Traditional Christians of both East and West are observing Great and Holy Friday today in remembrance of the sacrificial death of Jesus of Nazareth whom they revere as ‘Christ’ or Messiah. As one of those believers, I offer some thoughts I have had before and after, and, alas, even during the services of this past week along these lines. I have been startled by how much of the imagery of the books we discuss here resonate with the historical events and eternal verities we commemorate this weekend. If you are not a Christian, I doubt these musings below the jump will have any value to you; I will return to my more profane posts for all readers on Monday.
My thinking started with a search for a recording of Dorothy Sayers’ The Man Born to be King, her dramatization of Holy Week and the human choices and qualities mixed up in the transcendent and world-altering death and resurrection of the Christ. It turns out there isn’t a recording, at least not one available for retail purchase, My researches, though, turned up that one could be had through a bit of pirating (?) technology called ‘torrent.’ Having no experience with this sort of thing, I wrote a good friend, the man in fact with whom I first experienced Man Born to be King in a C. S. Lewis Society on the Left Coast, to ask for his advice about the ‘whether’ and ‘how to’s of downloading this sort of thing.
He emailed me the necessary advice (I have decided against Torrent) and with it he added this jarring aside:
Getting off the tech talk… yes, “That Man Born to Be King” is terrific! Though years later, I no longer find myself interested so much in the naturalistic psychology of Judas that Sayers did a good job expanding upon. Fr, Alexander Schmemann’s exegesis below now seems more apt and to the point:
=== Fr. Alexander Schmemann on distorted love ===
But this hour of ultimate love is also that of the ultimate betrayal. Judas leaves the light of the Upper Room and goes into darkness. “And it was night.”(John 13:30) Why does he leave? Because he loves, answers the Gospel, and his fateful love is stressed again and again in the hymns of Holy Thursday. It does not matter, indeed, that he loves the “silver.” Money stands here for all the deviated and distorted love which leads man into betraying God. It is, indeed. Love stolen from God and therefore, Judas is the Thief. When he does not love God and in God, man still loves and desires, for he was created to love and love is his nature, but it is then a dark and self-destroying passion and death is its end. Each year, as we immerse ourselves into the unfathomable light and depth of Holy Thursday, the same decisive question is addressed to each one of us: do I respond to Christ’s love and accept it as my life, or do I follow Judas into the darkness of the night?
Love, in brief, is the reason Judas betrays Christ, a love for the wrong things but love nonetheless, even if this love leads to an end of Love Himself.
Reflecting on this, and, inevitably, on the things, the personal idols of self and material, which I worship rather than identifying with and adoring What brings us into existence moment to moment, I thought of Tom Riddle, Jr., Lord Voldemort, and his idolatry. Dumbledore says several times to Harry that the Dark Lord does not love and knows nothing of love. I think Fr. Alexander’s exegesis of Judas’ love of silver, the lunar quality of reflected light compared to the solar light of gold and of Love properly, suggests strongly that the Dark Lord for all his inhumanity loved nonetheless because, as images of God, we are designed to love. His love of his ego existence and persona, however, was the love felt by the fallen person for ephemera rather than the eternal. Hence his agony, his transformation into a serpent, and his death when he meets a man who has chosen instead the path of sacrificial love and identity with the good, the true, and the beautiful, the Heir of the Potter.
I thought, too, of Suzanne Collin’s Mockingjay song, ‘The Hanging Tree,’ and the call Katniss feels, Finnick, too, to join the man singing to them. I wrote about this heavy Calvary resonance embedded in the Hunger Games finale last year this way:
(1) When a writer puts a symbol or a poem or story into the narrative line, it is a very good bet that understanding this image, poem, play, or prose piece is a key that unlocks the story-line. Think of Nabokov’s Pale Fire for an over the top example of imbedded poetry or of the ‘triangular eye’ symbol and ‘Tale of the Three Brothers’ in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. As I explain in ‘The Seeing Eye’ chapter of The Deathly Hallows Lectures, Ms. Rowling is explaining via her characters’ attempts to understand the Hallows symbol and Brothers tale how to interpret the most important artistry and meaning of her book.
