This week, I welcome Jessica Hooten Wilson to Old Books With Grace. We chat about her new book, The Scandal of Holiness: Renewing Your Imagination in the Company of Literary Saints, and the power of literature to reveal the subtleties of the good life. Sometimes holiness can be alarming, bizarre, and fascinating… and novels and their novelists, like Flannery O’Connor, C.S. Lewis, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, can help us to conceptualize the holy life in all its difficulty and otherworldliness.
Dr. Wilson is the Louise Cowan Scholar in Residence at the University of Dallas. She is the author of three books: Giving the Devil his Due: Flannery O’Connor and The Brothers Karamazov, which received a 2018 Christianity Today book of the year in arts and culture award. In 2019 she received the Hiett Prize for Humanities from the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. She is co-editor of the volume Solzhenitsyn and American Culture: The Russian Soul in the West, a collection of essays on the legacy of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. In 2022, she will publish The Scandal of Holiness: Renewing Your Imagination in the Company of Literary Saints (Brazos Press) and Learning the Good Life: From the Great Hearts and Minds that Came Before (Zondervan).
If you have not yet, don’t forget to sign up for my monthly newsletter, Medievalish with Grace Hamman. Each month I write and compile a meditative essay on something medieval, a prayer from the past, and recommendations on what I’ve been reading. Sign up here.
On today’s podcast episode, Grace welcomes Kayla Craig, author of To Light Their Way, a collection of prayers and liturgies for parents, and the creator of the wonderfully helpful @liturgiesforparents Instagram account. We talk prayer books, the definition of liturgy, how written prayers help us find words, and the wonderful, ecumenical prayer sources and books that Kayla has found helpful and recommends.
A former journalist, Kayla Craig is adamant about paying attention and embracing curiosity in her work as a writer and podcast producer. She writes nuanced, nurturing prayers at Liturgies for Parents on Instagram and cofounded the Upside Down Podcast, a place for ecumenical conversations on faith and justice. Professionally, she writes, produces, and edits prayers and podcasts for Christian spiritual formation. Kayla and her pastor-husband, Jonny, live in Iowa, where they’re raising four young kids who joined their family via birth and adoption. When she’s not playing LEGOs with her sons or advocating for her daughter with disabilities, Kayla can be found sipping strong coffee. You can connect with Kayla at kaylacraig.com and on Instagram @kayla_craig and @liturgiesforparents.
If you haven’t already, you may enjoy signing up for my new monthly newsletter, where you’ll get all the details on what I’ve been reading and writing lately, a reflection on medieval and other literary things for the month, and a prayer from the past.
Before we get into the substance of the podcast, I started a substack newsletter, Medievalish with Grace Hamman. Subscribe for monthly emails, content about interesting literary things, and what I’ve been reading, writing, and podcasting lately.
This week I welcome Dr. Karen Swallow Prior to Old Books With Grace. Our conversation about virtue, fiction, the importance of narrative in learning to think about morality, and our favorite books flew by. Her book On Reading Well is a wonderful introduction to the discipline of reading and cultivating a flourishing life of virtue. Each chapter pairs a virtue with a well-known novel. It’s a delight!
Karen Swallow Prior, Ph. D., is Research Professor of English and Christianity and Culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. She is the author of Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me (T.S. Poetry Press, 2012), Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More—Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist (Thomas Nelson, 2014), and On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books (Brazos 2018). She is co-editor of Cultural Engagement: A Crash Course in Contemporary Issues (Zondervan 2019) and has contributed to numerous other books. Her writing has appeared at Christianity Today, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, First Things, Vox, Relevant, Think Christian, The Gospel Coalition, Religion News Service, Books and Culture and other places. She is a founding member of The Pelican Project, a Senior Fellow at the Trinity Forum, a Senior Fellow at the International Alliance for Christian Education, a Senior Fellow at the L. Russ Bush Center for Faith and Culture, and is a former member of the Faith Advisory Council of the Humane Society of the United States. She and her husband live on a 100-year old homestead in central Virginia with sundry horses, dogs, and chickens. And lots of books.
This episode is available anywhere you get your podcasts. I hope you enjoy it.
Today we are celebrating the last week of Advent with O Come All Ye Faithful. Yet again, I have a decided favorite version of this carol, by the true king of Christmas music, Nat “King” Cole. His voice is wonderfully smooth and soothing, yet powerful and stirring. I’d hope you all have heard that version, but if you haven’t, please listen and soak it in.
There are all these fantastical origin theses about O Come All Ye Faithful, first known as Adeste Fideles. It appeared on the European carol-singing stage seemingly out of nowhere in the late 18th century, gaining popularity rapidly. People thought it might be kind of like O Come O Come Emmanuel—a song from the monks of the distant past, recently brought up from the depths of time through a discovered manuscript. But it was not.
It was written, first in Latin, by an English Roman Catholic persecuted for his religion in the 18th century, John Francis Wade. Wade had fled to France, where he participated in the time’s newfound interest in using the plainchant of the past in church services again. He wrote the song, and it rocketed in popularity in France among the wealthy, who often used it in their private chapels. In England, it also become very popular, when it was performed in the Portuguese embassy’s chapel for a concert of “ancient religious music.” That chapel is still there today, no longer connected to the embassy, but functioning as a Catholic chapel in London. You can go there if you like and imagine the song being played and reaching fame. The tune appears to also have appeared in a comic opera of the time, which seems rather incongruous! But maybe that’s why we still feel the joyous hilarity surging up from the chorus, which I always kind of want to sing faster and faster: O come let us adore him!
It was translated into English many times, but one of the earliest was at Oxford in the 19th century, for the use of the Margaret Chapel at Christ Church. I laughed when I read this, because the beginning line used to be: “Ye faithful, approach ye.” Sing that out loud to yourself. “Approach ye” is just not very catchy. The author of this translation was eventually forced out of Oxford for becoming a follower of Cardinal John Henry Newman and converting to Roman Catholicism. Thus, this carol is particularly and fascinatingly linked to English Roman Catholics. And the song endured, even became more and more popular, despite the ill treatment of its writers and translators, and eventually reached the form we know and love today.
Let’s listen together, not to “Ye faithful approach ye,” thank goodness, but to our stirring, beloved version:
O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant! O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem! Come and behold him, born the King of angels.
Refrain: O come, let us adore him, O come, let us adore him, O come, let us adore him, Christ the Lord!
2 God from true God, and Light from Light eternal, born of a virgin, to earth he comes! Only-begotten Son of God the Father: [Refrain]
Sing, choirs of angels, sing in exultation, sing, all ye citizens of heav’n above! Glory to God, all glory in the highest: [Refrain]
Yea, Lord, we greet thee, born this happy morning; Jesus, to thee be all glory giv’n! Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing: [Refrain]
Another wonderful theological poem set to song, thick in meaning and ready for meditation. But let’s focus on the chorus, which in the wonderful comic opera tune, speeds up our hearts with its urging. What does it mean to adore Jesus, especially Jesus the baby whom we greet, born this happy morning?
I am reminded of a beautiful Christmas sermon by the medieval theologian and monk, St. Bernard of Clairvaux. He pictures us as Adam and Eve in Genesis chapter three, fearfully hiding in the garden from God. We know God is coming, we hear him moving towards us and we hide in terror, because we know we have done wrong. We’re hiding from that magnificent king, the one in utter glory, whom we know we have wronged with our lack of love and our fierce desires for rule.
