Archives For Christmas

C.S. Lewis did not write ghost stories, but he lived in a country that celebrated the strange genre. For some bizarre reason, the telling of ghost stories became associated with Christmas Eve. It’s a wonder to me why Lewis didn’t include this impropriety in his brilliant essay on Xmas.

“Christmas Eve was traditionally the time to tell scary stories round the hearth,” opens an article in The Guardian. I had never before associated Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol with this bizarre tradition. Nor had I connected it with Amy Grant’s “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” (Far better the theme of Grant’s Nativity song “Breath of Heaven.”)

I presume I can thank my Scandinavian heritage for the absence of ghost stories in our Christmas season traditions. Mercifully we also avoided the plague of seasonal trolls and gnomes.

One of the most noted of authors of ghost stories had much in common with C.S. Lewis. M.R. James (1862-1936) was a medievalist scholar who taught at Cambridge. In fact, “James came to sharpen his craft – by telling his stories after the Christmas service at King’s College, Cambridge (where he was provost) to an audience of uneasy fellows.” In the same article no less than H.P. Lovecraft himself is cited as describing James as “a literary weird fictionist of the very first rank.”

I suppose it is a sign of his minimal interest in ghost stories that I cannot find any reference to James’ fiction in C.S. Lewis’ writing. Lewis does, however, refer to one of James’ scholarly works, The Apocryphal New Testament: Being the Apocryphal Gospels, Acts, Epistles and Apocalypses.

In a 1955 letter, Lewis describes how experiencing a relationship with Christ is different than simply knowing about him.

Yes, Jesus Himself, of course: the heart. Not only the God in Him but the historical Man. I don’t know that I ever got much from reading things about Him. Perhaps, in a queer way, I got most from reading the Apocryphal Gospels (The whole Apocryphal N.T. is done in one vol. ed. M.R. James). For there you find things attributed to Him that couldn’t be true. You even find wise & beautiful sayings which nevertheless just don’t ring true. And have you noticed–reading the true sayings in the real Gospels–how hardly one of them could have been guessed in advance?*

References to Ghosts

As befits a person writing over a fifty year period, C.S. Lewis’ comments about ghosts vary. This is emphasized by the change in his worldview which accompanied his conversion from atheism to Christianity.

A 1915 letter to Arthur Greeves reveals Lewis’ affinity for the supernatural. He is describing his reading of “Roots of the Mountains” by William Morris (1834-1896).

Tho’ more ordinary than the [“Well at the World’s End” here and here], it is still utterly different from any novel you ever read. Apart from the quaint and beautiful old English, which means so much to me, the supernatural element, tho’ it does not enter into the plot, yet hovers on the margin all the time: we have ‘the wildwood wherein dwell wights that love not men, to whom the groan of the children of men is as the scrape of a fiddle-bow: there too abide the kelpies, and the ghosts of them that rest not . . .’

In Lewis’ essay “The Novels of Charles Williams,” he describes the uniqueness of Williams’ work.

We meet in them, on the one hand, very ordinary modern people who talk the slang of our own day, and live in the suburbs: on the other hand, we also meet the supernatural—ghosts, magicians, and archetypal beasts.

The first thing to grasp is that this is not a mixture of two literary kinds . . . Williams is really writing a third kind of book which belongs to neither class and has a different value from either.

He is writing that sort of book in which we begin by saying, ‘Let us suppose that this everyday world were, at some point, invaded by the marvellous. Let us, in fact, suppose a violation of frontier.’

In 1939 he wrote to his brother about a play by W.B. Yeats featuring a ghost.

The plays were worth seeing: one, by Yeats [“Purgatory” in Last Poems and Two Plays], his last one, was really powerful: conversation between a tramp and his son outside the ruins of a great house and then the ghost of its last mistress at the window, re-enacting her past life-she being the one who had finally let the whole thing down, marrying a horse-dealer . . . all the usual tragedy of the Irish aristocracy.