(2) Oddly enough, the meaning of that Hallows symbol — the bisected triangle enclosing a circle — was most profoundly explained in text not by Xenophilius Lovegood, Ron Weasley, Hermione Granger (no relation), or even Albus Dumbledore. Harry shows us what it means when he buries Mad-Eye Moody’s magical eye in the shadow of the oldest oak tree he can find and carves a cross on the tree trunk (again, see Lectures). The tree is the heart of the symbol in Hallows as it is to the esoteric meaning of ‘The Hanging Tree’ in Mockingjay; as the country western tune puts it, the Hanging Tree is the “Tree of Life.”
A tree is an apt symbol of God and His relationship to the world because, like a tree, especially an ancient one,
- He is relatively immortal or timeless,
- His beginning is unknowable and invisible,
- He is a unity at His core or base
- that grows into a seemingly infinite extension at His periphery.
All traditional cultures, consequently, understand trees as natural transparencies through which any thinking person can see God, the Creator who brings everything into existence (see, for instance, Romans 1:20). ‘The Hanging Tree,’ from this understanding, is death to the individual ego and carnal concerns but the greater life and love available in God. The seeming contradiction of having to lose your life to gain it, of course, is at the heart of the teachings of the Galilean (see John 12:24-25 and Luke 17:33).
The “tree” of this song, in one word, is the Cross, the “murdered three” is a not-so-opaque reference to the three who were murdered by the state at Calvary, and the criminal calling his beloved to take up his cross is Christ.
“The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom ye slew and hanged on a tree.” (Acts 5.30.)
“And we are witnesses of all things which he [Jesus] did both in the land of the Jews, and in Jerusalem; whom they slew and hanged on a tree” (Acts 10.39.)
“And when they had fulfilled all that was written of him, they took him down from the tree, and laid him in a sepulchre.” (Acts 13.29.)
“Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness” (Peter 2.24.)
This is the Mockingjay’s song because sacrificial love and death to one’s ego is the most radical and revolutionary politics that no regime, the World, can tolerate. “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Just as at the beginning of Games, when Katniss sacrifices herself to save Prim, she offers herself as a sacrifice at the end of the series to save all the Prims who will die in the revived Hunger Games if Coin lives.
Katniss, in having embraced the Pearl of Great Price in Fire, the example and teaching of Peeta the Christ figure, and committing herself to die for him becomes the sacrifice that redeems the world in Mockingjay; she answers the call of Christ on the Cross and becomes a “murderer,” executing President Coin, knowing it means her death, which, of course, means her greater life with Peeta as Christ.
This is why he intervenes at the assassination to prevent Katniss’ death. She answers the call of the man on the tree, her beloved, the light and life of the world, to join him, a sacrifice prefigured in Fire by “the lightning tree” that is her means of transcending the fallen, murderous world of the arena if she is willing to die to herself and confront “the real enemy.” Mockingjay, throughout which she and Finnick are making nooses from rope pieces as Katniss did as a child on hearing the ‘Hanging Tree’ song, is the story of her preparation to die to self and join her beloved on the tree.
I offer for your consideration that this sacrificial love and means to transcendence is also the meaning of Hunger Games that resonates most profoundly in the hearts of Ms. Collins’ readers, who with Katniss, have the message of ‘The Hanging Tree’ if not its words within them.
End exegesis of ‘The Hanging Tree.’ Several readers found this interpretation forced and even evangelical; others thought it spot-on. I still find the Calvary echoes here hard to overlook in light of the Eliade thesis that books serve a mythic or religious function in as secular culture and our corollary that the most popular books will be the ones that serve that function most deftly and powerfully.
I’d offer as my closing thought before heading out to Royal Hours that this kind of reading of text and of history as transparencies to eternal truths and realities is an atrophied human capability that needs to be nourished rather than a denominational tick one should suppress in company of others. As evidence of that, I offer St. Maximos the Confessor’s reading of Jesus of Nazareth’s meeting with Pontius Pilate and a Parthian thought about those at the Cross this Holy Friday.