But to our shock, he isn’t coming with strong weapons or with a booming voice of wrath. Bernard writes,
And in case you are even now saying, “I heard your voice, and I hid myself”, look, he is a baby, and he has no voice. The sound of his crying inspires compassion more than trembling…
He became a little child. The virgin mother wraps his tender limbs in swaddling clothes—and do you still tremble with fear? Or will you realize from this that he has not come to destroy but to save you, not to bind but to set you free?
Bernard of Clairvaux, Sermons for the Advent and Christmas Seasons
Bernard sees the infant Jesus as the ultimate coming in peace—he has given up his voice, he has bound himself to unbind you. His humility in his rejection of ultimate power speaks eloquently about his character of love, not fear. I relate to this—I cringe in anticipation of punishment, only to receive—tender love and the final banishing of fear.
No sacrificial love or radical humility comes close to the omnipotent, omniscient Creator God of the universe becoming a newborn human, unable to command his own bowel movements or his fragile baby neck. In another sermon Bernard of Clairvaux remarked, “only the virtue of humility is a restorative for wounded love.” He was referring to the Incarnation as a profoundly humble response to human creatures who had forgotten how to love. God’s humility in coming to us as a baby transforms and heals our wounded love.
Bernard is right. Our love is wounded. We are bad at adoration, mostly because we have been hurt or embarrassed in the past by how we have shown our love. Love makes you vulnerable. C.S. Lewis famously writes in The Four Loves:
To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket – safe, dark, motionless, airless – it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.
I believe that the most lawless and inordinate loves are less contrary to God’s will than a self-invited and self-protective lovelessness. It is like hiding the talent in a napkin and for much the same reason ‘I knew thee that thou wert a hard man.’ Christ did not teach and suffer that we might become, even in the natural loves, more careful of our own happiness. If a man is not uncalculating towards the earthly beloveds whom he has seen, he is none the more likely to be so towards God whom he has not. We shall draw nearer to God, not by trying to avoid the sufferings inherent in all loves, but by accepting them and offering them to Him; throwing away all defensive armour. If our hearts need to be broken, and if He chooses this as the way in which they should break, so be it.
C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves
What more fittingly, what more clearly could help you to throw your defensive armor and scaly dragon skin away than the baby Jesus, wrapped in swaddling clothes in Mary’s arms? The God who made us and knows us best played his cards perfectly to help us learn how to love again. Very few people have the ability that a speechless, inert baby does to initiate a surprisingly strong but vulnerable love. Anyone who has had a beloved baby family member, either your own child or a friend’s or family member’s, and let themselves become open to that infant, recognizes this fact. Not that we were perfect, or even did a good job, but love comes easily, and with it, a discarding of protective armor, even practical protective armor. We suddenly become willing to put up with changing another human’s dirty diaper, with waking at odd hours of the night, because our love has makes it possible even when we are utterly sleep-deprived, filled with hormonal feelings, or just not that into children in general.
This week our Advent activity is to practice, to exercise our wounded love and adoration aided by the baby Jesus. It can be very difficult to love the people around us. But sometimes as you love easier things, it becomes easier to love hard things. Love is not just a feeling; it is also a habit.
What do I mean when I say that love is a habit? A habit means that faking it til you make it is ok, even part of the process. The moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre uses the example of chess to explain learning a habit of virtue. At first, when you’re bad at the game, your teacher may use candy or words of affirmation to motivate you to learn how to play well, and learn the right moves to make, and the rules of how it all works. You don’t love chess for its own sake, you love it for the rewards of it. Eventually, you learn to just love the game of chess, to relish the beauty and complexity of it in its own right. Habits like virtues—temperance, prudence, fortitude, all those old-fashioned words—work the same way. Love is truly a gift from God. It’s impossible for us to love well on our own. But practicing, like chess, and making love a habit in your life, looking at someone and mentally saying “I love you” if not aloud—this helps us to move towards the gift of love even more fully. Think of it this way: someone may have received a natural gift of creativity, intelligence, or athleticism. But practicing that gift strengthens it, gives it flexibility and power. So it is with love.
What easily fills your heart up with love? What moves your soul? This could be anything—pictures of your children when they were infants, your pet on your lap, a hike, a particular song or episode of a TV show or movie, a book that moves you to tears, a really good meal. Once I was watching Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood with my kids and just the theme song had me weeping with love for humanity for that one minute. I was pregnant, so on hair-trigger levels of emotion, and likely enraged about something the next second, but the point is don’t feel ashamed about whatever causes that response of love. Your advent practice this week is to seek that love-response. No one is going to judge you if it comes from Mr. Rogers or Lord of the Rings instead of Handel’s Messiah or Shakespeare. It doesn’t even matter if it’s “Christian” or not, just seek out the things that move your soul to love this week, deliberately. If you can, do so several times. Feel that overwhelming love response. Savor it. Praise God for the gift of that wonderful thing being in the world.
Then, follow the call of O Come All Ye Faithful and direct that welling-up love towards the baby in the manger, or to those around you who are Christ’s body here. Even if it’s fragile or only in the words you practice saying, exercise your adoration.
As with any of these activities, only do this if it feels helpful. If you’re in a place of grief or weariness where you are utterly exhausted and adoration feels far away, take a blessed nap instead. I like to consider napping an act of adoration, because it is an imitation of the baby Jesus asleep in the manger.
If you’d like to make this adoration exercise a little more concrete, or if the feelings are hard but you can do something intentional with your body (there have been times in my life where I’ve been grateful for a bodily action because the mental was too hard for me), carry around a baby Jesus from a nativity set with you this week, in your pocket or purse. Remember when you were a small child, and you saw something really cute, like a baby chick or kitten, and you could hardly contain yourself from squeezing it to death? Well, since that baby Jesus is just from the nativity, you can squeeze him in your fist as tight as you’d like and fulfill those childhood desires. Merry Christmas, friends. O come let us adore him! Venite adoremus!
A small end-of-year (though not end of season!) note: If you’d ever like to support Old Books With Grace and help keep the podcast going by aiding with upkeep costs and books, you can do so here:
Yes, I know this is technically not an Advent song. But I’m going to discuss it anyway!
Today’s Christmas song is, as the youth say, a banger (in stark contrast to the Coventry Carol last week). It’s the wonderful “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” and again unlike the previous other two carols, it has a distinct writer, Charles Wesley. It also has a distinct best version, that on Amy Grant’s classic 1983 Christmas album, A Christmas Album. It’s on the Spotify playlist. And yes, fight me on that, I am willing to die on that Christmas carol hill.
As it turns out, and as I did not know until this series, Charles Wesley is not the same person as John Wesley, founder of Methodism (clearly I am not a Methodist). They were brothers! And Charles Wesley wrote about 9000 hymns, some of which include our most beloved besides “Hark”: “Christ the Lord is Risen Today,” “And Can It Be,” “O For A Thousand Tongues To Sing,” and many more. Hymn-writing was how Charles Wesley processed just about everything in his life, from the deaths of friends and family members, to holidays, to historical events like the Jacobite uprising.
What cracks me up a little bit about this song is that Wesley originally wrote it to have a slow, solemn melody behind the lyrics. He really wanted that regal, majestic feel. But no one really liked that version, and eventually some folks instinctively put the wonderful lyrics to a far better tune by the great Austrian Jewish composer Felix Mendelssohn.
