Christ the Bard
By Br Bede Mullens, O.P. | Among the depictions of Christ in the Roman catacombs, one not uncommonly finds him in the guise of a poet. What made the early Christians see the Lord this way? And if he is a poet, what is his song?
‘The LORD your God is in your midst,
A warrior who gives victory;
He will rejoice over you with gladness,
He will renew you with his love;
He will exult over you with loud singing
As on a day of festival.’ (Zephaniah 3.17-18)
Have you ever thought of Christ as a poet? Probably not. When we think of poets, we tend to imagine Romantic types: twenty-something year olds loose living with lively tongues, who go and die of pneumonia or consumption but anyhow tragically and – oh! – so young; or the love-sick Romeo, a knight-at-arms, alone and palely loitering…
Well, I’m not suggesting that Christ was one of those. The kind of poet I have in mind is like in the comparison of Zephaniah – the warrior who must sing his triumph; the man who feels so deeply grief and love and victory that he cannot just speak it, he must cry it aloud. In the ancient world, poets were always singers; when language reached a certain peak of expressiveness, it was improper to do anything less than project it in chant. It is a principle we (try to) preserve in the liturgy even today: that is why on Good Friday, for instance, it is a common practice to sing the Passion (see the video below for an example). In the Iliad, the poet characteristically sings the ‘renowned works of men’, the klea andron: only when they are sung, do we get a full sense of the weightiness of our Lord’s words, the glory of his deeds.
It is by no means far-fetched to imagine our Lord singing as he addressed his people. St John seems to envisage Jesus like the warrior in Zephaniah: ‘On the last great day of the festival Jesus stood and cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Who believes in me, as the Scripture says, rivers of living water will flow from deep within him.”’ (Jn. 7.37-38). Prophecy of this sort was frequently delivered in verse, and the liturgical setting – not only the present feast, but the hint ahead to the last day – only makes it right to hear these words as ringing throughout the Temple with the spontaneity of song-burst.
We can rack up further reasons to think of Christ as a poet: the precedent of King David, the poet par excellence of Israel’s history; the role of the Psalms in the life of Israel; the use of parables in Jesus’ teaching. On that note, the technique of the parables bears a striking resemblance to the quality of certain Homeric similes: both achieve their effect by transporting us from the present situation to some far-off, but incredibly ordinary instance of day-to-day life – the work of a shepherd in the fields, the grass and flowers that grow in the country, the homely story of the widow finding her lost drachma. The plainness of these scenes is transfigured and beautified: the Lord bestows on them a dignity that a more prosaic imagination would scoff at. We might consider it a reflection on the universal scope of his redemption, and certainly we must see in the use of these examples a loving care for all of human living.
If Christ is a poet, it is above all the Holy Spirit that is his song. ‘I have made known to you everything which I have heard from my Father’ (Jn. 12.15): but everything that the Son receives from the Father, is in the gift of the Spirit – the same Spirit which Jesus communicates to his disciples even through his word: ‘you are already clean through the word which I have spoken to you’ (Jn. 15.3). That same word, that same song, that same Spirit the disciples were given to sing (‘Receive the Holy Spirit!’), and the Church sings it still. It is the song of the Gospel, a declaration that unbinds sinners from guilt, sets prisoners free, heals the sick in mind and body, which declares a favourable year of the Lord. It is sung in season and out of season, in the liturgy quite literally and in our lives more figuratively. It is the song that was sung in triumph over death at the Resurrection, the song that will be completed at the end of the age.
‘Sing to the Lord a new song, his praise in the assembly of the faithful…’
‘And I heard a voice from heaven like the sound of many waters and like the sound of loud thunder; the voice I heard was like the sound of harpists playing on their harps, and they sing a new song before the throne: “Great and wonderful are your deeds, O Lord God the almighty, just and true are your ways!”’
Image: Christ depicted as the poet Orpheus, from the Catacombs of Marcellinus (Wikimedia Commons)