The first English class I took at Harvard covered the sweep of English literature from the beginnings of the language to 1660. The writer of Beowulf, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton—all were represented, and yet the work that most moved me was a relatively unknown poem, The Dream of the Rood, written perhaps in the seventh century in Old English. When the poem was written it must have been very unorthodox indeed—here is the glorious battle of the Young Hero against his many foes, here is the lone, faithful servant who will not betray his lord, here is the martial beat of Anglo-Saxon poetry—but the Hero is Christ, and his victory comes through his death.
In the poet’s dream, the Cross of Christ comes to him, appearing now in glory, gilded with gold and jewels, and now grim and bloodstained, and relates the story of the Crucifixion. The death of Christ is cast in the mold of a battle poem, and the cross is the faithful servant of the hero, bearing his lord up although himself grievously wounded, not flinching from his painful service.
“Men bore me on their shoulders, till that they set me on a hill; enough of foes, forsooth, fastened me there. Then I beheld the Lord of men hasting with mighty, steadfast heart, for he would fain ascend upon me. Yet might I not bow down nor break, against the word of God, what time I saw the compass of the earth tremble and shake. All those foes might I lay low; yet firm I stood.”
Reading these words, I am reminded of Romans 8:22: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.” Just as each individual’s sin does not affect him alone, but engulfs the people around him, so the sin of humankind as a whole does not only affect us, but tears raggedly at all of creation. It is dangerous, I believe, to consider the exact relationship of inanimate objects towards God, because we have absolutely no way to know the subjective experience of anything other than humanity; but Christ said that if people do not praise him, the rocks will cry out (Luke 19:40), and in Isaiah 55:12, God promises, “You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands.” I do not think that this is entirely a figure of speech. Perhaps it is not a literal, scientific description, but at the very least creation is not only a dead tool for us to use. A shadow has been cast over the natural world by our fall, but perhaps the world around us is also striving faithfully, in its own way, to become what God created it to be.
The poem in itself could be poured over for days, but the very fact of its composition points to an additional truth—it is possible to use a culture’s native idiom talk about Our Lord without denying his historic reality. Should it surprise us that at the heart of our dearest stories, at the heart of the tales that move us most deeply, there is a faint echo of what is at the heart of reality? And yet, beyond this, that there is something at the heart of reality that we could never have expected? The poet of The Dream of the Rood recognized that Christ was the Young Hero who defeated his enemies through his steadfast bravery—but this defeat came through the hero’s own death. The lament for the dead king was certainly a familiar form to contemporary poets, but here death does not bring the dissolution of the nation, but victory. The most deeply valued and the most unexpected have been brought together in reality, and so can be brought together in art.
This is why it is so valuable to look at how other cultures imaginatively translate the work of Christ into their native idiom, what they emphasize, what they take to be the most important. It is so easy to let the scandal of the Gospel become commonplace. It is so easy to substitute our own comfortable story for the truth. By looking at Christ through the eyes of other peoples and other times, we can realize the true wonders of his love anew. We twentieth-century Americans are not used to the hero epic, and so The Dream of the Rood jolts us out of the tidy Bible stories we tell ourselves—and all the more worthwhile to read for that.