Sunday, January 12, 2014


Let the high praises of God be in their throat *
and a two-edged sword in their hand. ~ Psalm 149:6

There is a centuries old story that sheds light on the true nature of the battles endured by the knights of our Lord Jesus Christ. That is the story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.  We are the knights of Christ and it sheds light on our own battles.  So often we, the people of God, are immersed in a battle of one kind or another and Sir Gawain has much to teach us.

The story briefly told is this: King Arthur and his Court have met for the fifteen day Christmas Feast. It is Arthur’s custom not to dine until some unusual tale has been told, or some marvel has been presented, either in deed or in song. The Green Knight enters riding upon his charger.  He is huge, with skin and hair all green. No armor has he, but only a large and vicious axe. He presents a challenge to the court and presents his axe, saying “Take it, and keep it, my gift forever, and give me a well-aimed stroke, and agree to accept another in payment when my turn arrives, but not now; a year and a day will be time enough.”  To be clear, the offer is simple.  He says, “Cut off my head today, and I will cut off yours next year.”

After some discussion Sir Gawain, a nephew of King Arthur, rises to the challenge and cuts off the head of the Green Knight. The Green Knight does not even sway as his head rolls among the feet of the Knights of the Court who are scrambling to get out of the way.  He gets off his horse, walks over and retrieves his head and holds it up and swivels it around to behold the stunned and frightened knights.  As he does his head speaks.  Gawain is told to seek the Green Knight’s chapel and fulfill his end of the bargain in a year and a day.

In the fall of the year, Gawain prepares to ride off on his quest as the court watches. The author tells us “they watched that lovely knight riding away. And he never delayed, Rode on his way; And books say That he rode where men go astray.” Here the first note of the actual danger is sounded. Very briefly with minimal description the story of Gawain’s battles and adventures are recorded, nine lines in all.

The story is not about those kinds of battles. On Christmas Eve Gawain arrives at the castle of a “worthy knight, tall and strong and experienced, in the prime of life.” The knights of that castle give us the second clue as to the nature of Gawain’s true battles, “God has been good, Truly, to grant us a guest like Gawain, in this season when men sing and rejoice In His birth. This knight will lead us to the meaning of manners, will work miracles for us to see In the soothing of lover’s hurts.” What kind of battles does Gawain excel in?

Towards the end of the evening’s festivities his host offers a challenge, “Whatever I earn in the woods will be yours, Whatever you win will be mine in exchange. Shall we swap our day’s work, Gawain? Answer Me plain: for better or worse, an exchange?” What exactly does Gawain expect to earn as he relaxes in the castle of this worthy knight?

As the dawn of the next day breaks the lord of the castle goes out to hunt deer in the forest and Gawain lolls around in bed. The author says, “So the lord plays at the edge of the wood, and Gawain lies in a lovely bed.” By now the alarm bells should be ringing. The latch of the bedroom door is lifted and the comely wife of the lord of the castle enters and quite passionately offers herself to Gawain. She observes that the door to Gawain’s chamber could be locked with a bolt. One wonder’s why Gawain wouldn’t have locked it to start with. At his courtly best he graciously wards off her advances allowing her only a single kiss. When the lord of the castle returns they make their exchange. He gives Gawain the carcass of the deer, and Gawain gives him a single kiss.

On the second morn, once more Gawain’s door is unlocked, and once more the beautiful and apparently adulterous wife of the lord of castle enters and intensifies her temptation. Her husband in the meantime is off doing battle with a wild boar. Gawain is adept at exchanging flirtation, but yields only two kisses. When the lord of the castle returns the exchange is made, Gawain receives the boar, and the lord receives two kisses.

The third morning arrives. The lord is off chasing the wily fox. Gawain, once again with unlocked door, receives the lovely and licentious lady of the castle. Why does he leave the door unlocked a third time? Surely it would have been safer to lock it. Once again with grace and humor he manages to exchange three kisses and nothing more. All this time he has been playing with fire, and it’s obviously a game he enjoys. If nothing else the process of being tempted by a voluptuous woman, and the challenge of walking that close to the fire has awoken in him his own lust, not for her, but for life itself. As she is repelled with the three kisses, she makes Gawain another offer. She takes a green silk belt from her waste and offers it to Gawain, saying, “any man bound with this belt, This green lace locked around him Can never be killed, here under God’s Own heaven—no blow, nor trick, nothing Can hurt him.” The one condition that comes with her offer is that this gift be hidden from her husband and that “She and Gawain would share the secret forever.”

