Meditation on a Poem by C. S. Lewis, part 3: Sacramental Particularity
Having turned away from the search for God in the natural world and in our own nature, and having acknowledged that God is the pursuer in this relationship, Lewis now keeps his “appointment” with God.
Not in Nature, not even in Man, but in one
Particular Man, with a date, so tall, weighing
So much, talking Aramaic, having learned a trade;
Not in all food, not in all bread and wine
(Not, I mean, as my littleness requires)
But this wine, this bread . . . no beauty we could desire.
The place where God pursues is not in the books of the philosophers or the romance of poetry or the beauty of the stars. It is in the body of Jesus, who is the Way. The gospel of John says that Jesus’ body is God’s temple (2:21), the location of an encounter between God and humanity that we can at least perceive, even if we cannot understand. In Miracles, Lewis says, “The world which would not know Him as present everywhere was saved by His becoming local.” (Surely that sentence was in his mind when he wrote this poem, or perhaps it was the other way around. I can’t find any information about when this poem might have been written.) That locality requires particularity. Jesus is not Everyman. Jesus is a particular man – whose voice has a specific timbre, whose eyes are a certain color, who occupies a particular place. In other words, He is like us – in every way but sin.
But now the body of Jesus is ascended. Calvin says that Jesus is now locally present at the right hand of the Father – still incarnate, still particular. However, the only way I now have access to His local presence is through the sacrament. My own understanding of the sacrament is that it is our participation in the ascension of Jesus. The Holy Spirit unites my humanity to the humanity of Jesus, my body to His body, in order that it might no longer be I who live but Christ who lives in me. It appears that I consume Him, but in fact He consumes me. It appears that I hunt for Him, but in fact He captures me.
When Lewis closes by describing the bread and wine as “no beauty we could desire,” there seems to be a double meaning. On the one hand, he is quoting Isaiah 53:2. “He hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him” (KJV). But the change from “should” to “could” strikes me as significant. Isaiah is telling us that the beauty of the Messiah will not be obviously visible, and Lewis agrees. There is a veiling of divine glory and omnipresence in this particular, local, finite man, this particular, local, finite cup of wine and loaf of bread. But Lewis seems also to be telling us that our own powers of desire are insufficient to desire the beauty of Jesus. Not only are we incapable of capturing God; we are also incapable of desiring to capture Him. This beauty requires a passionate desire that is beyond our capacity. The sehnsucht that drives us out into the world trying to capture the divine is a weak and inconstant desire compared to the desire that would be necessary for us to pursue Him rightly.
Here is why this poem is so precious to me, why it’s worth spending this much time on it. Desire is the tie that links us to our telos, our final cause, who is God Himself. But this desire is not something that I manufacture. Even my desire is a gift from God. In his poem “The Naked Seed”, Lewis confesses that he cannot desire God as he ought and asks God to do the desiring for him– an idea drawn from Romans 8. (I’ll look at that poem some other time.) I need to long for God in order to be drawn to Him, but my desiring powers are too weak, so the Son takes humanity to Himself and desires on our behalf, and then the Spirit unites us to the Son so that His desire becomes ours. This particular human being Jesus longs for God the way each one of us ought to, and by communicating that longing to us He connects us to God. It’s as if each time we come to the table He renews a magnetic connection between us and the Trinity, so that from now on we will not be attracted to the darkness, to the nothing, but to the end for which we were made: to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.