by Devin Brown
“I send no cards and give no presents except to children.” So C. S. Lewis wrote to his American correspondent on November 27, 1953. In an essay titled “What Christmas Means to Me” published in December several years later, Lewis again made it clear he deplored the endless shopping and card-sending which dominated the holiday, but at the same time insisted, “I much approve of merry-making.”
For a look at the sort of Christmas merry-making Lewis may have had in mind, we might do well to look to chapter five of his Reflections on the Psalms which he opens with an epigram from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales: “Now let us stint all this and speak of mirth.”
There Lewis asks us to imagine a pious farm worker at church on Christmas or the harvest thanksgiving. Lewis observes:
You would do him wrong by asking him to separate out, at such moments, some exclusively religious element in his mind from all the rest—from his hearty social pleasure in a corporate act, his enjoyment of the hymns (and the crowd), his memory of other such services since childhood, his well-earned anticipation of rest after harvest or Christmas dinner after church. They are all one in his mind.
The Psalmist, Lewis points out, did not separate the religious from the festal and so was able to capture this essential unity. Lewis concludes, “I want to stress what I think that we (or at least I) need more: the joy and delight in God which meet us in the Psalms.”
What does this joy and delight found in the Psalms look like? Lewis provides this catalogue of joyous expression:
Their fingers itch for the harp (43,4), for the lute and the harp—wake up, lute and harp!—(57,9); let’s have a song, bring the tambourine, bring the “merry harp with the lute”; we’re going to sing merrily and make a cheerful noise (81, 1, 2). Noise, you may well say. Mere music is not enough. Let everyone, even the benighted gentiles, clap their hands (47, 1). Let us have clashing cymbals, not only well tuned but loud, and dances too (150, 5). Let even the remote islands (all islands were remote, for the Jews were no sailors) share the exultation (97, 1).
Is it possible to celebrate with such exuberance today? With both honesty and optimism Lewis writes, “I am not saying that this gusto—if you like, this rowdiness—can or should be revived. Some of it cannot be revived because it is not dead but with us still. It would be idle to pretend that we Anglicans are a striking example. The Romans, the Orthodox, and the Salvation Army all, I think, have retained more of it than we. We have a terrible concern about good taste. Yet even we can still exult.”
But how can we exult in a world where there is so much to lament? Where can we find joy in a world where hate is strong, as Longfellow has written, and mocks any expression of peace on earth and good will to men? In the “jocund” Psalms—where music, festivity, and agriculture are not things separate from religion, nor is religion something separate from them—Lewis claims, “I find an experience fully God-centered, asking of God no gift more urgently than His presence, the gift of Himself, joyous to the highest degree, and unmistakably real.”
And so if Lewis were alive today, this might be his wish: That this Christmas we may each desire no gift more urgently than the gift of God’s presence.
That this Christmas we may each prepare our hearts to receive this gift of Himself, a gift which, if we will but make room for it, will be found to be unmistakably real. And that this Christmas we may each find our own fingers itching for the harp, for the lute and the harp, to celebrate our joy to the highest degree.
Devin Brown is a Lilly Scholar and Professor of English at Asbury College, where, among other duties, he teaches a class on Lewis. He is the author of Inside Narnia: A Guide to Exploring The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (Baker 2005) and Inside Prince Caspian: A Guide to Exploring the Return to Narnia (Baker 2008). He is currently working on Inside the Voyage to the Dawn Treader to be released in fall 2010 in advance of the third film.