Not quite true, of course, because probably most of the preceding generations had been pretty good wasters too: but an effective play.

I have previously explored C.S. Lewis’ actual encounter with Yeats. It was quite odd. In 1921, he had written to his father.

I have been taken recently to see the mighty Yeats. It was the weirdest show you ever saw, and I fear he is a Kod [slang, I believe, for a fraud or a hoaxer]. You sit on hard antique chairs by candlelight in an oriental looking room and listen in silence while the great man talks about magic and ghosts and mystics . . .

What fluttering of the dovecote! It is a pity that the real romance of meeting a man who has written great poetry and who has known William Morris and Tagore and Symons should be so overlaid with the sham romance of flame coloured curtains and mumbo-jumbo.

In 1940 Lewis shared with Warnie his notion that if the seances were real — they had been popular during England’s flirtations with spiritualism — it did not suggest the spirits are particularly bright.

Part of Thursday afternoon I spent with unusual pleasure in the dark, pleasantly smelling, warmth of the old library with a slow dampish snow falling outside-flakes the size of matchboxes. I had gone in to look for something quite different, but became intrigued by the works of Dr Dee [(1527-1608) of Trinity College Cambridge], a mysterious magician and astrologer of Queen Elizabeth’s time.

The interesting thing about this was the fact that it was so uninteresting: I mean that the spirit conversations displayed, so far as I could see from turning over a few pages, just exactly the same fatuity which one observes in those recorded by modern spiritualists. What can be the explanation of this?

I suppose that both are hallucinations resulting from the same kind of mental weakness which, at all periods, produces the same rubbish. One can’t help, however, toying with the hypothesis that they are all real spirits in the case, and that we tap either a ghostly college of buffoons or a ghostly home for imbeciles.

In 1946 he complimented Ruth Pitter (1897-1992), a longtime friend and correspondent. Pitter’s First Poems are available here.

I’m not sure I’ve understood The Bridge as a whole: but I love ‘shapes of sorrow and empty vessels,’ etc. Nice things in Seaborn. The Cygnet comes off as well as things like air-raids can come off in poetry. I don’t mean because they’re modern.

But as a rule, the bigger a thing is, physically the less it works in literature. One ghost is always more disquieting than ten: no good fight in a story can have more than a dozen or so combatants: the death of a million men is less tragic than that of one.

By the way, that final comment will prove of great value to any modern writer!

I’ve accumulated several other Lewisian references to ghosts, so what say we continue this discussion in our next post? In the meantime, perhaps you will care to read some of the linked volumes, or to comment on the odd link between ghost stories and Christmas Eve.


* The Apocrypha Anecdota: A Collection of Thirteen Apocryphal Books and Fragments by Montague Rhodes James is available here. He also wrote The Lost Apocrypha of the Old Testament: Their Titles and Fragments.

Several of James’ ghost stories are available in these collections: The Five Jars and A Thin Ghost and Others. Dr. Dewi Evans has compiled The Collected Ghost Stories of M.R. James and made them available in several formats on his website.

xmas cards

Fortunately, Christmas cards are not yet obsolete. Surely, many have substituted electronic alternatives, but even children of the digital age recognize that a personally scribbled note conveys a rare message—

You are worth the timeit takes me to choose a card, inscribe it, address the envelope and send it on its (dare I say, “merry”) way to you.

This pre-Christmas post is appearing so early because many of us are already addressing our Christmas greetings during the Advent season. And so it goes that Christmas cards and paraphernalia will soon usurp the place of other products in our local stores.

Whether you purchase your cards each winter, or wait until those amazing after-Christmas sales to buy them at 70% off, please keep this advice from C.S. Lewis in mind when you choose them.

Send cards that are appropriate for your recipients.

As a rule, if you are a Christian, you should send a card that celebrates the true meaningof the holy day. Naturally, this can be waived if it would cause genuine offense. However, if someone genuinely practices a different faith, why would you send them a Christmas card in the first place? A Hanukkah card, or a secular New Year’s Day or Thanksgiving seasonal missive would probably be more appropriate.

