Tag Archives: the Passion

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: Continue reading

Reclaiming the physical in Christian worship


holy-wounds-devotionHere’s the last bit of the “affective devotion” chapter draft for Getting Medieval with C S Lewis:

Reclaiming the physical

Finally, among the varied aspects of our human nature, our emotions seem especially closely tied with our physical bodies. We use the same words, “feeling” or “being touched,” for the physical senses and for emotional experiences. But reading Margery Kempe’s Book makes me ask: Where has the sense of the spiritual importance of touch or physicality gone in today’s culture? Are these human senses now allowed to communicate anything true or spiritual to us? We have plenty of the visual in our TV- and movie-soaked culture, and even in our churches. But how often do we experience anything spiritually significant through touch? The most intense, ecstatic touch-experiences, those of our sexuality, have been devalued and dehumanized through obsessive attention and being made into the commodities of the impersonal marketplace. I think that like Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, Margery’s life of devotion and the whole English mystical tradition can help to draw today’s Christians back to the sort of visible, physical devotion epitomized in the medieval pilgrimage.

In the mid-90s I was giving a lecture on Pentecostalism at an evangelical seminary in New England. I was describing the huge influxes of eager believers, every day, by the busload, to the Azusa Street Revival that launched Pentecostalism in 1906, and again to the modern Toronto Airport Vineyard revival and the Brownsville/Pensacola revivals One student put up his hand and asked, with skepticism in his voice: “Why do Pentecostals and charismatics feel that it’s so important to actually go to the place where a revival is supposedly happening, to ‘bring back’ that revival to their home churches?” Continue reading

The heart of medieval heart religion: Devotion to the Passion of Christ


CrucifixionTheIsenheimerAltarpiecesNow we get close to the crux of late medieval heart religion: devotion to the Passion of Christ. Draft of a piece of the “affective devotion” chapter of Getting Medieval with C S Lewis:

Perhaps the most intense and long-lasting dimension of medieval affective devotion was that era’s devotion to the Passion of Jesus, the God-man. Martin Luther, the founder of Protestantism and a thoroughly medieval man, acted on the repeated urgings of his Augustinian confessor, Staupitz, to “Look to the wounds of Jesus.” And soon after posting his 95 theses, he announced that the only man who deserved to be called a theologian was he “who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the Cross.” All through his life, his sermons and hymns contained striking images of that event. Where did this come from?

The roots of Luther’s passion devotion are to be found in the tradition of medieval affective piety that we have been examining: Anselm of Canterbury (d. 1109), asking Christ to forgive him “for not having kissed the place of the wounds where the nails pierced, for not having sprinkled with tears of joy the scars.” Abelard (d. 1142/43), focusing on the supreme example of Christ’s love and forgiveness in his Passion, in order to foster in the unbeliever emotions of horror and godly sorrow when confronted by this death. Bernard of Clairvaux’s (d. 1153) lavish attention to the emotions of the believer captivated by the love of God.

And then, of course, Francis of Assisi, whose all-consuming imitation of Christ seemed rewarded on September 17, 1224, in the hermitage on Mt. Alverno, when he is said to have received the gift of Christ’s wounds in his own flesh—the stigmata. Continue reading

The roots of heart religion – Francis of Assisi


Gemälde von Bonaventura Berlinghieri: Der hl. ...

Francis in a medieval dollhouse (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is the fifth part of the tour of medieval heart religion from the affective devotion chapter of my Getting Medieval with C S Lewis. It follows the first part here, which looks at Origen and Augustine, the second part here, on Gregory the Great, the third part here, on Anselm of Canterbury, and the fourth part here, on Bernard of Clairvaux.

Francis of Assisi (1181/2-1226)

Francis of Assisi, on top of all his other distinctions, gave the affective tradition a great boost in the 13th century. The sheer ubiquity of the evangelizing, teaching movement he started ensured that anything he emphasized would deeply penetrate the Christian culture of that century, and many centuries to come. By the latter part of the thirteenth century almost every town of any size had its community of Friars Minor. Within fifty years of the saint’s death there were over fifty such communities in England alone, and more than five hundred in Italy.[1]

No influence shaped popular devotion in the high and late Middle Ages more than the Franciscans. They reached into the psyche of the people, appealing to them directly through art, literature, and impassioned preaching on the homely details of the Nativity and the stark and gritty narrative of the Passion. Tears, for Francis as for Julian and the English mystics, were a gift from God, cleansing and cathartic – a worthy daily discipline for those who “keep watch over the perfection of their life.”[2] Continue reading

The goodness of Good Friday: The oxymoron of an unhappy celebration


c. 1632

"Christ on the Cross," Diego Velazquez, c. 1632

Since the day is fast approaching–Good Friday, that is–I thought readers might appreciate this brief Christian History article I wrote on the subject:

What a supreme paradox. We now call the day Jesus was crucified, Good.

