spiritual growth in those they are discipling.

01_Deeper One Page Vertical 2.0
One-page summary of definitions, descriptions, and values.

02_Rooted in Christ 2.0
Visual metaphor of a disciple’s life.

03_Discipleship Garden and 04_Come and Go
Tools for ‘mapping’ the spiritual life and growth of those in their ministry.

05_Personal Discipleship Plan 2.0 and 06_Area Discipleship Plan
Tools for both personal and ministry discipleship goals and reflection.

00_Discipleship Tools Overview
One page summary of suggested ways to use new discipleship tools.

The Tree of Life: thoughts on discipleship and roots

treeGrow.gif

The Bible is a book of both concrete truth and creative metaphors. God is gentle and God is a rock. Jesus was born of the virgin Mary and Jesus is living water. Humans are selfish creatures and humans are branches. Yahweh is faithful and Yahweh is a shepherd. God is divine and God is a king. And metaphor within metaphor – God’s kingdom has arrived and it is a mustard seed.

As words, metaphors give shape to non-concrete realities. As images, metaphors invite us to see, discover, understand, and experience the embodied truth.

One of the most commonly mentioned things in the Bible is also one of its most powerful theological metaphors – trees. (Check out this article for more thoughts on trees in scripture. Then get the book Reforesting Faith by the article’s author.)

God’s expansive story begins with all kinds of beautiful trees, and also two very specific trees (Gen. 2:11). It ends with two healing trees of life flanking a river of living water (Rev. 22:1-2). Within the story, both God’s people and God himself are described as trees (Ps. 52:8, Hos. 14:8). Wisdom is a tree of life (Prov. 3:18). Isaiah tells trees to sing and clap their hands. Those who love, fear, and hope in Yahweh are trees planted by a riverbank (Ps. 1, Jer. 17). Those who love, trust, and follow Jesus are deeply rooted in him (Col. 2).

Deep roots, strong trunks, healthy branches, flourishing fruit, and sometimes beautiful flowers are concrete earthly realities that reflect profound spiritual truth.

Discipleship has been visualized in many ways: four chairs, a wheel, a directional triangle, a roadmap, and more. Some of these are linear. Some are limited in scope.

It seems that a tree – a living, organic, growing, fruitful, and universally understood image – offers a beautifully profound yet simple vision of discipleship.

Rooted in Christ 4.0 color p1

Here’s a downloadable PDF of the tree image along with the Biblical framework: DOWNLOADABLE FILE.

Even non-arborists understand enough about trees to grasp the truths in this image:

  • Deep, strong roots help support a strong trunk and branches.
  • Deep, strong roots lead to growth.
  • As branches grow and leaves multiply, more of the sun’s energy gets to the roots, resulting in further growth.
  • Much of what happens in a tree isn’t visible to other people.
  • Even the smallest tree – with brand new roots, a wisp of a trunk, and slim flexible branches – is still a tree.

The image can guide every follower of Jesus as we:

  • carefully contemplate what it means to follow Jesus in both general and specific ways
  • honestly reflect on our own personal lives of discipleship
  • prayerfully consider our discipleship hopes and desires for those in our ministries, our families, our small groups, and any other community of believers.

Here are some reflection questions and dialogue prompts:

  • How do the three main tree elements relate and work together?
    • roots – time in scripture, prayer, worship – which happen both in solitude and in communal congregational life
    • trunk – a strong core of love, trust, humility, obedience
    • branches – expressions or displays of specific behaviors and attitudes repeatedly highlighted throughout scripture
  • In your current season of life, how do engage in, experience, or express each of the different elements in the tree?
  • What specific areas (within trunk, core, branches) of your personal discipleship are most in need of attention, guidance, or challenge?
  • How can you lean into those things intentionally and purposefully?
  • What specific areas of your personal discipleship (within trunk, core, branches) do you naturally embrace and dig into? Why? What does that look like?
  • For those involved in ministry, consider your ministry focus (children, middle school, high school, college, young professionals, families, etc.) and your specific ministry context (community size, location, primary culture, specific sub-cultures, socio-economics, etc.). Based on those realities, what are your hopes and desires for those you disciple? For example, what do you hope “time in scripture” will begin to look like for a college-aged new believer? Or how do you hope a small group of 7th grade guys will begin to display “faithful witness” at home and at school? And so on.

Aslan Did Not Say That (Lewis misquoted again)

[UPDATE below]

Literary Lewisians – that is, those who view his written texts and his recorded readings as the only things that qualify as Lewis quotes (as opposed to cinematic adapted one-liners and outlandish self-empowering slogans) – likely expend too much energy seething about the ever-growing corpus of non-Lewis quotes cluttering (even polluting) the digital universe.

I do, anyway.

And perhaps I should stop caring. Or stop blathering about it. Or stop calling it out.

But I think it matters immensely, far beyond anything that has to do with being a devoted Lewisian, medievalist, literarian, or would-be-Narnian. (For these reasons and these. Also these and these. And so many more.)

This is not merely about misquotes. It’s about being thoughtful, careful, precise, clear. Truthful, even.

But I am once again disheartened and confounded by the most recent misquote because it is in printin a bookabout Lewisthat perhaps many people will read, and so there’s very little chance of retracting this particular absolutely-not-a-quote (just like there is very little chance of properly recovering the correct order of the Chronicles of Narnia, yet another reason literary Lewisians gnash their teeth).