After she leaves Gawain arises, dresses and goes to Confession, and confesses all his sins, at least the one’s he knows, but fails to understand that he has, by accepting her secretive gift, lost his honor in order to preserve his life. The lord returns and they exchange what they have earned. He gives Gawain the fox, and Gawain gives him three kisses only. The green belt is secretly tucked away. Here at this point we should note that the belt is after all colored green, and that is a deliberate hint.

The coming of the next morn heralds the fateful promised encounter. Gawain arises, girds on his armor, wraps the green silken belt around his waist, and rides off to seek the chapel of the Green Knight which he has been told is nearby. A guide leads him to the edge of a vale and warns him of pending doom. He makes an offer which is essentially, “Run away, and I won’t tell anyone.” Gawain descends into the vale and finds an ugly, gruesome chapel, all overgrown, a place “where the devils of hell Could say their prayers quite well.” He hears the sound of a great grindstone sharpening the axe with a whirring roar.

The Green Knight comes professing to be impressed that Gawain has come. He swings his axe, and Gawain flinches and he stops the stroke to chide Gawain for his cowardice. Gawain screws up his courage. Again the Green Knight wields his axe. Gawain stands fast. The Green Knight holds it back before he strikes the blow. The third time the Green Knight swings his axe but only nips the skin of Gawain’s neck.

Now comes the interpretation from the Green Knight. He is the knight, the lord of the castle, that has played host to Gawain. The strokes that missed were for the kisses Gawain received from his wife, but passed on to the Green Knight in his guise as the lord of the castle. But, ah, the nick on the neck that drew blood. Says the Green Knight, “That belt you’re wearing: it’s mine, my wife Gave it to you—I know it all, knight. . . . You failed a little, lost good faith—Not for a beautiful belt, or in lust, But for love of your life. I can hardly blame you.” Gawain is shamed. His cowardice is uncovered. Gawain laments the fate of Adam, Solomon, Samson, and David, “These were the noblest knights of their time, the best, the very best, who walked The World In those days—and women tied them In knots, whirled them In circles. I’ve been beguiled, As they were: this excuse should be heard.”

Gawain has played the courting game and entertained lusts where he never intended surrender. What was quickened him was the love of life, perhaps the love of the chase, and the vicarious entertainment of titillating lusts, but that was not the real temptation. Receiving the green belt begins a process of self-discovery. He would sell his honor to preserve his life. He returns to Arthur’s court wearing the green belt and confesses his weakness with grief and sorrow, but the court relieved that Gawain yet lives, laughs, and each of the knights of the Round Table resolve to wear a green belt around their waist to keep company with Gawain. The belt becomes the glory of Arthur’s Round Table.

The story uncovers a truth that temptation is many layered, and the surface temptation may not be the most important. Remember that the devil is a liar, an evil charmer, a master of half-truths and intrigues, of wiles and subtlety. He doesn’t care how he destroys you, only that in some way or other, on some level or other, he can fulfill his fondest desire for you, your death; the death of your joy, the death of your peace, the death of your love, the death of your relationships, your very own death, physical and spiritual, now and forever, amen.

A Randy Stonehill song gives the proper perspective:

oh, satan is an evil charmer
(shut de dó, keep out the debil)
he's hungry for a soul to hurt
(shut de dó, keep the debil in de ni-eet)
and without your holy armor
(shut de dó, keep out the debil)
he will eat you for dessert
(shut de dó, keep the debil in de ni-eet)

Just because the devil is an evil charmer who wants to eat you for desert doesn’t at all mean that you have to just sit back and allow it to happen. Gawain may not be an enviable character, but we have to admit that he was quite willing to enter into the fray and face the challenges that the Green Knight offered to him. Part of Gawain’s problem is that he attempted to meet the challenges alone, or often in the company of those as corrupted as he. We however belong to the militant and glorious Body of Christ and none of these battles are either new or unique. The Preacher speaks the truth, “There is nothing new under the sun.” We do not go forth to battle alone, but in company with others. More than that we do not go forth into battle unaccompanied by a Commander, the Lord of Hosts manifest in human flesh, crucified, risen, glorified, riding on a white horse wearing the banner, “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord God Almighty.” And Almighty He surely is. We go forth armed in holy armour, with the high praises of God in our throats and the two-edged sword of the word of God in our hands.