Many believe this name simply evolved—as language does. They point to the earlier designation, “God’s Friday,” as its root. (This seems a reasonable conjecture, given that “goodbye” evolved from “God be with you.”)

Whatever its origin, the current name of this holy day offers a fitting lesson to those of us who assume (as is easy to do) that “good” must mean “happy.” We find it hard to imagine a day marked by sadness as a good day. Continue reading

Pope Benedict XVI says Shroud of Turin the real deal


Unlike his predecessor John Paul II, Benedict XVI has now affirmed the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin. It is, he says, “an icon written in blood,” the very grave-clothes of Jesus of Nazareth.

To me, the 13th-14th century provenance claimed by the carbon-daters makes more sense: that was a period of intense interest in the actual events of Christ’s life and, especially, of his Passion. For more on that, see my article for CT on late medieval Passion devotion.

This also seems a bold move by a pope–to declare something authentic that it is well within the realm of science to later declare a fraud (though so far no conclusive proof has been given).

What do you guys think?

God in flesh and bone: Medieval devotion to the embodied, incarnate, human Christ


For the complete story of the mill and brewery operator, mother of 14, and “lay mystic” Margery Kempe (1373 – 1438), see my Patron Saints for Postmoderns or the fascinating website “Mapping Margery Kempe.” Why should we care about Margery? Lots of reasons, but here are a couple that particularly struck me, excerpted from the chapter on Margery in Patron Saints:

God in Flesh and Bone

At the start of the chapter I made a connection between Margery and
Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. What was it about Gibson’s
movie that has galvanized so many modern (or if you like, postmodern)
Western Protestants? After all, of representations of Christ’s life there
has been no end. Why did this one, in particular, speak so deeply to so
many? I think there are two answers to this question, and that both of
them can help us understand and benefit from the life of this odd English
mystic, Margery Kempe. Continue reading

Gory glory: where devotion to Christ’s passion came from and why it’s still a worthy spiritual discipline


I posted yesterday a reflection sparked by Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. You might wonder: Why did Christians ever begin to focus on the gory details of Jesus’ last hours? Glad you asked! I explored that very question in a Christianity Today article:

The Fountain Fill’d wth Blood
Mel Gibson is drawing on a long tradition of Cross-centered devotion.
Chris Armstrong

Martin Luther, the founder of Protestantism, acted on the repeated urgings of his Augustinian confessor, Staupitz, to “Look to the wounds of Jesus.” And soon after posting his 95 theses, he announced that the only man who deserved to be called a theologian was he “who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the Cross.” All through his life, his sermons and hymns contained striking images of that event.

The German pietists and the Moravians who followed in Luther’s steps in the centuries after his death also practiced the Reformer’s near-mystical devotion to the cross. They wrote hymns filled with the most heart-rending depictions of the wounds and the sufferings of Christ. And British evangelicals like the Wesleys and William Cowper followed with hymns in a similar, if more refined, mold (think of Cowper’s “There is a fountain fill’d with blood, / Drawn from Emmanuel’s veins”).

This comes as a surprise to many, because Protestants have usually followed the image-averse John Calvin. He, though equally focused on the Cross, worried that any imagining of the Crucifixion might become an idol, distracting the believer from God himself.

Thus the “gorier” pietist and Moravian hymns have now, with the almost solitary exception of Paul Gerhardt’s (d. 1676) “O Sacred Head Now Wounded,” been pushed from most current hymnals (even Moravian ones). And when we run across the sort of vivid portrayal of Christ’s passion that Mel Gibson presents in his movie, something in us recoils: Is this not excessive and morbid? Why dwell on the horrific details? Surely Jesus would want us to turn quickly from Good Friday to Easter, placing our focus on his glorious resurrection!

