Homily for the Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C.
“There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” This is the opening line from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, a children’s novel by the British author C.S. Lewis. It’s one of my favorite opening lines in all of literature, because it sets the scene perfectly for a character who is at once deeply detestable and yet somehow sympathetic. The story begins with Eustace receiving a visit from two of his cousins, Edmund and Lucy, who couldn’t be more different than him. Whereas Eustace is selfish, spiteful, and skeptical, Edmund and Lucy are trusting, thoughtful, and generous.
One day, a painting in Eustace’s home—a painting of a strange, almost magical-looking, ship—comes to life. The waves upon which the ship is sailing, which seem so realistic, suddenly become very real, crashing out of the painting, swallowing up Eustace and his cousins, and sweeping them away to the land of Narnia. Edmund and Lucy have been to Narnia twice before, and have had wonderful adventures there, but Eustace is a newcomer. And he does not like what he finds there. Aboard the Dawn Treader, which was the ship in the painting, Eustace finds none of the modern conveniences that he is used to. And even though he is now on a wonderful adventure to end of the world, he is miserable, and wants everyone on board to know it.
After some initial adventures, and a stretch of smooth sailing, a storm comes up that lasts for days on end. When it finally subsides, the Dawn Treader is worse for the wear: the supplies are low, the sails torn, and the mast destroyed. To restock and refurbish the ship, they drop anchor near a deserted island and go ashore. Once ashore, in order to avoid having to do any of the work, Eustace wanders off into the mountains which lie beyond the beach. Not paying attention to where he is going, Eustace suddenly finds himself lost and in the middle of a downpour. He takes shelter in a cave where, to his great surprise and the satisfaction of his greedy heart, he finds a dragon’s hoard. Lying down on the bed of gold, gems, and other treasure, Eustace falls asleep. When he wakes up, he discovers that he has become a dragon. “Sleeping on a dragon’s hoard with greedy, dragonish thoughts in his heart,” Lewis writes, “[Eustace] had become a dragon himself.” His external self finally matches what his internal self has been all along.
After his initial shock, Eustace discovers one of the advantages of being a dragon: he can now fly. And he flies back to the beach where his cousins and the rest of the crew have discovered his absence and have been desperately searching for him. After their initial shock, Eustace is eventually able to convince them that the dragon is actually him.
In his new form, Eustace becomes a much more sympathetic character and actually has a change of heart. Instead of thinking only of himself, he begins to help others. With his giant, gapping jaws, he uproots a pine tree to serve as the ship’s new mast. And with his hot, blazing breath, he lights fires to keep the crew warm at night. But after a while, the novelty of his new skills eventually wears off and he longs to return to his human form.
After six days of being a dragon, a mighty lion comes to Eustace at night and leads him to a deep well at the top of a high mountain. The lion tells Eustace to undress himself before getting into the water, which Eustace takes to be a command to shed his dragon skin. But try as he might—once, twice, three times—he is unable to completely get rid of his skin. “You will have to let me undress you,” the lion finally says, after which he sinks his claws into him. “The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart,” Eustace later describes. Only the lion is able to cut deep enough to get rid of his dragon skin completely. Now fully undressed, the lion picks Eustace up and throws him into the water. After bathing, Eustace comes up out of the water restored to his human form. The lion then dresses Eustace with new clothes and sends him back to the beach where he is reunited with his cousins and crew. Eustace is now a changed man—both inside and out.
This story that Lewis tells is clearly an allegory of baptism. Eustace becomes a new creation on the sixth day, the day on which human beings were created in the Book of Genesis. The sixth day, Friday, is also the day on which Jesus died on the cross. Even more tellingly, Eustace is not able to save himself—which is the whole point of baptism. He has to be saved by the lion who represents Christ. Only Christ is able to cut deep enough, to get at the heart, in order to transform a person both inside and out. Eustace dies to his dragon-self in the water and is reborn a new man.
“For neither does circumcision mean anything, nor does uncircumcision, but only a new creation.” These words from our second reading come at the end of St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. Throughout the letter, Paul has been responding to a group of Jewish Christians who have been stirring up trouble in the Galatian church. This group has been trying to convince their non-Jewish counterparts that it is still necessary to be circumcised, even after Christ died and rose again for their salvation. What matters, Paul says, is not whether you are circumcised or not, but whether you are a new creation. What does Paul mean by that?
For Paul, to be a new creation means to be “in Christ.” “Whoever is in Christ is a new creation,” Paul says in his Second Letter to the Corinthians (5:17). And in his Letter to the Romans, Paul tells us how we come to be “in Christ.” “[A]re you unaware,” Paul asks the Romans, “that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life” (6:3-4). We come to be “in Christ” through baptism, which is a participation in Christ’s death and resurrection. Through baptism, we die to our old self and are reborn “in Christ.” From the moment of our baptism, we can say with Paul, as he says earlier on in his Letter to the Galatians, “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (2:20).
But becoming a new creation is not just a once in a lifetime event. It’s meant to be a lifelong process. It may begin in baptism, but it’s not meant to end there. All of us have a dragon-self. And although this dragon-self may have been dealt a deadly blow at baptism, it still emerges and makes trouble from time to time. The Christian life is a continual process of dying with Christ and rising to new life with Him. It is a continual process of fighting the dragon and becoming the lion.
Thinking about the Christian life this way completely changes our perspective. So often we reduce the Christian life to following certain rules which we see as external to ourselves. But the true Christian life is life “in Christ.” If we’re baptized and in the state of grace, then everything we do, we do “in Christ.” From this perspective, sin isn’t just a violation of a commandment that comes to us from the outside. Sin is making Christ, who we are “in,” a party to our evil thought, word, or action. If we are “in Christ,” then committing a sin is like attempting to make Christ commit that very sin. On the other hand, if we are “in Christ,” then nothing we do is without meaning or purpose. Whether we are at home, at work, or at school; whether we are playing a sport, answering an email, or eating a cheeseburger; whether we old or young, rich or poor—all that we are and all that we do is “in Christ,” and therefore has great meaning and purpose.
So, the question is, are we living “in Christ”? Are we living like the new creation we have become through baptism? Or have we allowed our dragon-self to reemerge and run amok? All of us have a dragon-self and none of us keeps it perfectly in check. We all need Christ to sink His claws into us, cutting us to the heart, and transforming us from inside out.
Secondly, what’s our perspective on the Christian life? Do we see it primarily as the following of certain rules which are external to ourselves? Or do we see it as living “in Christ,” such that every thought, word, and action is not only ours, but also Christ’s? Can we say with Paul, truthfully and wholeheartedly, “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me”?
Fighting the dragon and becoming the lion: This is the Christian life. Let’s recommit ourselves to this life today. Amen.