How C S Lewis’s understanding of the Incarnation helped him–and helped him counsel others–in suffering

Crucifixion of Christ by Albrecht Altdorfer, 1526

Crucifixion of Christ by Albrecht Altdorfer, 1526 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In this second post from the final chapter of my Medieval Wisdom: An Exploration with C S Lewis, I open the door to Lewis’s own incarnational spirituality:

The very fact that C S Lewis needed to see Christianity as satisfying not just to his intellect but also to his imagination shows us that he saw our full humanity as important in our faith. He had been taught well in that by the Romantics – Wordsworth, who he listed as one of the writers who most influenced him – George MacDonald – a true romantic who reveled in nature and its sacramental function, pointing to God. These predisposed the post-conversion Lewis to dwell lavishly, as the medieval authors he studied had dwelt, on the wonder of the Incarnation.

The Incarnation and Passion as ways God meets us in our suffering – and met Lewis in his

We will see how that fascination with the Incarnation – the enfleshment of the Creator God as a human being – emerged across his nonfiction and fiction writings. But it also gained a new and powerful meaning for him when he lost the love of his later life, his wife Joy. That Christ shared not only our humanity but our suffering helped Lewis get through that experience of grief:

In Letters to Malcolm, he wrote: “‘We all try to accept with some sort of submission our afflictions when they actually arrive. But the prayer in Gethsemane shows that the preceding anxiety is equally God’s will and equally part of our human destiny. The perfect Man experienced it. And the servant is not greater than the master. We are Christians, not Stoics.”[1]

This was more than a general observation. After the medieval manner, Lewis attended to every detail of the Passion of the human Christ, drawing from them succor in his hour of need. He continued, “Does not every movement in the Passion write large some common element in the sufferings of our race? First, the prayer of anguish; not granted. Then He turns to His friends. They are asleep—as ours, or we, are so often, or busy, or away, or preoccupied. Then He faces the Church; the very Church that He brought into existence. It condemns Him. This also is characteristic. . . . There is, then, nothing left but God. And to God, God’s last words are ‘Why hast thou forsaken me?’ You see how characteristic, how representative it all is. The human situation writ large. These are among the things it means to be a man. Every rope breaks when you seize it. Every door is slammed shut as you reach it.”[2]

Lewis saw that Christ’s Passion experience was “the human situation writ large,” and he found this a comfort—and sought to comfort others with it too: “Some people feel guilty about their anxieties and regard them as a defeat of faith. I don’t agree at all. They are afflictions, not sins. Like all afflictions, they are, if we can so take them, our share in the Passion of Christ.”[3]

When he wrote to people who had brought their life troubles to him in letters, he offered them the same comfort, born of Christ’s willingness to share our humanity: “You needn’t worry about not feeling brave. Our Lord didn’t—see the scene in Gethsemane. How thankful I am that when God became man He did not choose to become a man of iron nerves; that would not have helped weaklings like you and me nearly so much.”[4] And to another lady: “Fear is horrid, but there’s no reason to be ashamed of it. Our Lord was afraid (dreadfully so) in Gethsemane. I always cling to that as a very comforting fact.”[5]

[1] Letters to Malcolm (Macmillan, 1964), 42-43.

[2] Ibid, 43.

[3] Ibid, 41.

[4] Letter to a lady, 17 July 1953, in Letters of C. S. Lewis (Ed. W. H. Lewis. NY: Harvest/Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1966), 250.

[5] n. 45 Letter to Mary Willis Shelburne, 2 April 1955, in Letters to an American Lady, Ed. Clyde S. Kilby (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967; London: Hooder and Stoughton, 1969), 41. Mueller in Menuge (see earlier chapter draft) is the secondary source who pointed me to this theme and to these passages in Lewis’s letters.

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