71. Pilate is a type of the natural law; the Jewish crowd is a type of the written law. He who has not risen through faith above the two laws cannot therefore receive the truth which is beyond nature and expression. On the contrary, he invariably crucifies the Logos, for he sees the Gospel either, like a Jew, as a stumbling-block or, like a Greek, as foolishness (cf. 1 Cor. 1:23)
72. When you see herod and Pilate making friends with each other in order to destroy Jesus (cf. Luke 23:12), you may discern in this the concurrence of the demons of unchastity and self-esteem, who combine together to put to death the Logos of virtue and spiritual knowledge. For the demon of self-esteem, making a pretence of spiritual knowledge, refers to the demon of unchastity, and the demon of unchastity, putting on a hypocritical show of purity, refers back to the demon of self-esteem. Thus it is said, ‘When Herod had arrayed Jesus in a gorgeous robe, he sent Him again to Pilate’ (Luke 23:11)
73. The intellect should not yield to the flesh or cling to the passions. For, it is said, ‘men do not gather figs from thorns’, that is, they do not gather virtue from the passions, ‘nor do they gather grapes from a bramble bush’ (cf. Matt. 7:16), that is, they do not gather from the flesh that spiritual knowledge which gladdens the heart.
74. An ascetic tested by the patient acceptance of trials and temptations, purified by bodily training, and perfected by attention to the higher forms of contemplation, receive the blessings of divine grace. ‘For the Lord’, says Moses, ‘came from Sinai,’ that is, from trials and temptations, ‘and appeared to us from Seir,’ that is, from bodily hardships, ‘and hastened down from mount Paran with ten thousands of Kadesh’ (Deut. 33:2. LXX), that is, from the mountain of faith with untold sacred knowledge.
75. Herod exemplifies the will of the flesh; Pilate, the senses; Caesar, sensible things; and the Jews, the soul’s thoughts. When the soul through ignorance associates with sensible things, it betrays the Logos into the hands of the senses to be put to death and proclaims within itself the kingship of perishable things. For the Jews say, ‘We have no king but Caesar’ (John 19:15).
76. Again, Herod exemplifies the activity of the passions; Pilate, a disposition that is deluded by them; Caesar, the ruler of the world of darkness; and the Jews, the soul. When the soul submits to the passions and betrays virtue into the power of an evil disposition, it manifestly denies the kingdom of God and transfers itself to the destructive tyranny of the devil.
First Century on Theology (Philokalia, Vol II, pp 128-129)
In brief, St. Maximos sees in the persons of the betrayal and crucifixion of Christ the story of every person’s faculties of soul and the right ordering as well as the fallen hierarchy and relationship of these faculties. I don’t doubt that a modern or postmodern reader of St. Maximos sees only an overly enthusiastic believer projecting his spiritual anthropology onto text; we, as a rule, see history and text relating history as more or less accurate one-to-one correspondences of each other.
St. Maximos, however, sees both text and the historical events relayed as both such a mechanical correspondence and as a window through which to see an account of human psychology and, more important, soteriology. In the events leading to Calvary, we see fallen man and the necessity of Christ’s sacrifice as Logos in a transparency, a historical event window through which we see and know specific time and space events in Jerusalem and, in them, the verities of human life transcending history and the individuals involved.
I thought of this last night while looking at the icon of the Crucifixion and listening to the Passion Gospels as they were read in church. We talk a lot here about ‘soul triptychs’ and their use in popular fiction. It’s a powerful imagery that is obviously effective; why else do we see variants of it in Harry-Hermione-Ron, Bella-Edward-Jacob, and Peeta-Katniss-Gale? They are shadows of Alyosha-Ivan-Dmitri Karamazov, and, to the point, of the soul’s intellect (nous) or ‘inner heart,’ the spirit in popular parlance, and mind or will with body, the Biblical ‘belly’ or desires. ‘Call it Body-Mind, and Spirit,’ these fictional characters are stand-ins or transparencies in which and through which our souls’ faculties see and experience their right alignment and are imaginatively transformed.
I thought of this while looking at the icon of the Crucifixion and listening to the Passion Gospels because of the triptych of onlookers there, specifically, St. Gestas, the crucified thief forgiven by Christ and promised deliverance to the Kingdom, and Sts. John the Theologian and Longinus the Centurion at the foot of the Cross. It doesn’t take a St. Maximos to see in the three men looking to Christ as He dies the suffering body, the will in obedience, and the loving spirit all recognizing in wonder the Christ as dying, sacrificial God.
Rene Guenon, a Sufi sheikh, observes in his The Symbolism of the Cross that
The cross is a symbol which in its various forms is met with almost everywhere, and from the most remote times; it is therefoe far from belonging peculiarly and exclusively to the Christian tradition as some might be tempted to believe. It must even be stated that Christianity, at any rate in its outward and generally known aspect, seems to have somewhat lost sight of the symbolic character of the cross and come to regard it as no longer anything but the sign of a historical event. Actually, these two viewpoints are in no wise mutually exclusive; indeed the second is in a sense a consequence of the first; but this way of looking at things is so strange to the great majority of people today that it deserves dwelling on for a moment in order to avoid possible misunderstandings.