We find it difficult to enter the world of another time—to understand its art, its jokes, its characteristic devotions and valued emotions. Never is this more true than with the vivid, bloody, even repellant portrayals of Christ’s suffering embodied in the paintings, sculptures, preaching, poetry, and drama of the late medieval period. But this is where the whole subsequent history of Cross-centered devotion has its roots. And it is a tradition, for all its flaws, that has something to teach us still.

Life-sized Passion

In the period of persecution before Constantine, such leaders as Ignatius of Antioch (who eventually went eagerly to martyrdom) counseled believers to imitate Christ in his passion, resigning themselves to the sufferings of persecution, as he had done. After Constantine, however, the church focused on a triumphant, resurrected Christ. The earliest depictions of Jesus’ humanity, from the fourth century on, show him as a royal or imperial figure, and his cross, if shown at all, as jeweled or golden. The “Christus Victor” atonement theology of the day emphasized Christ’s triumph over Satan.

Christianity became fashionable under later Christian emperors, and the church began to look too much like the world. So men and women began retreating from society into solitary cells and small communities. These earliest monastics sought the road to true discipleship. And they saw their master and model, Christ, as the sacrificial lamb, mocked and slaughtered to redeem sinful man. Earnest disciples, in the East and later in the West, immersed themselves in the Gospel accounts of the Crucifixion, which they read over and over again in a daily cycle whose very “hours” represented key moments in Christ’s passion.

At the opening of the Middle Ages, however, church leaders such as Gregory the Great (590-604) still tended to highlight Christ’s divine dignity. It was again the monks, especially the early Irish and British monks, who sustained a special devotion to the cross of Christ and tried to imitate Christ’s sufferings with penitential disciplines, such as standing for long periods with arms outstretched.

By the 11th century, however, this special devotional attachment to the Passion began to spread beyond the cloister, as a new emphasis on affective (emotional) spirituality spread in the church. John of Fécamp (d. 1078), for example, begged Jesus to grant his desire that, because of the blood he shed, John’s eyes would flood with tears, his heart being made contrite. Anselm of Canterbury (d. 1109) asked Christ to forgive him “for not having kissed the place of the wounds where the nails pierced, for not having sprinkled with tears of joy the scars.”

Soon a new atonement theology came on the scene, one fit for the new emotional piety. Its author was Peter Abelard (d. 1142/43), who stressed that the Crucifixion provides not satisfaction for wrongs committed (as had Anselm) but rather the supreme example of Christ’s love and forgiveness. Abelard wanted to foster in the unbeliever emotions of horror and godly sorrow when confronted by this death.

The 12th century’s focus on affective devotion found its most important promoter in Bernard of Clairvaux (d. 1153). But the most vivid example of Passion-centered piety was still to come. This was Francis of Assisi, whose all-consuming imitation of Christ seemed rewarded on September 17, 1224, in the hermitage on Mt. Alverno, when he is said to have received the gift of Christ’s wounds in his own flesh—the stigmata.

Francis’s disciples in the next two hundred years brought the humanity and sufferings of Christ into the mainstream of devotion. From portable outdoor pulpits and within chapels whose walls were often covered with life-sized Passion scenes, the preaching friars stressed as never before the emotions of Jesus during his ordeal—and the answering emotions of the worshiper.

They also championed an ascetic approach that sought to follow Paul, who said, “In my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of the church” (Col. 1:24). In the late-medieval heyday of Passion piety that followed, many monks, nuns, and layfolk tried in various ways to imitate Jesus’ passion or to experience something of the same extreme suffering as had their Lord.

At the same time, the laity picked up another spiritual practice that had once been the preserve of the monastics: the regular discipline of private prayer. The wealthy commissioned beautiful Books of Hours and other aids to help them meditate on the Crucifixion.

Gratitude and terror

According to medievalist Richard Kieckhefer, 14th-century Passion literature was supposed to evoke four primary reactions: gratitude, penance, compassion, and imitation. But these did not appear simply or discretely. Rather, terror, awe, sorrow, and joy might mix in one experience. At the center of all this emotion was the single goal that every believer sought; in the words of Kieckhefer, “a sense of profound contact with the deity that was joined with [Christ’s] humanity.”

