19 December 2011

Preparing for Christmas with King Arthur: Making clean your life

For a great many years now - since my childhood - I have enjoyed the legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, both their historical background (however firm it may be) behind the victor of the Battle of Mount Badon and the literary tales that have arisen around him over the course of many centuries.

As I read the latest issue of Arthuriana, the scholarly journal of the International Arthurian Society-North American Branch, last week, it occurred to me that several of these stories take place at Christmas.  Consequently, I thought it might be interesting to take a look at some of these tales and examine what they say about the Nativity of our Redeemer.

Let us begin, then, with the tale of the Sword in the Stone, as related to us by Sir Thomas Malory in his Le Morte D'Arthur (The Death of Arthur), which, incidentally, may or may not be connected with the sword of Saint Galgano:

The Sword of Saint Galgano
Montesiepi, Italy

Some even suggest that the life of Saint Galgano gave rise to the story of Sir Percival/Parsifal.  But be that as it may, let us return to our tale.

According to Malory's telling in the fifth chapter of the first book of his great work, following the death of King Uther Pendragon - who died without an heir - the Archbishop of Canterbury, accepting the counsel of Merlin, "sent for all the lords and gentlemen of arms that they should come by Christmas even unto London."*

It may seem odd to us to summon the lords and gentlemen at Christmas, but the Archbishop had a reasonable intent: "that Jesus, that was born on that night, that he would of his great mercy show some miracle, as he was come to be king of mankind, for to show some miracle who should be rightwise king of this realm."

Heeding the call of the Archbishop, the lords and gentlemen chose to prepare themselves to celebrate Christmas and to ask this miracle from the Lord.  They "made clean of their life, that their prayer might be the more acceptable unto God."

When the appointed time had come, they gathered in "the greatest church of London" for prayer.  After the celebration of the first Mass of Christmas Day,
there was seen in the churchyard, against the high altar, a great stone four square, like unto a marble stone; and in the midst thereof was like an anvil of steel a foot on high, and therein stuck a fair sword naked by the point, and letters there were written in gold about the sword that said thus: Whoso pulleth out this sword of this stone and anvil, is rightwise king born of all England.
This miraculous appearance was the answer to their prayers and the promise of a peaceful realm.

When word of this miracle was brought to the archbishop, he ordered everyone to stay in the church at prayer, making it clear that "no man touch the sword till the high mass be all done."

As might be expected, after the Mass everyone went out into the churchyard and marvelled at the sight.  Try as the might, none could move the sword and so it was determined that the rightwise king born of all England was not present.  A tournament was announced for New Year's Day and the call went out through all the land "to keep the lords together and the commons, for the Archbishop trusted that God would him known that should win the sword."

On New Year's Day, while on his way to the tournament, Sir Kay, the son of Sir Ector, realized he had forgotten his sword (how this could possibly have happened is not revealed) and sent Arther, his father's foster-son, to fetch his sword.

But Arthur found the inn where they were staying empty and locked, so he thought, "I will ride to the church yard, and take the sword with me that sticketh in the stone, for my brother Sir Kay
shall not be without a sword this day."  Taking hold of the sword (which was not Excalibur, but rather Caliburn), Arthur drew it forth "lightly and fiercely" and gave it to Sir Kay, who recognized it.

How Arthur drew forth the sword
by Howard Pyle

Sir Kay went to his father and said, "Sir, lo here is the sword of the stone, wherefore I must be king of this land."

Returning to the church, Sir Ector made his son "swear upon on a book [presumably the Scriptures] how he came to that sword."  When Kay confessed Arthur gave it to him, Arthur explained how he came to the sword.

Now, it seems Arthur was somehow completely unawares as to the nature of the sword, for when he was told that because he drew it forth he was the true king, he said, "That is no mastery," and put the sword back in the stone and anvil.  Even so, neither Sir Ector nor Sir Kay could re-draw the sword, but only Arthur.

When Arthur's deed was reported to the Archbishop, he declared that on the twelfth day of Christmas, the sword should be placed again in the stone for the lords to attempt to draw it, but "there might none take it out but Arthur."  Still the lords were unwilling to accept Arthur - whom they thought to be of no high birth - as their King, so it was decided that on Candlemas (February 2nd) the lords of the realm should attempt to withdraw the sword yet again.  "And right as Arthur did at Christmas, he did at Candlemas, and pulled out the sword easily, whereof the barrons were sore aggrieved and put it off in delay till the high feast of Easter."  Even so, the situation remained the same.

The Legend of King Arthur Recognized As King
by Henry Hugh Armstead

Finally, on the day of Pentecost, when still none but Arthur could remove the sword, "the commons cried out at once, We will have Arthur unto our king, we will put him no more in delay, and who that holdeth it against it, we will slay  him."

And so it was that, after pardoning the lords their delay, Arthur took the sword and "offered it upon the altar where the Archbishop was" and finally was Arthur crowned king of all England.

Arthur draws the sword and places it on the altar
Of particular note to us in this final week of Advent is the preparation made by the lords and gentlemen to make their lives clean so their prayers would be more favorably heard.  They knew the truth of the words of Saint James, that "the prayer of a righteous person has great power in its effects" (James 5:16).

How is it, then, that we can cleanse our lives in preparation for the great day of Christmas?  The means are simple, but of great profundity: sacramental confession; increased prayer, fasting and almsgiving; and reading the Scriptures, particularly the accounts of the Lord's birth and of the prophecies concerning him.  Certainly there are more ways to cleanse our lives in preparation for his coming, but these are a good and trustworthy beginning.

We have in these remaining days of Advent still time - even with the busyness of these days - to follow the example of Elizabeth who went into a period of seclusion before the birth of her son, John the Baptist (cf. Luke 1:24).  It is a matter of recognizing what is most important: certainly being prepared to welcome family and friends is important, but not as important as being spiritually ready to welcome the Christ-Child.

In the Collect prayer of today's Mass we prayed "that we may venerate with integrity of faith the mystery of so wondrous an Incarnation and always celebrate it with due reverence."  At the end of the Mass we prayed that "we may welcome the Nativity of our Savior and honor it with minds made pure."

Let us then, in these days that remain, follow the example of those lords and gentlemen who heard the summons of the Archbishop of Canterbury and with them cleanse our lives that our prayers, too, may be heard.

And now, for your viewing pleasure:

* This and subsequent quotations from Le Morte D'Arthur come from Thomas Malory, Le Morte D'Arthur: Complete, Unabridged, New Illustrated Edition, John Matthew, ed. (New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 2004).

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