Did you ever wish that Father Christmas would show up in the middle of an adventure and give you the exact gifts you needed for the road ahead, just like he did in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe? That pretty much exactly aligns with the Christian concept of the sacraments—there are seven sacraments in the teaching of the Anglican church (the church C.S. Lewis attended), and all seven appear in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.
Lewis told us that The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is about spiritual journeys. At the core, it’s a book about how human beings grow. How do we become better people? There are places where Aslan shows up and helps the characters to progress (we’ll look at these in two weeks), and there are gifts that Aslan has given us that help along the way, too.
I’m going to aim for simplicity rather than precision in this article…when we’ve spent two thousand years explaining, exploring, debating, and adding context to a concept it can get a bit overwhelming. But if you have questions, corrections, or conversations you’d like to have in the comments, I’m up for that.
So: What is a sacrament? Most Christian definitions will say something like, “an important ritual or rite that imparts divine grace” or “a visible sign of an inward grace.” For simplicity’s sake I’ll say it like this: it’s a gift from God to human beings that allows us to experience God’s presence. Each sacrament may have a different purpose or role in life, or a different sort of gift imparted through it. The important thing here is that, in terms of Christian belief, these are rites that bring a gift from God.
In the Anglican church there are seven sacraments (two of which are considered “Gospel sacraments” meaning that they were instituted by Jesus himself and are a part of the salvation process). All seven, as mentioned above, appear in Dawn Treader. They are: communion (also called the Eucharist or the Lord’s Supper, among other names), baptism, confirmation, ordination, reconciliation, anointing of the sick, and matrimony.
Communion and baptism are considered the most important of these sacraments in the Anglican church, and Lewis put them at the center as well. In Mere Christianity he writes, “There are three things which spread the Christ life to us: baptism, belief and that mysterious action which different Christians call by different names: Holy Communion, the Mass, the Lord’s Supper…”
Let’s start with communion, a sacrament that Lewis spends a bit of time on in Dawn Treader. Christians have argued what precisely this gift from God means, but it’s a Christian extension of the Passover meal from Jewish tradition. Jesus, at the Passover meal before he was killed, takes the bread and wine and says they are his body and blood, and tells his followers to “do this in remembrance of me.” In Christian tradition, this has become a deeply meaningful ritual in which we remember the things God has done for us (especially the sacrifice of Jesus), and a place where the community forgives one another (we have been forgiven by God and thus should forgive each other) and enters into even deeper community with each other.
As Caspian’s crew comes to the beginning of the end of the world, they find a long table where a “king’s feast” is replenished every day with food delivered by birds from the sun (somewhere near Aslan’s country). There they discover three of the lords, who had fallen asleep at the table, and near them is a knife of stone. It is called, we are told “Aslan’s Table” and it has been set here for “those who have come so far.”
The three lords have fallen asleep because they quarreled at the table – the exact opposite of what communion is designed to do – and one of them took up the Stone Knife and went to use it against his fellows, and at once they all fell asleep. This knife was the same knife used to kill Aslan at the Stone Table once upon a time. The three lords have brought discord to a table of unity, and rather than remembering the sacrifice of Aslan, they are misusing it to bring harm to one another, and so they are punished for it.
There is no doubt Lewis is referring to a writing of Saint Paul (one of the early followers of Jesus) who wrote that some were partaking of communion in an “unworthy manner” and that as a result God had punished some of them by causing them to “fall asleep,” a common metaphor Paul used when talking about someone dying (I Corinthians 11:27-34).
(Also, do note that it’s our spiritual example Reepicheep who is first to eat and drink at Aslan’s Table!)
Baptism is another clearly present sacrament in Dawn Treader. Christian baptism comes directly from the Jewish tradition. It’s a rite of spiritual rebirth, and in the Christian tradition is about the moment where someone enters into relationship with God and finds new life. It’s a rite about repentance (acknowledging wrong things you have done and working to become the sort of person who will not do those things again) and new beginnings. In baptism, the old person you used to be is washed away, and one comes out of the water completely reborn, “a new creation.”
Eustace, of course, is the one who gets baptized in Dawn Treader.
Poor Eustace has realized that he was a dragon. He is crying and very sorry about it, and feeling terrible. Aslan appears to him and tells him to follow, and takes him to a garden in the mountains where there is a bubbling well. It’s a sort of marble well, with steps descending into it. In Jewish tradition, a baptism is always done in “living water” (i.e. running water)… this is not a well, it’s a mikveh (some Christians would call it a “baptismal font”). In Judaism and early Christian tradition, baptisms were always done naked…how can you be born wearing clothes or earrings or jewelry? That’s what happens here as well. All of Eustace’s old, dragonish self is peeled off, and he enters the sacramental waters. When he comes out on the other side, he’s dressed in fresh clothing, and he’s a brand new person.
So, baptism brings the gift of forgiveness and new life from God, and communion brings the gift of remembrance and forgiveness from our human community.
Confirmation is closely connected to baptism in church tradition. In churches that baptize young children or infants, it’s a time when someone makes their personal commitment to the faith…a time when they make it their own, rather than something chosen for them through the faith of their parents.
In most Christian denominations, the idea of confirmation is that it’s a time of strengthening your faith, a moment when you make a public declaration of following God. It’s also a time when the faith community says, “Yes, this person is one of ours.” They affirm that, yes, this is someone who is in relationship with God. It’s confirmation of that person’s faith. Depending on your tradition, it might also be a time when you would say the presence of God becomes more present in your life (through the Holy Spirit) or the time that you have now officially entered into the “battle between light and darkness.”