Christians throughout the period from Bernard through Loyola wrote and read increasingly elaborate accounts of the Passion events. The man whose exegetical work opened the floodgates to these newly detailed narratives was Rupert of Deutz (d. 1129). A Belgian who died an abbot in Germany, Rupert mined not only the gospel accounts and a number of apocryphal accounts—all of which had been used before his time to tell the story of the Passion—but also a host of obscure passages in the Old Testament.

By an allegorical method of exegesis, Rupert found in the pages of Job, Psalms, Isaiah, and other books new and little-known details of the “Secret Passion” of Christ—the exact number of times he fell down en route to the cross, the drunken condition of Jesus’ tormentors in Caiaphas’s court (Rupert was no friend to the Jews), and so forth. The detail of the executioner’s ropes pulling Jesus’ body taut, for example, came from Psalm 22:17. After Rupert, historian Gerard S. Sloyan says, “A legion of visionaries took their lead from his writings,” elaborating an expanding cast of characters and litany of details of Christ’s suffering.

Late 13th- and 14th-century authors went one step further with entire comprehensive biographies of Christ that contained details from outside of the Gospels—most famously, the Vita Christi of Ludolph of Saxony (d. 1378). It was this book that eventually reached a swashbuckling young Inigo (later Ignatius) Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order, in his convalescence from a war wound, and turned his heart toward Christ. Ignatius wrote in his widely used Spiritual Exercises a set of directions on how to place oneself imaginatively in the scene of Christ’s crucifixion.

Loyola was working in the same tradition as the anonymous 13th-century author who wrote under the name of the historian Bede, who urged readers to place themselves on the scene of Christ’s trial—to plead with his tormentors, offer their own bodies to be beaten in his stead, and wait with him as he sat in chains, offering their shoulders for him to rest upon.

This same tradition founded such longstanding devotional practices as the Passion Play and the Stations of the Cross. And it was in this period that disturbingly graphic crucifixion paintings (by Hiëronymus Bosch, Albrecht Dürer, and Matthias Grünewald, for example) became much more common.

Fusing wisdom to the heart

The typical critique of such devotion is that it unduly separated the human and divine natures of Jesus, concentrating exclusively on the former. But for medieval believers, with their sacramental understanding of God’s presence in the material world, depictions of Christ’s wounded body only drove home the truth that in this man the divine became human.

A second critique is that such practices fostered an inward-turned, individualistic piety that was, as the saying goes, “no earthly good.” But medieval scholar Ellen M. Ross argues that, on the contrary, “the believers’ alliance of compassion with Jesus enabled them to perceive Jesus in other humans,” and to act compassionately for their benefit. The resulting works of mercy and practices of confessing one’s social sins, Ross concludes, helped build a strong, humane center holding together medieval society.

Underlying this very tangible, imaginative piety, Ross argues, was the belief that the best way to gain understanding is through experience. Both intuitive emotion and practical imitation infused wisdom into one’s very heart and body, in a way that speculative theology could never do. Spiritual leaders like the 14th-century English mystic Walter Hilton continued to teach—as Francis of Assisi had—that the Christian life must be lived out, practically, by imitating Christ’s example of charity.

Spiritual time travel

The desire for a tangible experience of God’s love has not dissipated with the discovery of the atom or the invention of the automobile. Modern Protestantism has given relatively little attention to our imaginative and emotional lives, yet the century just passed saw a dramatic upsurge of charismatic spirituality.

With its devotion to the person of Jesus, its impassioned worship, and its physical experiences of God’s intimate presence (tongues and “slaying in the Spirit”), this movement first sprung at the turn of the 20th century in a poor, multiethnic Los Angeles neighborhood, from a root in Wesleyanism’s “religion of the heart.” Then at mid-century it reemerged in mainstream Christianity—springing first from the Anglican and Roman Catholic confessions, with their sacramental and historical traditions.

But you don’t have to be a charismatic to awaken your imagination and your senses in devotion to Christ. Those who feel a lack in this area could do worse than to take Mel Gibson’s cue, and begin a time-traveling “spiritual research trip” to the roots of Cross-centered piety.

Not everything you find there will be helpful. Few of us will wish to emulate certain Irish monks by standing for long periods in a bucket of ice water, arms outstretched in a cruciform position. But it couldn’t hurt, with Martin Luther, to “look to the wounds of Jesus” to “comprehend the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the Cross.”

Chris Armstrong is managing editor of Christian History, a CT sister publication.

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