But my opinion is that for those who would not be overtly offended, a true Christ-mass card is appropriate. After all, many cards are quite gentle and inoffensive. For instance, the genre that picture a star (we recognize that celestial light as a Christian symbol during this particular season), along with words like “may you experience the joy and peace ushered in by this holy season.”

What I would encourage you to avoid sending during this time when we focus on the Incarnation miracle, is the sort of pastoral scenes with their innocuous tidings. For example, the happily sleighing family traveling in a conveyance very few of us will ever see. Send them at some other time, if you will, but they have little or nothing to do with the Nativity.

Now it’s fine if you think I’m old fashioned like the dinosaurs we recently considered.

But if you dismiss my opinion, please consider that of C.S. Lewis.

Lewis’ opinions about the commercialization of the Christmas season are well known, and we have discussed them here at Mere Inkling in the past. He, of course, abhorred the secularization of a sacred event. How sad he would be today to witness how Santa has continued to supplant Jesus.

Some will point out that Lewis himself included Father Christmas in his Chronicles of Narnia. This is true, but it is distinct from the modern secular excesses. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Father Christmas more closely resembles Saint Nicholas, in giving gifts and proclaiming the arrival of the King. It’s not accidental that he begins and ends his visit with the children by pointing to Aslan.

“I’ve come at last,” said he. “She has kept me out for a long time, but I have got in at last. Aslan is on the move. The Witch’s magic is weakening. . . .” Then he cried out, “Merry Christmas! Long live the true King!” and cracked his whip, and he and the reindeer and the sledge and all were out of sight before anyone realized that they had started.

C.S. Lewis was a truly devoted correspondent. He wrote back to the many fans who sought him out, and offered thoughtful responses to even the most frivolous queries. The writing was burdensome, and only the assistance of his brother Warnie for many years kept him from being forced to cease his generous practice.

Some of his correspondents were, or became, his friends. In December of 1955, he thanked one of these for the Christmas card he had sent. The friend was Peter Milward, a Jesuit priest. Lewis’ comments are still timely for Christian readers today.

Thank you for y[ou]r letter of Nov. 17. The enclosed card was one of the v[ery] few I have been pleased at getting.

Christmas cards in general and the whole vast commercial drive called ‘Xmas’ are one of my pet abominations: I wish they could die away and leave the Christian feast unentangled.

Not of course that even secular festivities are, on their own level, an evil: but the laboured and organised jollity of this—the spurious childlikeness—the half-hearted and sometimes rather profane attempts to keep up some superficial connection with the Nativity—are disgusting.

But your card is most interesting as an application of Japanese style to a Christian subject: and, me judice [in my opinion] extremely successful.

I hope you will reflect on Lewis’ thoughts on this subject. Christmas is too precious a time to be “entangled” with secular and pagan baggage.

If you send any holiday communiques—even of a digital nature—choose them wisely.


For more on C.S. Lewis and Christmas, read “A New C.S. Lewis Christmas Gift.”

 

csl christmas

Wouldn’t it be great if they found another work written by C.S. Lewis? Well, great news . . . every once in a while they do!

No, it isn’t a novel, or another adventure in Narnia. But it’s the next best thing for this holy season. A scholar recently recovered two essays written by Lewis in the 1940s, and one of them is about Christmas.

In the current issue of Christianity TodayStephanie Derrick describes her discovery of the articles at the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh. The articles appeared in The Strand, through which Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” became famous.

A favorite among the British upper classes, The Strand was widely read and earned a devoted following at home and abroad. Its high standing kept the magazine afloat during the Second World War when many others were forced to cease printing due to paper shortages.

Both of Lewis’ contributions appeared shortly after the war. One is written about the game cricket, for which Lewis used his pseudonym Clive Hamilton.

The other piece is the one of far greater interest to Christians. Most students of Lewis are familiar with his critique of the secular celebration of “Exmas.” I have also written here at Mere Inkling about other Lewis ties to the Nativity of Christ. “Echoes of Christmas” and “Christmas Interruptions” appeared the past two years.