Here it is, in all its glory. Listen to it, or sing if you’re able:
Hark! The herald angels sing “Glory to the newborn King” Peace on earth and mercy mild God and sinners reconciled
Joyful all ye nations rise Join the triumph of the skies With angelic host proclaim Christ is born in Bethlehem With angelic host proclaim Christ is born in Bethlehem
Mild He lays His glory by Born that man no more may die Born to raise the sons of Earth Born to give them second birth
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see Hail the incarnate deity Pleased as man with men to dwell Jesus, our Emmanuel Pleased as man with men to dwell Jesus, our Emmanuel
Hail the Heaven-born Prince of Peace Hail the Sun of Righteousness Light and life to all He brings Risen with healing in His wings
Christ, the highest heaven adore Christ, the everlasting Lord Come, Desire of Nations, come Fix in us Thy humble home Come, Desire of Nations, come Fix in us Thy humble home.
The very best hymns have both good sound and sound doctrine. This is a robustly theological song. The three verses (there are more, but I chose to focus on these) each set us to think in a particular way about the Incarnation, much like the New Testament itself. The first verse places us in Bethlehem, in the historical moment. It is like the gospel of Luke, with its vivid account of the nativity. Listen to the angels singing to the shepherds. The second verse draws back a little, like the gospel of John, for the bigger picture. The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, Emmanuel. In the third verse, we look forward to Christ’s eternal kingship, to the righting of the universe, to his dwelling in our hearts and his gift of abundant life, as in Paul’s letters and Revelation.
My favorite of these verses is the second. “Mild He lays His glory by / Born that man no more may die”: that first line brings into my mind a vivid picture. A great king strips off his heavy, glorious robes and gleaming crown, laying down his scepter and great seal, the trappings of total power, to reveal a fragile and very human body, what we all share. “Hark” holds the tensions of God’s great power and great humility, of Jesus’s lordship and manhood together.
It reminds me of the famous fourth-century bishop and theologian, St. Augustine of Hippo, who almost compulsively could not stop exploring that overwhelming tension of the Incarnation, and what it means for us as embodied creatures. His pseudo-biography, Confessions, depicts how as a young man, Augustine tried out religion after religion, philosophy after philosophy, seeking satisfaction and finding none. Though born to a Christian mother, Monica, he rejected her Christianity as provincial and embarrassing due to the bodily nature of the Incarnation and of miracles. The hip religions and philosophies of the day were more invested in transcending the crude limitations of the body in order to reach the purity of Spirit (this sounds an awful lot like some of the philosophies of our day too, not least the worship of technology). The incarnation, God becoming human, intentionally limiting himself, seemed positively stupid. In a world where things seem so wrong, where we need the power to right them, why would God make himself smaller?
Augustine narrates how he stumbled out of one religion into the next, as he tries to reach God through his own willpower and prodigious mind. He writes to God, later in his life:
Accordingly I looked for a way to gain the strength I needed to enjoy you, but I did not until I embraced the mediator between God and humankind, the man Christ Jesus, who is also God, supreme over all things and blessed for ever… for the Word became flesh so that your Wisdom, through whom you created all things, might become for us the milk adapted to our infancy. Not yet was I humble enough to grasp the humble Jesus as my God, nor did I know what his weakness had to teach. Your word, the eternal Truth who towers above the higher spheres of your creation, raises up to himself those creatures who bow before him; but in these lower regions he has built himself a humble dwelling from our clay, and used it to cast down from their pretentious selves those who do not bow before him, and make a bridge to bring them to himself. He heals their swollen pride and nourishes their love, that they may not wander even farther away through self-confidence, but rather weaken as they see before their feet the Godhead grown weak by sharing our garments of skin, and wearily fling themselves down upon him, so that he may arise and lift them up.
Confessions VII.18, 24
Augustine plays with the idea of weakness in this passage. What if what he considered weak, babyish, embarrassing—his mother’s belief that God became a man and embraced the needy human body to share life with them—was actually the source of profound, communal strength? What if what he had always considered powerful—philosophical prowess, popularity, intellectual capability, rejection of the body’s limitations—was actually weak in its stubborn refusal of human need, Augustine’s own neediness for God’s humility? As Augustine recognizes that his own insistence on knowledge and power keeps him from truth, he also discovers that the ability to confess need and ask for help is at the root of all kinds of learning. A combination of desire and confession of need fuels spiritual transformation. To admit human need in the face of God’s humanity is, for Augustine, to paradoxically weaken and strengthen as you are lifted up by sharing the flesh with God.
To return to the song: God’s act of “laying his glory by” is mild, gentle, humble, the opposite of wrath or irritation or frustration with how we’ve bungled things here. The brilliance of Wesley’s words, married to the equal preaching power of Mendelssohn’s melody, leads us to sing “Veiled in flesh!” and “Hail the Incarnate” loudly and triumphantly while “Godhead” and “deity” slide, surprisingly, into the quieter part of the verse. Augustine preaches to us what this second verse is all about.
Despite God’s infinite bigness, infinite power, infinite goodness and beauty, he did not force us through that power, through that hugeness, even through that goodness and beauty, to receive him, which is basically what hugeness does, even huge goodness. You can’t ignore it. You can’t sideline it because it dominates the entire skyline. Godzilla, each skyscraper in a downtown, even something massively beautiful, they all assault your eye with their immensity.
In the incarnation, God instead became smaller to meet us, as an adult stoops down to meet a child’s eyes instead of running them over or shouting over them. He hid himself to become findable.
And yet we still implicitly believe that by making ourselves bigger, and others smaller, we can reach God, happiness, wealth, whatever it is that we want. Culturally, we inhale an overwhelming amount of messaging daily from advertisers, so-called Christian leaders, political figures, all of whom tell us that we are not enough. If we had more power, more strength, more money, more beauty, more whatever, we would be better, be able to handle it all, be able to fix things. But the immanent, infinite Word became weak, frail flesh. Augustine discovers that embracing his own weakness leads, paradoxically, to more fully comprehending God’s strength to heal in Jesus’s weak, mortal body. Jesus has healing in his wings, and shockingly he invites us into that healing process with all our weakness, if we can face it with him.
If I have one message that I hammer home in nearly everything I write, annoyingly, over and over, it’s this one. Once I wrote on this very passage from Augustine in graduate school, and someone commented that they didn’t really like the word “weakness.” Couldn’t you use something else? It’s too vague. But that’s what I like about considering weakness. It can encompass so many things: my weak mortal body’s need for glorious tea in the morning; the humiliation of when I yell at my children because I’m tired; the sin of my pride, which is the weak rejection of my weakness; the divine gift of human weakness and need for others that impels me to seek out friendship, one of God’s greatest gifts.
Stop for a minute to consider the radical nature of this idea. It was the part of Christianity that blew apart the classical ancient world. Other doctrines—virgin birth, even God transforming into a human, coming to save the world, all these were old hat. Aristotle writes that the most virtuous man has no weakness, that he saves his friends from giving their energy to himself. When he is in trouble, he is strong enough to stand alone. I also use “he” very purposely, because Aristotle figured a woman, or an enslaved person, could never fit that category. The Incarnate God shows us in contrast that true friendship, true fellowship comes to perfection in the sharing of intimate weakness.
