The Manger, The Day, The Love

christianIt was 46 years ago this month that we celebrated our first “Christian” Christmas. We had had prior Christmases: raucous, boozey, sometimes lachrymose events complete with singing, laughter, tears–and worry. We could never afford what we spent. But those were pagan Christmases; this was different. My wife and I had concluded that the event Christmas is supposed to commemorate had in fact occurred. It was not merely a charming story; it had actually and literally happened.

What brings back memories of that Christmas of 1952 is all the publicity surrounding the 100th anniversary of another birth, that of Clive Staples Lewis. Full-page newspaper articles, magazine spreads, a television documentary, Anthony Hopkins’s highly-rated movie, all have celebrated an unpretentious Oxford professor of literature, dead for 35 years. It was this same C.S. Lewis who, aided by some of our friends, caused our Christmases to change.

We did not first meet him through his “Chronicles of Narnia,” the books whereby our children and their children would encounter him in later years. In 1952 he had barely begun writing these. Our initial introduction to him was a little red booklet disarmingly entitled “Broadcast Talks,” the text of a wartime series on Christianity he had given over the BBC. These did not strive to establish that Christianity was psychologically sound, socially essential, or of great individual comfort, the kind of thing we had heard from pulpits whenever we couldn’t escape them. No, Lewis had an entirely different aim. He sought to establish that Christianity was true, which to many people then was preposterous–indeed, outrageous. It still is.

To do this, Lewis had first to establish the existence, not only of a God, but of a good God, a difficult task in a world where innocent creatures suffer undeserved pain, live horrible lives and die in agony. How could this be the creation of a “good” God? Lewis tackles this question head on by establishing the reality of what philosophers call “Natural Law” and he calls “the Rules of Right and Wrong.” By this he means all the moral rules: telling the truth, caring for the helpless, supporting our families, keeping our place in lineups, all the minutiae that govern day-by-day life. These rules, he argues, do not vary wildly from one society to another, as some contend, but are in fact remarkably similar worldwide. One generation teaches them to the next, just like the rules of mathematics. But we don’t invent them, and we cannot without disaster repeal or significantly amend them.

His second point is equally important: Scarcely a day goes by when we do not in fact break at least one of these rules. Such seems to be the common human confession. That is, “we know the Law of Nature–and we break it.” These two facts, says Lewis, “are the foundation of all clear thinking about ourselves and the universe we live in.”

From there Lewis builds the Christian case for a good God who allows his creatures free will to love him or reject him, a God from whom we repeatedly turn away. We see God’s response to our rebellion unfolding, first in the teachings of the Jewish prophets, finally in the stable at Bethlehem. Who was that child? Who was the man Jesus? Either God or a lunatic, replies Lewis. “If you think you are a poached egg, then when you’re not actually looking for a piece of toast to sit on, you may be sane. But if you think you are God, there is no hope for you.” Considering the otherwise profound sanity of Jesus’s teaching, Lewis rejects the lunacy option, Jesus had to be, as the 1,600-year-old Creed of St. Athanasius puts it: “Perfect God and perfect man, of reasoning soul and human flesh subsisting.” Or in the words of a 19th-century hymn: “Lo, within a manger lies/ He who built the starry skies.”

Lewis then compares Christianity and other great religions, but never contends we are altogether right and they altogether wrong. All, even the strangest, have some element of the truth, he says. As in an arithmetic sum, there’s only one right answer–but some of the wrong answers are closer to being right than others. Only atheists think everybody else is wrong.

We read all this in utter astonishment. Never before, for instance, had we heard that Christians consider the worst sin to be pride. “There is no fault that makes a man more unpopular,” Lewis observes, “and no fault which we are more unconscious of in ourselves. And the more we have it ourselves, the more we dislike it in others…That is why a cold, self-righteous prig who goes regularly to church may be nearer to hell than a prostitute. But, of course, it is better to be neither.”

Finally, Lewis scrapped the 19th-century image of the pastel Christ, the “pale Galilean” of Swinburne’s cynical poem. “We have pared the claws of the Lion of Judah,” wrote Lewis’s codefender of the faith, Dorothy L. Sayers, “and certified him as meek and mild, a fit companion for pale curates and pious old ladies.” In his Narnia series, Lewis restores the lion. Christ is the huge and powerful Aslan, slain by the wicked witch and thereby triumphing over death itself. “Do you eat little girls?” asks the terrified heroine Jill. The Lion replies: “I have swallowed girls and boys, women and men, kings and emperors, cities and realms.”

After years of insipid religion, this Christ came to us like a drink of cold water in a desert. Here was a God to believe in, a faith to follow. And so we followed it that first Christian Christmas in 1952, followed it to the church and from there through the creation of schools, magazines, books, wherever it led. Of two things we can testify. We have never measured up, and we have never been bored. His mercy, as the old Jewish poet said, endures forever.

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