In the recently recovered “A Christmas Sermon for Pagans,” Lewis explains how paganism is inappropriately used to describe post-Christian Europe. He powerfully illustrates how the latter is more impoverished than the former. Blurring the two, he says, is “like thinking … a street where the houses have been knocked down is the same as a field where no house has yet been built.”

Rubble, dust, broken bottles, old bedsteads and stray cats are very different from grass, thyme, clover, buttercups and a lark singing overhead.

Lewis proceeds, of course, to offer the hope of the world, Emmanuel, whose incarnation we celebrate on Christmas.

Brent Dickieson offers his own worthwhile insights into the recent discovery in his current post. It is well worth reading, and includes the cover of the issue of The Strand that included Lewis’ Christmas sermon.

 

 

Christmas Interruptions

December 25, 2016 — 8 Comments

qaraqoshA bomb has driven worshipers from their churches and homes on Christmas. Ironically, this did not transpire in lands where war currently rages. Instead, it was a British bomb intended to end German lives.

Perhaps you’ve already seen the story?

The weapon was huge, nearly two tons in weight, and it’s explosion would have been no less lethal today than when it was originally dropped.

The bomb, known as a blockbuster, was the largest of its kind dropped by the RAF during aerial attacks on Germany in the second world war. It weighs 1.8 tonnes and, if exploded, could damage all buildings within a one-mile radius.

As I have worshipped and reflected during this Christmas season, the story of this bomb has continued to intrude on my thoughts.

On that first Christmas night a group of shepherds heard music that has now echoed for millennia.

Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

God’s call to peace on earth and his desire for good will among his children—gifts already given to the world in the birth of Jesus—cannot be negated by the weapons of man.

As C.S. Lewis wrote, “Once in our world, a stable had something in it that was bigger than our whole world” (The Last Battle).

Still, in this moment, when this long forgotten and deeply buried blockbuster bomb can disrupt the traditional Christmas schedule, we see a vivid contrast between the good God desires for us and the ill we too often bear for one another?

A Warzone Witness to the Celebration of Christ’s Nativity

The entire world is aware of the genocide of Christians and Yazidis being conducted in the Middle East by Jihadists. This Christmas, however, marked a moment of encouragement.

Two years after being driven from their city by the Islamic State, Christians were able to return to the recently liberated city of Qaraqosh to worship God.

The church structure had been desecrated, but the presence of God among his gathered people, has reconsecrated it.

Christianity in northern Iraq dates back to the first century AD. The number of Christians fell sharply during the violence which followed the 2003 overthrow of Saddam Hussein, and the Islamic State takeover of Mosul two years ago purged the city of Christians for the first time in two millennia. (Reuters)

Despite the hatred some people hold for others, and the violence they inflict, it is encouraging to recognize that no power in this world can defeat the miracle that transpired on that first Christmas Day.

Echoes of Christmas

December 29, 2015 — 10 Comments

Rosary Basilica LourdesI love greeting people with “Merry Christmas” after the day itself has passed.

Most people are surprised—probably thinking that I slept through the celebration. Many Christians, however, respond with their own best wishes, in recognition that the celebration of Jesus’ nativity marks the beginning of a season of wonder.

The celebration of the Incarnation miracle is far too wondrous to be confined to a single day.

People often ask “how was your Christmas?” By that, most are inquiring as to whether it was enjoyable.

It is a profound question, if one truly reflects upon it.

As a child, I must confess that the quality of my “Christmas” was probably determined to large extent by the presents I received. I don’t remember many of the particular gifts—these many years later—but I do recall the anticipation I felt as we awaited Christmas Day and the glorious unwrapping.

As a parish pastor my perceptions of a “good” Christmas were determined in large part by the number and enthusiasm of the individuals attending the season’s special worship services. (I am not proud, of course, to confess this.)