I’m giving you a hard set of questions for your Advent practice this week. What does God’s weakness have to teach you? What does your weakness have to teach you? And don’t shirk the question by being overly general or by doing the “interview” answer (oh, I’m too nice to people, etc.). That may be true; but do the harder, sometimes agonizing work of looking into yourself to fully identify and embrace your weakness. Where are you most weak in your life—in your body, in your spiritual practice, in your relationships, mentally? What can that teach you about yourself, about Jesus’s embracing of weakness? Where is it a gift to you? Again, let’s listen together to this song about Christ’s strange intermingling of weakness and power.
Some people, like me, love Christmas music because the sounds are so familiar and comforting. We know them like the back of our hand, and we think they are beautiful. Others, understandably, feel differently. Christmas music and its repetition each year are grating. Either attitude can sometimes obscure the meanings and feelings of the song. So, to shake you out of whichever category you fall into, I chose a song for this week that most of us aren’t singing on a regular basis, and that certainly is not playing in the mall at any point anywhere in America. It’s a song that is basically the opposite of Let It Snow or any other holly, jolly holiday song. It’s the haunting, weird, unsettling Coventry Carol.
The song, originally from the fifteenth or sixteenth century, consists of the lullabies of the mothers whose children are about to die in the Slaughter of the Innocents, when Herod ordered the murders of the baby boys of Bethlehem. The song was written to accompany the traditional plays that depicted the life of Jesus, the mystery plays, in the town of Coventry in England.
The Mystery Plays were a longstanding tradition in medieval England, only brought to an end by the Reformation and its profound discomfort with portraying Christ onstage. The most famous, whose scripts survive today, were those that took place in York at midsummer on the feast day of Corpus Christi, the holy day that commemorated Christ’s holy body present in the Eucharist. These were plays that told the stories of the Bible, bit by bit. This how I described them in a previous podcast episode:
Guilds—the organizations of different tradespeople and artisans—performed plays depicting the Bible, from Creation to Revelation, outside, on elaborate floats and sets that moved through the streets of the towns. An especially charming feature of these plays is that the content of the play often loosely determined the guild in charge of it. For example, the “fysshers and marynars,” fishermen and sailors, put on “The Flood” at York. More soberly, the “shermen,” the folk who sheared cloth, performed “The Road to Calvary,” in an echo of the sheep sheared before slaughter. The “pynneres,” the makers of pins and nails, and the painters depicted the raising of the cross. The butchers, who certainly had access to a lot of blood, put on the mortification of Jesus on the cross and his death. Some plays were elaborate, and some were simpler. All were performed over the days commemorating Corpus Christi, the summer feast of the Body of Christ that especially honored the Eucharist…These plays brought liturgy to life; biblical history unfolded in your time and place, enacted by and through your neighbors’ bodies before your eyes. Perhaps your friend was Jesus on the cross, or your enemy was Jesus teaching in the temple…When you stop to think about it, such representations were profound, particularly on the feast of Corpus Christi. The Body of Christ in God’s broken earthly kingdom of fifteenth-century York, England reenacted the saga of Christ and his body in first-century Palestine. These plays vividly remind their viewers through their strange literality—you are Corpus Christi, and so am I. Through the miracle of the Eucharist, we are united in Jesus’s resurrected body.
Grace Hamman, “Jesus as Us,” oldbookswithgrace.com
The song today does not come from York, but from Coventry, a smaller town whose plays no longer survive. But we do have this song, the Coventry Carol, embedded in the Nativity Play. Between Mary’s annunciation to the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt, the bereaved mothers of Bethlehem sing this song in anticipation of the death of their baby boys. It’s based on Matthew 2:16-18:
16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. 17 Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
18 “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”
Now listen to the song, either on whatever music streaming service you like (Sufjan Stevens has a good version, and there are several choral versions out there) or on the podcast:
Lully, lulla, thou littell tine childe, By by lully lullay, thou littell tyne child, By by lully lullay!
O sisters too, How may we do, For to preserve this day This pore yongling, For whom we do singe By by lully lullay.
Herod the king, In his raging, Chargid he hath this day ; His men of might, In his owne sight, All yonge children to slay.
That wo is me, Pore child for thee, And ever morne and say ; For thi parting, Nether say nor sing, By by lully lullay.”
See: Francis Douce, Illustrations of Shakespeare and Ancient Manners. Volume Two of Two Volumes. (London: Longman, Hurst, Reeds and Orme, 1807), pp. 114-115.
You might be thinking, Grace, why would you pick this song for Advent? Advent is not a feast day, like Christmas itself. It’s part of the church’s ancient cycle of feasts and fasts, rejoicing and lamenting, laughing and weeping. If we focus too much on one or the other, we miss the full picture of what it means to follow Jesus here on earth. Historically, Advent was a time for fasting, for penance, for remembering our shared bodily limitations and the ways we have wounded one another before the marvelous, celebratory excess of Christmastide. And this song reminds us of our need for lamentation and for weeping in the Body of Christ.
Medieval people believed in weeping for God’s love and for the world’s sorrows as a spiritual gift. They called it “the gift of tears,” and saw in it the presence of the Holy Spirit. The medieval mystical writer, Margery Kempe, wept (or as she illuminatingly called it, roared) all the time, loudly and in public, for her love of Jesus and her sorrow for the world.
Then, of course, there’s also just ordinary tears, the tears of grief and loss and loneliness and despair. When I listen to the Coventry Carol, I consider not only the women weeping in Bethlehem, but Mary weeping at the foot of the cross. And I think of today’s mothers who mourn the unjust or cruel deaths of their children. It’s worth remembering for us that Herod was both religious and an arm of the Roman state. I remember the weeping mothers of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and all other mothers whose children have died through state violence. I recall the mothers who have died with their children crossing the border, out in the desert near where I grew up. I think of the mothers whose children have been unjustly imprisoned. I think of the mothers whose children have been harassed, beaten, or driven to self-harm. And not to mention the countless mothers across the world who lose their children to war, famine, and disease. There are so many reasons to weep like Rachel in Ramah.
In November 1940, the town of Coventry, the origin of this song, was heavily bombed by the Nazis. 30,000 bombs were dropped, hundreds, maybe even a thousand people killed, and 41,000 houses damaged or destroyed. On Christmas, 1940, the provost of the destroyed cathedral broadcast a short sermon on BBC radio, and as he put it, “whoever was left” of his ruined choir sang this tune. It’s a haunting thing to listen to. Here’s a small quote from Provost Howard, from the 25th of December, 1940:
Early this Christmas morning, here under these ruins, in the lovely little stone chapel built six hundred years ago, we began the day with our Christmas communion, worshipping the Christ, believe me, as joyfully as ever before. What we want to tell the world is this: that with Christ born again in our hearts today, we are trying, hard as it may be, to banish all thoughts of revenge… We are going to try to make a kinder, simpler, a more Christ Child-like sort of world in the days beyond this strife.”
