Q: What do Aslan, St. Francis, and medieval mystery plays have in common? A: The Incarnation.


A garden statue of Francis of Assisi with birds

This post from the final “Incarnation chapter” of my forthcoming Medieval Wisdom: An Exploration with C S Lewis begins to turn the corner from C S Lewis on the Incarnation to medieval treatments of the Incarnation.

Aslan

Aslan “comes on the Narnian scene already and always a lion; he did not become lion to save Narnia,” therefore he is not precisely a Christ figure.[1] Nonetheless, he is “an Incarnation”: he is earthy, embodied, powerful in his materiality, and also the son of the Great Emperor. It is only a year after his extended reflections on the Incarnation in Miracles: A Preliminary Study that he turns back to continue work on The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. In the chapter in Miracles on “the Grand Miracle” (the Incarnation), Lewis “speculates on a springtime coming to the whole cosmos as the result of Christ’s incarnation on earth.” “Aslan, the incarnation of Christ in Narnian terms, represents in Narnia what Christ represents on earth: the God of the Chosen People, the ‘glad Creator’ of nature and her activities.”[2] He revealed his intention in a letter to a girl who had asked about “Aslan’s other name”:

“As to Aslan’s other name, well, I want you to guess. Has there never been anyone in this world who (1) arrived at the same time as Father Christmas (2) Said he was the Son of the Great Emperor (3) Gave himself up for someone else’s fault to be jeered at and killed by wicked people (4) Came to life again (5) Is sometimes spoken of as a Lamb (at the end of the Dawn Treader)? Don’t you really know His name in this world? Think it over and let me know your answer!”[3]

Francis of Assisi

One of Lewis’s favorite medieval figures is the earthy Francis of Assisi. At the heart of Francis’s theology was a childlike wonder at the Incarnation of Christ.[4] Lewis insisted to his friend Arthur Greeves that the Assisian was “one of the ‘shining examples of human holiness.”[5] He loved the friar’s “gentle spirit and profound love of nature,” and was so taken with Francis’s habitual moniker for his own physical body, “Brother Ass,” that he sometimes used it as a sign-off in his own letters.[6]

Two weeks before Christmas in 1223, Francis was staying in the little hillside hermitage near the town of Greccio, south of Assisi. According to his contemporary, Brother Thomas of Celano, Francis called a friend of his, named Giovanni, to help him in preparing a special celebration of the forthcoming feast. He asked that animals and hay be brought to a cave at the hermitage, so that a scene could be prepared to show the people of the town and his own brothers the physical conditions of the birth of Jesus.[7]

He wanted people to be able to experience what it was like for the Son of God to be born in a stable, surrounded by the ox and ass, straw and cold. Francis’ brothers and the people of the town of Greccio gathered in the cave on Christmas Eve lighting up the night with torches, singing hymns, with a priest celebrating Mass on an altar arranged over the manger. Francis himself, ‘dressed as a Levite’, sang the Gospel ‘in a beautiful voice’, and preached, full of emotion. Thomas tells us that it seemed as if the infant Jesus, long forgotten in the hearts of the people, came to life that night. And all of creation, the trees and stones of the surrounding mountainside, echoed the praises sung by the people.[8]

This simple kind of nativity scene was destined to be spread by Franciscans throughout the world as they moved out from Assisi in the following centuries. It is by now a familiar feature of Christmas celebrations throughout the world. Though it has suffered its share of commercialization, and its significance has sometimes become purely sentimental, at its origins the nativity scene was a striking affirmation of God’s entry into the mundane, everyday life of poor people, the world of creatures, the world of straw and rocks.”[9]

Mystery plays

In the following centuries, the English mystery play or “miracle play” picked up and elaborated this earthy, visual approach to the nativity—and indeed the whole life and Passion of Christ and the story of salvation, all the way back to Genesis. Lewis appreciated the way these plays dealt with sacred subjects yet combined them with earthy farce. The plays were developed and performed as extended series—in the case of the famous York cycle, on wagons scattered around town. Each play was mounted by one of the local craft guilds, and this itself grounded the drama in the realities of the workaday world. For example, in the York crucifixion play, the nailers’ guild, who had the hereditary responsibility for the play, has the men preparing the cross and pounding the nails through Christ’s hands and feet complaining in a rough and jocular manner of the difficulty and boredom of the work – oblivious to the divine significance of what they were doing. In his Life of Christ, Bonaventure had counseled: “You must direct your attention to these scenes of the Passion, as if you were actually present at the Cross, and watch the Crucifixion of our Lord with affection, diligence, love, and perseverance.” The plays helped their audiences do this by marrying the sublime and the ridiculous – heightening the bizarre reality of a God who becomes humans and dies at the hands of those he created.

Lewis’s friend Dorothy Sayers picked up that same riotous combination in her own Man Born To Be King and her several successful stage plays—drawing quite consciously from the mystery play tradition (her academic specialty, like Lewis’s, was medieval literature – though in her case, French literature). Likewise the wonderful legends of King Arthur and the Holy Grail, Chaucer’s ribald Canterbury Tales, and many other works of medieval literature appeal directly to our imaginations in ways that mere doctrine or even Protestant worship just don’t do. All of that seems to stem from an understanding that the Incarnation demands we encounter our world, as well as God, in visual, physical, embodied ways. Without the imagination and its storehouse of images, we don’t seem to really be doing business with an Incarnate God. In many ways, that’s what Lewis’s whole body of fiction is about.


[1] Paul F. Ford, Companion to Narnia, Revised Edition: A Complete Guide to the Magical World of C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia (rev. ed., HarperCollins, 2005), 57.

[2] Ford, 57-58, and n. 5.

[3] Letter to Hila Newman, 3 June 1953, Collected Letters Volume III, 334.

[4] William Short remarks on Francis’s “immersion in the wonder of the incarnation.” (Short, 40)

[5] [Will elaborate on this from material in chapter intro.]

[6] Downing, 71.

[7] Short, 41.

[8] Short.

[9] Short.

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