In later, semi-retired days, I gauge the joy of each Christmas by the time spent with family. To have all the kids and grandkids near is magnificent. To be able to connect with our “extended family” is icing on the cake.

Obviously, I’m not alone in measuring the quality of my “Christmas experience” by the presence of family.

At the close of the First World War, as C.S. Lewis had finished recuperating from his wounds, he longed to be able to return home to Ireland to celebrate with his father and brother. The Armistice had been signed a month earlier, but delays prevented his arrival by December 25th. Nevertheless, he did manage to arrive for the Christmas season, as Warnie recorded in his diary two days later.

A red letter day. We were sitting in the study about eleven o’clock this morning when we saw a cab coming up the avenue. It was Jack! He had been demobilized, thank God. Needless to say there were great doings. He is looking pretty fit . . . In the evening there was bubbly for dinner in honour of the event: the first time I have ever had champagne at home.

Family can be a wonderful thing, although there seem to be an increasing number of people in our day who are a scourge to their families. My heart goes out to those who have lost their loved ones, or who have never experienced familial love in the first place.

These holiday seasons—filled with laughter and champagne for most—can be a barren emotional wasteland for many.

It is good for us all to remember that fact, and remain vigilant to draw the lonely into the light of our family campfires.

The Deep Joy of Christmas

I have said that as a child, I relished the anticipation of my gifts. Later in life I have focused on other matters in assessing whether or not my Christmas has been an exceptional one.

The fact is that the foundation for all of my happiness comes from an awareness of Christmas’ true meaning.

In a word, Emmanuel. God with us.

For me and my family, it simply would not be Christmas if we were not able to gather with our sisters and brothers in Christ to celebrate Jesus’ birth. That said, for believers in some Islamic and Buddhist nations where Christians are not free, the miracle of Christmas rings no less true.

The presence of the Holy Spirit, and the constancy of Christ’s grace are such an indivisible part of my life, that I often take them for granted. And so it is during Christmas.

The gift-giving and family can occupy the forefront of my thoughts. However, it is only because of the life-giving sacrifice of that innocent Child that events in this life possess the potential to have eternal significance.

Jesus came in humility. He came to serve. He came to suffer. He came to offer his own pure life to redeem our imperfect and corrupt lives.

That’s what Christmas is about, and that is why it is too wondrous for its celebration to be relegated to one brief day.

Religious Kitsch

October 13, 2015 — 7 Comments

socksAre souvenir socks a good way of celebrating one of the move pivotal points in human history? That’s right, stockings. Socks emblazoned with one of the most famous statements of Christian faith made during the past millennium.

Hier stehe ich!” “Here I stand” (on the clear message of God’s word). This was Martin Luther’s steadfast defense where his salvation on the teaching that we are saved by God’s grace and mercy, not by our own efforts.

Ich kann nicht anders.” I can do no other, Luther continued. He invited his adversaries to correct him if they could show him in error, according to the Scriptures.

We are beginning a season when many people are celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation of the Church. Some of the commemorations are quite noteworthy. Others . . . less so.

On the positive side, I rank near the top The Wittenberg Project, the restoration of the Old Latin School in the city where Luther preached the Gospel.

Near the other extreme, I have to place the “Here I Stand” socks. While I briefly considered purchasing a pair for one of my sons, my admittedly plebian sense of fashion saved me from doing so. (If you, on the other hand, find them tasteful or suitable for an acquaintance, you’ll find a link to the footwear below.)*

In his essay, “What Christmas Means to Me,” C.S. Lewis describes this sort of product. In his description of the “commercial racket” associated with the season, he writes:

I condemn it on the following grounds. . . . Things are given as presents which no mortal ever bought for himself – gaudy and useless gadgets, ‘novelties’ because no one was ever fool enough to make their like before.

Have we really no better use for materials and for human skill and time than to spend them on all this rubbish?