Provost Howard, Christmas 1940 sermon in the ruins of Coventry Cathedral
If you keep listening, you will hear the provost, standing among the ruins of his church and town, urging his listeners, including us across the divide of years, to fight the desire to become like Herod. For that is our great temptation—we want to rule and we are tempted to destroy any threat to our supremacy as individuals, as ethnic groups, as cultural leaders, as nations. You may be scoffing right now. Of course in 1940 the Nazis were spitting images of Herod, destroying the newest generation of Jewish children. Yet the provost at Christmas 1940 wisely calls us to attend to our own desire for dominion. “How could I be a Herod?” is a fair question. Yet I know, if I am honest with myself, that the Herodian temptation acts in my soul. And it is a temptation on the lowest as well as the highest levels. It’s easy to see the Herodian impulse in the political party that you hate, or those you profoundly disagree with. It can be harder in the Herod-littered realms of history, especially if it’s the history of your own ancestors or nation. It’s hardest to see Herod in myself, in the ways I sideline voices who threaten my carefully curated world of safety, or how I attempt to control situations to ensure that what I want to happen does happen (spoiler, it doesn’t work). From the depths of WWII, at one of its lowest moments, Provost Howard urges us to reject the Herod in us, even when we have been bombed to oblivion by our enemies, and become like the tiny infant Jesus to create a kinder, gentler world. And take comfort, the medieval Corpus Christi plays remind us: he is already with you, deeper than your skin, present in the sacraments and even in the body of you and your neighbor.
When God became a little baby, he shared our embodiment. All embodied folk are no longer only his creation, they are his holy kindred, his beloved family. The image of God is in each one of us, and no longer just in our souls but in our very bodies, through the Eucharist we consume, but also through the reality and totality of his Incarnation. This was one of the messages of the Corpus Christi plays in medieval Coventry. When your neighbor that you didn’t even like played Jesus, it reminded you of how you aren’t just part of Christ’s body with the people you like or approve of. The Body is bigger than you can dream, larger than your judgment, even than your hope.
As Christians, we say we believe in the tired but true phrase of the sanctity of human life. Let us lament together this week on how we have managed to live out unbelief in the holiness of every person, have been like Herod and not Jesus. Practice waiting with hope and lament for Jesus by meditating or reaching out to a grieving friend or family member. If you’re feeling extra medieval this week, you might feel called to pray for Margery Kempe’s gift of tears as we meditate on the Coventry Carol.
But let’s go further, as well. The action for this week of Advent is to give. I encourage you, in a time filled with the fun and weariness of purchasing gifts for our friends and family members, to also use your money to honor our Incarnate God by giving to an organization that seeks to honor bodies that may be different than your own, with lives different than your own, but no less share the beauty of Christ’s embodiment. Many of us tithe or give to churches or particular ministries, but take a moment to contribute to a place you don’t normally give. Give to organizations that support groups that have faced the wrath of powerful Herods pretty personally. Some thoughts for giving: groups that advocate for immigrants and refugees, like the Holy Family themselves, groups that advocate for prisoners and those on death row, groups that provide safe housing and help for pregnant women, groups that tell people rejected by their families and churches because of their sexuality or gender that they are still worthy of love, and groups that advocate for people of color, especially children and impoverished folks. Here are a few organizations you could look into, or find one you feel particularly drawn to:
Kino Border Initiative, a group composed of Catholic organizations feeding, housing, and advocating for immigrants in Nogales, Arizona, and Nogales, Mexico.
Let’s begin with a story. My great-grandmother, Gma, had a mental decline towards the end of her life. She had forgotten almost everything and lived in an assisted-care facility. My family visited her in Truth or Consequences (yes, real name), New Mexico. I was in high school, and dreaded it. It was awkward, she certainly would not remember us, I was uncomfortable with emotion and the closeness of death.
My mother is an idea woman. She comes up with ideas and boldly tries them, often to great success, sometimes to her detriment (but mostly success). Her idea when we visited Gma was to sing to her. She had heard that music memories are stored in a different part of the brain, and that even when language had been lost to the ravages of Alzheimer’s, sometimes singing could unlock memories of words in song. I don’t think any of us, especially the teenage contingent, wanted to sing in a random nursing home when we thought that Gma wouldn’t even respond.
But something beautiful and strange happened that day in Truth or Consequences. In a sterile, beige-colored room set aside for visitors, my family fumblingly began to sing “How Great Thou Art” a capella. And Gma, though she hadn’t been able to speak and certainly did not know who we were, in her tiny, quavering voice, began to sing with us. It was an unforeseen, mysterious moment of communion beyond the bodily ravages of illness and time, beyond the ugliness of a rural nursing home in New Mexico, beyond language and reason, facilitated through song.
This podcast inclines toward the intellectual, towards words and stories and critical thinking about their forms and meanings. This is how I naturally operate and of course I won’t entirely abandon it (for any Enneagram nerds, I’m a five). But Advent is mysterious. Like in the liturgy itself, time unravels. Though Jesus came 2000 years ago, in Advent we wait for him again. Though we are redeemed in his precious body, we call out for the redemption of our time, of our current bodies and places and spaces and beloved friends and family. Music can help us move beyond time and intellect’s limited grasp towards something of this mystery. When you sing O Come, O Come Emmanuel, you lift your voice alongside 1200 years of Christians welcoming the Incarnate God, the tiny baby, savior of the world. I can hardly think of anything so tangible, other than the sacraments, that connects us to the great cloud of witnesses, our ancestors, as singing these songs of the past. So this Advent series focuses on Christmas and Advent carols, one at a time.
Our song for today is one of my favorites, O Come O Come Emmanuel. I love it partially because it is so ancient. Like so many of our songs, it was first crafted by monks, all the way back in the eighth century. In the liturgical order right before Christmas Eve, they chanted something called the “O Antiphons,” or the “Great O’s.” This was a list of addresses to Jesus by different names in the Old Testament, very popular in early and late medieval poetry and song:
O Sapientia (O Wisdom)
O Adonai (Hebrew name for God, the giver of the law)
O Radix Jesse (root or branch of Jesse, in the lineage of Jesus)
O Clavis David (key of David)
O Oriens (Morningstar or daystar)
O Rex Gentium (King of the Gentiles)
O Emmanuel (self-explanatory, from Isaiah’s prophecies)
There’s another thing about this list that makes me smile, because it’s such insight into the medieval character, those folks who loved puzzles and allegory and layer and layer of meaning more than almost anything. Do you remember acrostic poems? Those dreadful poems you’d write for your mom on Mother’s Day that spelled out her name with the initial letter of each line? Well, these original Latin verses of O Come O Come Emmanuel create a reverse acrostic in Latin: ero cras, which translates to “I shall be with you tomorrow.” So the song was often sung on December 23, the night before Christmas Eve, to fulfill Christ’s promise in the acrostic! It’s Jesus’s inside joke with his own nicknames!
Obviously this sounded very different than the version we sing today. How did it become the familiar tune we know and love? In the nineteenth century, the Victorians got very into all things medieval. In 1851, A man named J.M. Neale translated a thirteenth-century metrical version (i.e. poetry) into English and set it to music. From the sound of it, he was rather a disorganized man and did not tell what the source of the tune was. For a while, no one knew where this haunting, lovely melody that so fits the waiting, yearning themes of Advent—the same tune we sing today—came from. But in the twentieth century, a woman with two of the most amazing name associations discovered its origin. Mother Thomas More—birth name Dr. Mary Berry, in a fabulous martyrdom/Great British Bake-Off name collision—found its source, a fifteenth-century processional for French nuns. So when we sing this song, we sing in Victorian English, to a Renaissance melody for nuns, ancient Hebrew words with origins in the deep and distant past of the Old Testament, first strung together by Latin monks in the Dark Ages, and set to poetry by someone unknown in the Middle Ages. It’s a song that embodies the history of the Western Church. When my six-year-old sings it with Sufjan Stevens in the backseat of our car, she joins in with the unknown voices of ages. How beautiful, big, and transcendent is the body of Christ.
