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It is the myth that gives life.” So says C. S. Lewis. In “Myth Became Fact,” he describes the Christian faith as the fulfillment of what the great pagan myths groped after. The Christian story, in other words, is the true myth, making concrete, clear, and present what the pagans had perceived only dimly and distantly. “We must not be ashamed of the mythical radiance resting on our theology,” Lewis writes. “We must not be nervous about ‘parallels’ and ‘pagan Christs’; they ought to be there—it would be a stumbling block if they weren’t.”

Lewis is right. Augustine sometimes interpreted pagan myths this way; so did the Apologists Minucius Felix and Justin Martyr, and even the Apostle Paul. The pagan poets and philosophers received glimpses of the truth despite themselves. Insofar as they cut with the grain of reality as it really is, their carpentry was sound. The reader alive to this possibility can avoid an overly anxious historicism that uses “context” to bludgeon the text into inert submission. Instead, he can see ancient poems and legends as interlocking parts in one grand story. 

I suggest that Poem 64 of Catullus offers one instance of what Lewis describes. Written sometime in the middle of the first century B.C., it is an “epyllion,” an epic in miniature. Its theme is the wedding of Peleus and the divine Thetis, the future mother of Achilles. But the end of the poem takes a startling turn. Gods used to mingle with mortal men, the poet tells us, but those days are over. For

after Earth was stained with crime unspeakable
And all evicted Justice from their greedy thoughts,
Brothers poured the blood of brothers on their hands,
Sons no longer grieved when parents passed away,
Father prayed for death of son in his first youth
So as freely to possess the bloom of a new bride,
Mother, lying impiously with ignorant son,
Dared impiously to sin against divine Penates.
Our evil madness by confounding fair with foul
Has turned away from us the Gods’ forgiving thoughts
Wherefore they neither deign to visit such meetings 
Nor suffer themselves to be touched by light of day or eye (trans. Guy Lee, modified).

“Our evil madness . . . has turned away the Gods’ forgiving thoughts.” The phrase “forgiving thoughts” could also be rendered as “justifying mind.” Catullus’s language here—iustificam . . . mentem—is quite remarkable. I cannot find another instance of this adjective in Latin literature until the seventeenth-century philosopher Hugo Grotius. In ancient literature, it is what philologists call a hapax legomenon: a word that occurs in one passage and nowhere else. Why did Catullus use it here? Implicitly, he is asking: How could the gods again come to have a “justifying mind” toward creatures who are evil? How did Catullus come so close to Luther’s central question, “Where can I find a gracious God?” Who knows? Certainly not Catullus himself. 

Catullus describes some kind of “Fall” from primal innocence and communion with the divine. Ancient mythology has many of these mysterious decline narratives. We find them in Hesiod and Ovid, for instance. There was a time, the story goes, when men loved mercy and practiced justice. They walked humbly with the gods. But something went wrong, and men lost that privilege. We are never given a real explanation for what that “something” was. All we know is that man's wickedness separated him from the gods, and forgiveness was impossible. 

Here we see how the pagans were wise—but tragically so. The search for a gracious God had no resolution for someone like Catullus. But we can nevertheless see, with the benefit of hindsight, that his remark unwittingly anticipated a future event that would answer the question posed above. The Christian myth extends the story and turns tragedy into comedy.

Man’s sin caused righteousness to flee the earth. But because of God’s great love for man, righteousness has returned. Paul Gerhardt, in the beautiful Advent hymn “O Lord, How Shall I Meet You,” writes, 

Love caused Your incarnation;
Love brought You down to me.
Your thirst for my salvation
Procured my liberty. 

Of course, the Christian story of the Fall is not quite the same as what we find in Catullus. First, Christianity has an explanation for the deadly disease of evil: the first sin of Adam in Eden. There, mankind forfeited Paradise and the Golden Age. Second, Catullus is right that we are alienated from God, but not because God has left us. It is rather because we have left him. When Adam and Eve sinned, they ran away and hid from God. His presence never left them, but there was a sense in which his glory did. The practical result was much as Catullus describes it. “Everyone,” as the refrain in the Book of Judges has it, “did what was right in his own eyes.”

The end of Poem 64 also seems to grope toward the Christian story. Catullus says that the gods do not “suffer themselves to be touched by light of day or eye.” “Light of day or eye” represents a single phrase in Latin, lumine claro. The meaning is uncertain, as the translation reflects.

But what if it is both—or rather, what if Christ is both? John tells us that Jesus was the true light who came into the world, and Zechariah’s song in Luke 1 calls him “the dayspring from on high.” It is in that light that we see light (Psalm 36:9)—that is, God himself. In the Gospels, this light even restores man’s physical sight. Writing of one such miracle, the healing of the blind and mute man in Matthew 12, the fifth-century Christian poet Sedulius says,

verbaque per verbum, per lumen lumina surgunt.
The man’s words return through the Word, his lights through the Light.

The enfleshed and suffering Word is absent from pagan mythology, and this is the reason for Catullus’s pessimism. For Catullus, the gods cannot “deign to visit our meetings.” But according to John, this is precisely what God did when “the Word became flesh and tabernacled with us.” Seeing the wickedness that Catullus describes, Christ has, by his Incarnation, death, and Resurrection, done what was beyond man’s capacity. He has not only touched and been touched by human flesh, but assumed it in order to heal it. “Now as myth transcends thought, incarnation transcends myth,” Lewis writes. “The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact.”

E. J. Hutchinson is associate professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.

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