The fact is that people too often tend to think that if a symbolical meaning is admitted, the literal or historical sense must be rejected; such a view can only result from unawareness of the law of correspondence, which is the very foundation of all symbolism. By virtue of this law, each thing, proceeding as it does from a metaphysical principle, translates or expresses that principle in its own fashion and in accorsdance with its own order of existence; so that from one order to another all things are linked together and correspond in such a way as to contribute to the universal and total harmony, which, in the multiplicity of manifestation, can be likened to a reflection of the principial unity itself….
This holds good for historical facts no less than for anything else; they likewise conform to the law of correspondence just mentioned, and, thereby, in their own mode, translate higher realities, of which they are, so to speak, a human expression. We would add that from our point of view (which obviously is quite different from that of the profane historians), it is this that gives to these facts the greater part of their significance. The symbolical character, while common to all historical events, is bound to be particularly clear-cut in the case of of events connected with what may be called “sacred history”; thus it is recognizable in a most striking way in all the circumstances of the life of Christ. If the foregoing has been properly grasped, it will at once be apparent not only that there is no reason for denying the reality of these events and treating them as mere myths, but on the contrary that these events had to be such as they were, and could not have been otherwise; it is clearly impossible to attribute a sacred character to something devoid of all transcendent significance.
In particular, if Christ died on the cross, it can be said that this was by reason of the the symbolic value which the cross possesses in itself and which has always been recognized by all traditions; thus without diminishing in any way its historical significance, the latter may be regarded as directly derived from the symbolical significance that goes with it.
Symbolism of the Cross (Luzac, 1975, pp xi-xii)
Christ dies on the cross, in other words, because it was the Roman instrument of tortuous execution at that time and place, yes, but more importantly because of the metaphysical significance of that symbol and death. The cross is the revelation of the center, it defines the point which is the origin and unknown and unknowable beginning of the circle reflecting the principial unity and totality to which Guenon refers. Christ as God’s Creative Word or Logos is this mystical center, simultaneously the origin and resolution of all contraries, and his loving, sacrificial death or resolution on the cross at Calvary reveals his divine nature in its way in as profound a way as His Transfiguration, Theophany, and Resurrection do,
St. Maximos writes:
The centre of a circle is regarded as the the indivisable source of all the radii extending from it; similarly, by means of a certain single and indivisible act of spiritual knowledge, the person found worthy to dwell in God will perceive pre-existing in God all the inner essences (logoi) of created things.
Second Century on Theology #42, op.cit., p 138
We are called, in other words, as persons created in the image of God wanting to grow in His likeness, to pursue a specific vision by which we recognize in everything existent the creative logos of God which is their metaphysical cause or center. As triptychs of body-mind-and-spirit we experience stories that are told as rings, with alchemical drama of contraries seeking resolution, and with character triptychs with whom we identify as shadows of Sts. John-Longinus-and Gestas on Calvary seeing the Logos center Himself in resolution, even seeming dissolution, to transcend by this act in His person the polarity without duality of time and space, a sacrifice that delivers us, as much as we join ourselves to this death, to our eternal life in Him.
Harry Potter travels every year to an inner chamber where he dies a sacrificial death and rises from the dead in the presence of a symbol of Christ. Bella Swan, similarly, sacrifices herself in each book of the Forks Saga on her path to apotheosis, the conjunction of the human heart and the Divine Mind. Katniss Everdeen, the Mockingjay on Fire or Phoenix, is the resurrection bird of her Hunger Games adventures, too, who identifies and joins herself to the man calling from the Hanging Tree. I suggest in brief that these stories have their power and hold on us largely through their shared powerful resonance with the events of Calvary and the consequent Resurrection, whose historical-metaphysical meaning is our means to transcending self and our hope of immortality.
I pray that your observances of this Holy Week have been edifying and challenging and that your celebrations of our Lord’s Resurrection will be joyous. “Re-member us in Thy Kingdom,” as St. Gestas cries from his cross, as triptychs in disarray all looking to Thee, the Divine Origin and Cause of all things.