O come, O come, Emmanuel, And ransom captive Israel, That mourns in lonely exile here, Until the Son of God appear. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel Shall come to thee, O Israel.
O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free Thine own from Satan’s tyranny; From depths of hell Thy people save, And give them victory o’er the grave. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel Shall come to thee, O Israel.
O come, Thou Dayspring, come and cheer, Our spirits by thine advent here; Disperse the gloomy clouds of night, And death’s dark shadows put to flight. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel Shall come to thee, O Israel.
O come, Thou Key of David, come And open wide our heav’nly home; Make safe the way that leads on high, And close the path to misery. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel Shall come to thee, O Israel.
O come, Adonai, Lord of might, Who to Thy tribes, on Sinai’s height, In ancient times didst give the law In cloud and majesty and awe. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel Shall come to thee, O Israel.
Which of Jesus’s titles stood out to you, upon this reading or singing?
I have recently responded most strongly to the idea of Jesus as Dayspring. Sometimes it seems like my people and nation are captive to an implacable, devouring darkness. Often it seems like hate captures imaginations more than love, or like tearing something down is easier than constructing something beautiful. Pride, fear, injustice, and refusal to acknowledge one another as full people dominates the public arena. I struggle with insomnia and anxiety, and at times it seems like the literal night will never end. But to name Jesus as the Dayspring is an act of hope that one day this present darkness will disintegrate in the light of the dawn and all motives and actions, ugly and beautiful, will be laid bare and exposed for what they are. It reminds me of the ending of C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, where the human, tempted throughout the novel, dies in an air raid during WWII and suddenly sees everything in his life illuminated like the dawn, his rights and wrongs, his good and bad loves, his lies and the ways he’s been lied to, the beauties and joys of his life.
But the other titles too all illustrate a hope for what Jesus came to set right. Emmanuel—God With Us—he redeems our bodies, and our bodies matter, they are not merely our flesh trap while we wait for eternity. Rod of Jesse—this could also be root or branch of Jesse, but to describe him as a rod reflects both rootedness and the absolute justice of God. The Rod of Jesse beats off the thief of life. The Key of David opens heaven and fully realized communion with God and his saints, while locking the misery of sin away. And finally, Adonai, the lawgiver, fulfills the law of love. All of Christ’s titles reflect an active reality, not an abstract, passive hope for the next life. They are the fulfillment of “Thy kingdom come, on earth as it is heaven,” which reminds us that this life is not just a vale of tears and oppression, but a place where we are privileged to work the love of the Incarnate God. This song marries our future promise of heaven and the real end of misery to our concrete acts of love and justice as Christ’s pierced hands and feet in the world. There’s a real tension there that defies easy boundaries and simple answers. Sometimes you will be active in the work of love and it will feel good and come easily with rejoicing, sometimes you will cry out in the pain of the laboring world and all its hatred.
O Come asks us a serious question even as it yearningly praises our savior: as we wait for the Dayspring, who are you loving this week, with words or deeds or both? Is it just those easy to love, those like you or those you already like? Where are you doing your tiny part to make way for the justice of the Kingdom? On the flip side of that coin, where have you taken burdens upon yourself that don’t belong to you, that instead rest with Adonai, the Key of David, the Rod of Jesse, Emmanuel, and require you to wait, in stillness and silence?
The Advent Action for this week is to carve out a space for yourself in expectant solitude, away from holiday busy-ness and bustle, to meditate upon these questions. Go on a walk on your lunch break, even if it’s cold. Take a bath. Play quiet music in your room while hiding from your children. Pray to each title of Jesus in O Come and see if one particularly speaks to you at the moment. If you’d like to soak in some poetry about these names of Jesus, the O Antiphons, the poet Malcolm Guite has a beautiful series with both poetry and commentary to check out. And do not be afraid: he tells us in this song, ero cras, promising his presence with us.
This week, I welcomed Victoria Emily Jones, the writer and creator of the website Art and Theology, to join me on Old Books With Grace. You can either watch the YouTube video of our discussion (right below this paragraph), or listen to it on the podcasting service of your choice. Below I’ve included the art and poetry that we discuss in this wonderful episode! I hope it encourages you in your preparations for Advent and imitating Mary in receiving the Christ child.
“Our Lady’s Salutation” by Robert Southwell (ca. 1561–1595) (spellings modernized)
Spell Eva back and Ave shall you find,
The first began, the last reversed our harms;
An angel’s witching words did Eva blind,
And angel’s Ave disenchants the charms;
Death first by woman’s weakness entered in,
In woman’s virtue life doth now begin.
O virgin breast! the heavens to thee incline,
In thee their joy and sovereign they agnize; [agnize = acknowledge]
Too mean their glory is to match with thine,
Whose chaste receipt God more than heaven did prize.
Hail, fairest heaven that heaven and earth doth bless,
Where virtue’s star, God’s sun of justice, is!
With haughty mind to Godhead man aspired,
And was by pride from place of pleasure chased;
With loving mind our manhood God desired,
And us by love in greater pleasure placed:
Man laboring to ascend procured our fall,
God yielding to descend cut off our thrall.
“Annunciation” by Scott Cairns, from Idiot Psalms: New Poems (Paraclete Press, 2014)
Deep within the clay, and O my people
very deep within the wholly earthen
compound of our kind arrives of one clear,
star-illumined evening a spark igniting
once again the tinder of our lately
banked noetic fire. She burns but she
is not consumed. The dew lights gently,
suffusing the pure fleece. The wall comes down.
And—do you feel the pulse?—we all become
the kindled kindred of a king whose birth
thereafter bears to all a bright nativity.
The land lies open: summer fallow, hayfield, pasture. Folds of cloud mirror buttes knife-edged in shadow. One monk smears honey on his toast, another peels an orange.
A bell rings three times, as the Angelus begins, bringing to mind Gabriel and Mary. “She said yeah,” the Rolling Stones sing from a car on the interstate, “She said yeah.” And the bells pick it up, many bells now, saying it to Mechtild, the barn cat, pregnant again; to Ephrem’s bluebirds down the draw; to the grazing cattle and monks (virgins, some of them) eating silently before the sexy tongue of a hibiscus blossom at their refectory window. “She said yeah.” And then the angel left her.
Mysteries of the Incarnation: “She Said Yeah” by Kathleen Norris, from Little Girls in Church (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1995)
More resources on the Annunciation and art, suggested by Victoria Emily Jones:
Shannon K. Evans, author of Rewilding Motherhood: Your Path to an Empowered Feminine Spirituality, joins me on this podcast episode to consider the ancient, powerful metaphor of Jesus as our Mother. How might thinking of Jesus as a Mother change our ideas about God? Where did this idea come from? How can it affect our lives and faiths today? I hope you enjoy listening as much as I enjoyed recording it!
Shannon K. Evans is a woman with a Catholic spirituality and an interfaith heart. Her passion is opening up deeper waters of contemplating God so that our experience of the Divine grows further loving and curious rather than static and complacent. She is a regular contributor to Franciscan Media and writes the Everyday Ignatian column at Jesuits.org, the official website for the Jesuits of U.S. and Canada. Shannon is the author of two books: Rewilding Motherhood and Embracing Weakness.