The newly released book Becoming Mrs. Lewis: The Improbable Love Story of Joy Davidman and C. S. Lewis (by Patti Callahan; Thomas Nelson, 2018) ushers readers into Part I with this page:

Anyone who has read Lewis will recognize this “quote” of Aslan’s as not possibly having been written by Lewis, ever. It drips with modern self-actualization that appears nowhere in Lewis’s writings (who was thoroughly unmodern and utterly I-am-lost-without-my-Lord).

I suppose the cinematic-adapted CGI-leo might have uttered these words. But if so, the above quote should indicate such by 1) deleting C. S. Lewis as the intimated author and 2) clearly noting the cinematic-adapted-and-ravaged version as the actual source.

That seems only fair. And accurate. And clear. And precise. And factual.

I assume this “quote” comes from the cinematic-adapted scene wherein the Dawn Treader (“such a very Narnian ship”) enters the Darkness – a very real and very terrifying place of evil. A place wherein Aslan would never advise someone to defeat the darkness in oneself (which isn’t to say he denied inner darkness, or didn’t think it should be defeated). Those who know Aslan (and his earthly incarnated human-divine reality but please remember the Chronicles ARE NOT ALLEGORIES) know that when any of his children find themselves in the midst of evil danger – quivering hands, overwhelming despair, paralyzing fear – if that child has only enough strength to whisper, “Aslan, Aslan, if ever you loved us at all, send us help now,” – well, even if that child would forget to say please or pretty please or by your mane – Aslan would never respond with: “Well, hmmm, okay. But first you must defeat the darkness in yourself.”

Never. Absolutely and unequivocally never.

Instead, after pleading hopeful words in the midst of palpable despair, something would begin to change inside the child, and inside all the other children on whose behalf she also whispered.

First, a tiny speck of light would appear up ahead.

And then a broad beam of light would fall upon the ship, even while it was still surrounded by darkness.

And then along the beam, the children (some young, some grown) would see what looked like a cross, then like an aeroplane, and then like a kite before finally arriving in a whirling rush of wings. It would be an albatross. It would circle around the mast three times before perching for just an instant on the crest of the gilded dragon at the prow. And then it would spread its wings, rise, and begin to fly slowly ahead, bearing a little starboard, leading the whole shipload of children folk out into the warm and welcoming sunshine.

And the one who’d whispered for help back in the evil dark – rather than being chided for not first defeating her own inner darkness (blather) – would have heard these words from Aslan-as-albatross while still in the darkness:

 Courage, dear heart.

And as she heard the voice, she would also have felt a delicious smell breathe in her face – the breath of love, the breath of joy, the breath of presence, the breath of spirit, the breath of undeserved rescue.

And when finally out of the darkness, without knowing exactly when or how it happened, everyone would realize there was nothing to be afraid of and never had been.

That is what Aslan would have done and said – because that is what he did and said in Chapter 12 of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

So, yes – misquotes matter.

Because though both Aslan and our Lord are in the business of forming humility and love and grace in their children while also helping them die-to-self each and every day, neither Aslan nor our Lord are in the business of self-help nonsense-babble that only leads to disappointment, despair, and emptiness. (And maybe also poisonous self-inflation.)

Words matter. Because behind the words are ideas, meaning, stories, and truth. At least that’s the hope.

[UPDATE: 9 Oct 2018]

Turns out this is not just a misquote: it is a misattribution of a misquote. Aslan-of-the-screen did not say these words. Rather, Coriakin-of-the-screen did, per the Confirming C. S. Lewis Quotes page (CCSLQ) of the meticulously researched Essential C. S. Lewis site. I highly recommend it.

I don’t know if this makes things any better. Or worse. To misattribute a misquote is two too many missteps. To misattribute to a false Aslan something said by a false Coriakin is beyond reckoning. It’s Dufflepud-ish, if you will. It’s as difficult to imagine Coriakin saying these things as it is to imagine Aslan saying them.

Coriakin is, by his own estimation, the least of Aslan’s magicians. He oversees the Duffers, who would drive anyone mad. But he never once lays on them platitudes about overcoming inner darkness, pride, or stupidity. Nor does he presume to deliver supposed Aslan-esque platitudes to them regarding their petty and outlandish stubbornness, not even to the Chief Duffer, who would drive anyone sky-high-batty after just five minutes. Coriakin’s ethos and discourse runs more like this:

Lucy followed the great Lion out into the passage and at once she saw coming towards them an old man, barefoot, dressed in a red robe. His white hair was crowned with a chaplet of oak leaves, his beard fell to his girdle, and he supported himself with a curiously carved staff. When he saw Aslan he bowed low and said,

“Welcome, Sir, to the least of your houses.”

“Do  you grow weary, Coriakin, of ruling such foolish subjects as I have given you here?”

“No,” said the Magician, “they are very stupid but there is no real harm in them. I begin to grow rather fond of the creatures. Sometimes, perhaps I am a little impatient, waiting for the day when they can be governed by wisdom instead of this rough magic.”

“All in good time, Coriakin,” said Aslan.

“Yes, all in very good time, Sir,” was the answer. (Chapter 11, VDT)

Actual-Lewis’s actual-Coriakin is surely not someone who would blather about defeating inner darkness in order to defeat outer darkness. He knew better. Much better. The Chief Duffer, on the other hand…