I understand that one person’s “rubbish,” though, can be another’s treasure. Still, as Edward Veith writes in The State of the Arts:

The problem with religious kitsch is that its cuteness and self-gratifying nature can domesticate and thereby distort Biblical faith. Christianity is not a sickly, sweet religion . . . The anemic figurines of Jesus Christ are poor testimony to His deity and His lordship.

Viewing It All in (a Humorous) Perspective

sockeWhile surfing the net researching this peculiar item, I encountered an entertaining website where we see how the Catholic—Reformer struggle lives on today.

A Roman Catholic website comments on the same sort of socks—tastefully offered in the original German. The author of The Ironic Catholic writes:

With all due apologies to my Lutheran brothers and sisters: while this catapults you into a real race with the Catholics for kitsch, we will crush you like grapes in this arena.

It’s all good-natured, of course. I haven’t bothered to research Catholic variations on the footings quotations front, but I imagine they are equally pithy.

I did, however, find one prolific Roman Catholic author whose following statement might be just as suitable for a hat as for stockings.

“It is because we are standing on our heads that Christ’s philosophy seems upside-down.” (G.K. Chesterton)

_____

* You can order your own pair of “Here I Stand” socks here.

** The Ironic Catholic post is here.

Similes & Metaphors

December 16, 2014 — 10 Comments

agdeiSimiles are wonderful literary tools. Being able to compare two dissimilar things in a way that brings out subtle nuances and insights is quite enjoyable.

Here are a couple of examples off the top of my head. (I don’t pretend others haven’t written these things, but I didn’t plagiarize them.).

A politician is like a weathervane.

Arguing theology is like having indigestion.

Disliking Narnia is like hating a feast.

Metaphors, of course, are far more powerful than similes. When we consider a metaphor we are pondering how two different things actually share some fundamental quality.

Comprehending metaphors requires the ability to think abstractly. A child—confined to a world of concrete concepts—cannot begin to think of their nation as a “motherland” or “fatherland,” as the case may be. Yet, those are powerful nurturing and bonding words that countless patriots have embraced throughout the centuries.

A simile might say “our country is like a family.” A metaphor suggests far more. In this case, it might convey that one’s allegiance to their nation should exceed their loyalty to their biological kin.

Nowhere is the magnificence of metaphors more manifest than in the way we talk about God. One of the most famous biblical passages is a straight forward example. “God is love” (1 John 4:8).

Jesus the Christ said of himself, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life” (John 14:6). He also called himself the “Light of the world. Whoever follows me,” he added, “will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).

It is a sad thing when a symbol loses its meaning. There is a prime example of that phenomenon in Oxford. And you can see it in the sign that hangs above a pub frequented by the Inklings.

No, not the Eagle and Child, which they affectionately referred to as the Bird and Baby.

After renovations to the Eagle and Child eliminated their privacy, the writers transitioned across the street to the Lamb and Flag. Both pubs trace their history back to the seventeenth century, and the latter is actually owned by St. John’s College. (It’s profits fund student scholarships.) In a 1963 letter, Lewis colorfully described the move thusly:

Mon 11 March it is. But note that our causeries de lundi are now permanently transferred to the Lamb & Flag. We were sorry to break with tradition, but the B & B had become too intolerably cold, dark, noisy, and child-pestered.

Sadly, when many people look at the Lamb on the pub’s sign, they fail to recognize it’s significance. The lamb carrying a cross-emblazoned banner is nothing other than the Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God.

What, some may wonder, is the Lamb of God? The better question is “who” is the lamb. The symbol represents Jesus Christ himself. It hearkens to the declaration of John the Baptizer as Jesus approached the Jordan: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).

To understand what it means to say “Jesus is the Lamb,” requires two things. First, a recognition that it is more than a simile; it is not simply that he possesses some of the attributes we would naturally associate with a lamb, such as gentleness. The second requisite is that we understand something about the Jewish sacrificial system.

For, Jesus being the Lamb of God means nothing less than that he is the true, complete, ultimate and final sacrifice for the sins of humanity.

And that is a wonder definitely worth pondering during this Christmas season.