It’s the last installment of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and while I was prepping for today’s post, I was reading the poem aloud. I got all teary-eyed because I just love the poetry here. The content is wonderful and the Middle English is wildly beautiful, even unearthly. I hope that many of you are discovering that same love, truth, and wonder hidden in this 650-year-old gem. Let’s get to it.
Gawain wakes up on the morning of his destiny. He puts on his most dazzling outfit, and makes sure to tightly wrap the green girdle around his waist (the poet comments that it looks good on him, but he wasn’t wearing it for beauty). He saddles Gringolet, his horse, and a guide leads them both into the wilderness. From Simon Armitage’s translation:
They scrambled up bankings where branches were bare,
clambered up cliff faces where the cold clings.
The clouds which had climbed now cooled and dropped
so the moors and the mountains were muzzy with mist
and every hill wore a hat of mizzle on its head. (Armitage, 2077-2081)
I love that Armitage gleans so much from the Middle English here. One of the most charming lines of the original mentions these “mist-hats” on the mountains, “Vch hille hade a hatte, a myst-hakel huge” (2081). Next time you see a mountain-top covered in cloud (for me, a regular occurrence, because I live in Denver), you can gently whisper to yourself, a “hello, myst-hakel”!
Gawain’s nameless guide gets him close to the chapel, then uneasily begins to take his leave. He attempts to convince Gawain to join him in fleeing. You don’t know this Green Knight, says the man. He LOVES to murder people! It is his favorite pastime! The servant pleads for Gawain, whom he has grown to love and respect:
for God’s sake travel an alternative track,
ride another road, and be rescued by Christ.
I’ll head off home, and with hand on heart
I shall swear by God and all his good saints,
and on all earthly holiness, and other such oaths,
that your secret is safe, and not a soul will know
that you fled in fear from the fellow I described. (Armitage, 2119-2125)
Gawain refuses, with some irritation, and says he will never be taken for a coward. He adds:
He may be stout and stern
And standing armed with stave
but those who strive to serve
our Lord, our Lord will save. (Armitage, 2136-2139)
Now this is rather interesting to me. Both of these men are doing something which we often do today—talking about God’s work in the world confidently, directly, as if the Lord didn’t use mediums or go-betweens or subtleties in his work. For the servant, it seems that Christ doesn’t have enough power to rescue Gawain if he does something so colossally stupid as following through with his promise to visit the bloodthirsty green fiend. Meanwhile, Gawain seems to have conveniently forgotten about his own compromises he has made—ahem, secretly keeping the green girdle—undermining the strong statements that he makes on finding his fortune on “the grace of God alone” (2159). He sounds like the folks today who triumphantly declare their faith in their God-given immune systems, conveniently forgetting that God has saved lives through the hands and feet of people (including doctors and scientists, and perhaps sexy court ladies) countless times. We all can easily vacillate between perhaps performative assertions of utter trust, and implicit doubt that God himself can deal with the terrible implications of our choices. And we are all remarkably blind in our capacities for self-deception. I see myself in Gawain’s erratic ability to go from sneakily pocketing an item of enchantment for self-preservation and loudly declaring infallible trust in God in the meantime. In this moment, the blame doesn’t rest in his taking the girdle, but in that intellectual dishonesty.
Equally this doesn’t invalidate Gawain’s courage in this moment. He has an out, and he refuses to take it. We the readers know he has been afraid, dreaming dreadful dreams, facing foes seen and unseen to get to what will likely be his death, and yet he goes onward. And boy is that courage about to be tested.
Gawain reaches the Green Chapel. This hill surrounded by frantically rushing water is creepy:
it had a hole at one end at either side,
and its walls, matted with weeds and moss,
enclosed a cavity, like a kind of old cave
or crevice in the crag—it was all too unclear to declare.
‘Green church?’ chunters the knight.
‘More like the devil’s lair
where at the nub of night
he dabbles in dark prayers.’ (Armitage, 2180-2188)
Then, another moment of wild horror and cleverness. A sound rings out over the seemingly empty, haunted scene. Not a scream, but something close: it is the shrill sound of an axe being whetted. Here, I read in the Middle English, because yet again our poet imitates the sound of steel on a whetting stone, being honed to a fine edge perfect for shearing necks:
What! hit clattered in the cliff as hit cleue schulde
As one vpon a gryndelstone had grounden a sythe.
What! hit wharred and whette as water at a mulne;
What! hit rusched and ronge, rawthe to here. (2201-2204)
Can you hear the noise that clatters and cleaves the cliff? The repetition of what! is particularly ingenious. The word was traditionally used in alliterative poetry as a call to listen closely (it’s the first word of that famous Old English poem, Beowulf) but here it also sounds like the sharpening itself. It’s basically a pun via sound! The sounds used in the alliteration also echo the sharpening, the w’s and the r’s closely resembling that screaming, shearing, rasping noise. It sends chills down my spine.
Gawain has one last chance to lose his nerve, but instead calls out and reveals his presence. Come out, it’s now or never, he calls. And something growls back: “Abide!”
Out of the stones comes the Green Knight, now with a giant new axe in his hand, and the massive green man uses it to vault over the rushing waters and comes to Gawain. He greets Gawain, and notes he has fulfilled his promise. Gawain tries to look unafraid. He bares his neck, and bows before the knight. In a theatrical flourish, the Green Knight draws the axe high above, ready to deal a deathly blow. As he brings it down, Gawain suddenly flinches and shrinks, and the axe-wielder diverts his swing. “You’re not Gawain,” he says. Such a man would never shrink
at foretaste of harm.
Never could I hear of such cowardice from that knight.
Did I budge or even blink when you aimed the axe?” (Armitage, 2270-2274).
We’ve heard this taunt before. Its presence, as always, is telling. Gawain’s life is at stake, but more importantly to him, his reputation is on trial. Gawain protests that he won’t do it again, but brusquely tells the Green Knight to get on with it. The Green Knight taunts him by repeating the swing, but moving it away at the last second. This time, Gawain is rooted like a tree. With inner fear and outward anger, Gawain demands that the Green Knight just hit him already.
With a great, final stroke, the Green Knight brings the axe mightily down upon Gawain’s neck.
Hoisted and aimed, the axe hurtled downwards,
the blade bearing down on the knight’s bare neck,
a ferocious blow, but far from being fatal
it skewed to one side, just skimming the skin
and finely snicking the fat of the flesh
so that bright red blood shot from body to earth.
Seeing it shining on the snowy ground
Gawain leapt forward a spear’s length at least,
grabbed hold of his helmet and rammed it on his head,
brought his shield to his side with a shimmy of his shoulder,
then brandished his sword before blurting out brave words,
because never since birth, as his mother’s babe,
was he half as happy as here and now.
“Enough swiping, sir, you’ve swung your swing.” (Armitage, 2309-2322)
Gawain has lived! He’s ready to fight if the Green Knight follows through on his murderous reputation, but instead the Green Knight looks at Gawain standing aggressively and bravely, and in his heart admires him.
The Green Knight explains his own game, that he had divided his strokes into three. “Had I mustered all my muscles into one mighty blow, / I would have hit you more harshly and done you great harm,” he explains, but instead, he feinted with his first blow, for Gawain’s truthful behavior had won his trust (2343-2344). He missed Gawain again with his second, “and this for the morning / when you kissed my pretty wife then kindly kissed me” (2350-2351). Wait—the Green Knight is Lord Bertilak?!?! Yet this hardly has a chance to hit us because he keeps going with his explanation. The last time he hit Gawain for real, and shed his blood, because of that very green girdle which belongs to the Green Knight himself. I sent her to test you, he acknowledges,
“As a pearl is more prized than a pea which is white,
in good faith, so is Gawain, among gallant knights.