In Anglican tradition, confirmation not only “confirms” a baptism (i.e. this person truly has come into relationship with God) but it’s the official entrance to the church, and is usually overseen by a bishop.
Now, interestingly, in Narnia we have to remember that the church and the government are the same thing. The ministers of Aslan’s wishes in Narnia are the Kings and Queens and those they put in authority. There are no bishops or popes (although “High King Peter” obviously has some parallels).
So it’s not surprising that Eustace’s confirmation comes at the hands of one of the highest ranking members of Aslan’s church: Edmund.
Eustace tells Edmund the story of his baptism, and Edmund recognizes it for what it is immediately. When Eustace says it might have been a dream, Edmund assures him that it was not.
“What do you think it was, then?” Eustace asks.
“I think you’ve met Aslan,” Edmund replies, confirming that Eustace’s experience was real and true. He has honestly, truly, met Aslan. He’s part of the community of faith now, those who know and follow Aslan.
I love this scene. It’s one of the moments where we see just how much Edmund has grown over the course of these three books. He comforts Eustace by saying, “You were only an ass, I was a traitor.” And when Eustace asks for more knowledge of Aslan, Edmund shares a little theological speech: “He is the great Lion, the son of the Emperor over Sea, who saved me and saved Narnia. We’ve all seen him. Lucy sees him most often. And it may be Aslan’s country we are sailing to.”
Then they watch the sunrise together, and they return to the community where there is “great rejoicing.” Note, too, that from this moment Eustace becomes a warrior for Aslan, even though he’s not particularly effective. It’s not much later that he’s breaking Caspian’s second-best sword against a sea monster.
Ordination is the process in the Anglican church in which someone receives their “holy orders.” This is how people become priests, deacons, or bishops. I’m going to simplify here, but the main idea is: Priests take on the authority of the bishop and are the spiritual leaders in places where the bishop is physically absent. Deacons take care of the physical needs of the people. (Priests care for the spiritual needs, deacons for the physical…though there is overlap.) In the Anglican church, one can still marry after becoming a priest, and in many parts of the church women as well as men can be ordained. The bishop lays their hands on the person being ordained and prays over them. There’s an acknowledgement of their new role, and a conferring of authority.
Which is exactly what happens when Caspian demotes the lazy and slave-allowing Gumpas and installs Lord Bern as his regent in the Lone Islands. Remember, again, that the government of Narnia is the church of Narnia, too.
Bern kneels “with his hands between the King’s hands” and he takes the oath to “govern the Lone Islands in accordance with the old customs, rights, usages and laws of Narnia.” And Caspian decides not to make him just a governor, for “we have had enough of governors” and makes him, instead, part of the royal leadership of Narnia by making Bern Duke of the Lone Islands.
I won’t spend a long time on this one, because we’ll have some overlap in the next article, but the sacrament of reconciliation is about confession (expressing what I’ve done wrong) and absolution (complete forgiveness). The idea here is that when someone admits wrongdoing and expresses regret, that relationship to both God and humanity can be restored. This is a key theme of Lewis’s idea of how spiritual growth happens, and nearly every major character in the book goes through this at least one time before the end. But I think my favorite example is the scene that occurs after Lucy misuses a magic book to spy on her friends back home on Earth.
Aslan points out her bad behavior, and after a moment of quibbling about the definition, Lucy admits she’s done the wrong thing. She was spying, and she has misjudged her friend. Lucy says she is sorry, and Aslan tells her that he will still be in relationship with her. She asks him to tell her the beautiful story she saw in the book and he says he’ll tell it to her “for years and years.”
There’s an important note about Christian theology related to forgiveness here, too: Lucy is worried that there will be consequences for her poor behavior. She’s worried that she won’t be able to forget the overheard conversation she’s heard, and that she’s ruined a good friendship unnecessarily. Aslan makes it clear that’s a possibility: forgiveness and reconciliation doesn’t mean freedom from consequences.
Anointing of the Sick
“Anointing” is the act of pouring oil on someone, and there are a lot of reasons this is done in religious expression (and again, for the Christian churches this comes from Jewish practice). It can be a way to welcome someone into a new role, to invite the presence of God, or to show that something has been set aside for service to God. In fact, both the words Christ (in Greek) and Messiah (in Hebrew) mean “anointed one.”
The anointing of the sick is a rite of healing. The idea is that we are inviting God to heal those who are touched by the oil, and we pray for God’s intervention. Unlike in Narnia, it’s not magic (i.e. the expectation is not that God will always heal)…in fact, the rite is sometimes called “extreme unction” when done with those who are dying; it’s a prayer for them as they move on into God’s country.
Lucy performs this sacrament twice in this book, first when Eustace is seasick: it only takes a drop and he feels better. And then again when he is a dragon, and his arm is irritated by the gold band that made him a dragon in the first place. That time, “[t]he magic fluid reduced the swelling and eased the pain a little but it could not dissolve the gold.”
The sacrament does not guarantee healing, but hopefully brings at least an ease to pain for the person for whom we pray.
Last, and presumably not least, comes “holy matrimony.” Marriage is, according to both Jewish and Christian tradition, a gift God has given to all humanity, not only to people of faith or people of Jewish or Christian faith. We are told in the final paragraphs of Dawn Treader that, “Caspian married Ramandu’s daughter and they all reached Narnia in the end, and she became a great queen and the mother and grandmother of great kings.”
And there they are! The seven gifts (or sacraments) of Aslan to his followers, given so that they can experience the presence of the great lion in their every day lives and in their journey toward Aslan’s Country. Looking forward to your thoughts, questions, and further discussion in the comments!