But a little thing more—it was loyalty that you lacked:
Not because you’re wicked, or a womanizer, or worse,
but you loved your own life; so I blame you less.” (Armitage, 2364-2368)
This was all a trick, engineered by the enchantress, Morgan le Fay, to tempt and weaken the great King Arthur. Gawain stands speechless, absorbing the shock. The blood rushes to his face and he shrinks in shame. This moment stretches out in time—the cringing, handsome young knight with his sword beginning to sink downwards, the smiling, giant green man looking at him with triumph and also, strangely, some love and understanding.
Gawain breaks the silence. Like a child throwing a toy that hurt them, he fumblingly unties the girdle and flings it at the Green Knight in an agony of anger and shame. He cries out:
My downfall and undoing; let the devil take it.
Dread of the death blow and cowardly doubts
meant I gave in to greed, and in doing so forgot
the freedom and fidelity every knight knows to follow.
And now I am found to be flawed and false,
through treachery and untruth I have totally failed. (Armitage, 2378-2383)
At first, Gawain’s words are disorienting. Why is he confessing all these crazy sins, when it seems that his only mistake was a lie of omission in a game? This seems like an overreaction. But do you remember Gawain’s personal emblem on his shield, the endless knot, the pentangle of virtues that characterized his face to the world? Gawain’s endless knot has utterly collapsed. The vices he cites are the opposites of those virtues. His understanding of himself, and the way he is in the world, is crumbling in one moment. The Middle English here is especially interesting. Gawain is “taught” by “cowardice” to “forsake” his “kynde” (2379-2380). Kynde is a central word here. We still use some word-ancestors of it today: our modern “kind” as in kindness, appropriate and attentive behavior to one another, and our modern “-kind” in mankind, or type or category (as in I like that kind of candy). Medieval people used it in those ways as well, but it was a far more powerful word. It’s a multivalent word that means identity, a deep nature inherent to a person. With the discovery of his girdle-theft, Gawain feels as if he has forsaken his deepest nature as a knight and as a man.
In contrast, the Green Knight argues this only means that Gawain loved his life, an understandable weakness in the face of death. In this sense, it is in accord with an even deeper kynde for him to betray these values, these ideals of knighthood and manhood. But Gawain isn’t having it. He’s so frustrated and ashamed of his failure. So he asks the Green Knight to forgive him, and the Green Knight absolves him, in a secular parody of confession, penance, and absolution. The Knight even invites Gawain back to the castle, to meet his wife now as friend and not foe. Gawain refuses, and enters on a tirade against women worthy of the most virulent friar of the Middle Ages. I hate to give it airtime, so to sum up: ever since Eve, women have been the source of man’s downfall.
Do we take this vitriol against women seriously? Is Gawain echoing what the poet truly believes to be true about women? We could. This speech is part of a long tradition of medieval writing and thinking, especially from friars and other religious men committed to chastity. Some readers do. I do not. I think the poet is having a last bit of fun at people when their values collapse into a heap in a moment of failure. Surely it can’t be my own fault! Gawain is desperately casting about for something to blame when the world isn’t as it should be according to him. As it so often does, the hammer of blame falls upon women (we also see unfair blame cast at persons of color regularly). All of this is in line with Gawain’s general overreaction, shame, and anger with himself. It is also apiece with the poet’s keen awareness of the fragility of some types of masculinity—Gawain’s overweening interest in his reputation, especially with women, Arthur’s advice towards greater violence in a game, and the Green Knight’s interest in cutting them down to size.
The Green Knight tells him to keep the girdle, and Gawain swears he will wear it always, as a sign of his sin and failure and frailty of flesh. It will act as a check to his prowess, his pride in his skills and abilities, and a reminder of his humanity. And Gawain rides, green girdle tied aslant his chest, back to Camelot:
So he winds through the wilds of the world once more,
Gawain on Gringolet, by the grace of God,
under a roof sometimes and sometimes roughing it,
in valleys and vales had adventures and victories,
but time is too tight to tell how they went. (Armitage, 2479-2483)
I think the ending of the poem is perhaps the most curious and interesting, and I still vary in how I interpret it, despite having read it so many times. When Gawain arrives back at Arthur’s court, everyone rejoices to see him alive. He shows them his scar from the axe, and the girdle, and tells them the story of his failures. “I was tainted by untruth,” he announces, and shows his new knot, the knotted lace that he wears around his human body. The court comforts him, then laughs and they all agree to wear a green girdle themselves. Each knight who wore the girdle was honored ever after, and the girdle becomes a symbol for honor and for the great court of King Arthur.
Who is right about the girdle? Gawain, in his shame, as a symbol for sin? The court, as a symbol for a knight who was brave and managed to live? Either way, isn’t it amazing that the knot of perfection is replaced with this new knot? I have three main interpretations that I see as possible, and will tell you all.
The first is that Gawain is right, and he is now a truth-speaking man within a court of frivolity that cares little for the failures of man. The court acts like a certain American ex-president: something that should be shameful becomes part of the pageantry and excitement of a political party, a shallow and unethical way of being in the world. If we celebrate failures and dishonestly turn them into triumphs, we don’t have to deal with their consequences.
The second is that Gawain is being overscrupulous about his sins. He is self-flagellating, punishing himself too severely for something that he should feel properly guilty about and move on. The court sees the girdle as a symbol of common humanity, of honor even in weakness. Gawain needs to lighten up and recognize that he fails like everyone else.
Either of these last two are extremely viable interpretations, but the third is my favorite. Both Gawain and the court are a little bit right. We all wear the girdle of our mortality, in the form of our crumbling and glorious bodies. We need both Gawain and the court, both the girdle as reminder of weakness and the girdle as reminder of bravery and honor in human limitation pushed to its limit. We mourn our sins and we rejoice that we live in a world with the beauty of courage and great action.
I wrote this on Halloween, and it occurred to me that this is what Halloween, celebrated properly, is about. Facing, and celebrating, our littleness in the face of so much unknown. Our merry rejoicing against the darkness, combined with a little healthy fear and respect for the vastness and vast unknowability of our world. Our simultaneous reclamation of the knowledge that we are made to live well, in the image of God, and knowing that we aren’t the people of the righteously perfect eternal knot though we would like to believe so. We make decisions not knowing their outcome, but we try to practice the virtues. We, like Gawain, are learning. We are learning where we have imbibed toxic cultural untruth, where we are haunted by grand ideas of ourselves that hold us to suffocating unreality. What is our kynde? We are not the people of the pentangle, the glorious, perfect, intertwined crown of virtues, yet—but the people of the green girdle, bound to fail in our big and often dark world, yet learning who we are and how to live.
Let’s end this series in the words of the poet of 650 years ago. I’ll first read Armitage’s translation, and end with the Middle English.
…once the siege and assault at Troy
our coffers have been crammed
with stories such as these.
Now let our Lord, thorn-crowned,
bring us to perfect peace.
After the segge and the assulte watz sesed at Troye,
Mony aunterez herebiforne
Haf fallen such er this.
Now that bere the croun of thorne,
He bring vus to His blysse!
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