Welcome to Part 3 of our analysis of G.K. Chesterton’s A Christmas Song for Three Guilds! Part 1 and Part 2 can be found elsewhere on this blog. I highly recommend giving a read through to Part 1 at least as over there I went through some important principles to take note of when reading this poem, especially on Chesterton’s use of violent imagery. In Part 3, we’ll be look at the second guild, the Shoemakers, who are addressed by their patron, Saint Crispin!
Now, Saint Crispin is a little obscure, so perhaps a bit of an introduction is in order. Crispin and his brother Crispinian are two martyrs from the time of the early Church, that mysterious, legendary group that I wrote about last month. The two brothers went to preach the Gospel in Roman Gaul, that is to say, modern-day France. Along the way, they earned their keep by making shoes, much like how Saint Paul supported himself through tent-making. Eventually, they were captured in the persecutions of the Emperor Diocletian and martyred for their Faith. So the legend goes.
What we are learning today from Saint Crispin’s address is the virtue of humility. So let’s get right into it!
‘St. Crispin to the shoemakers said on a Christmastide:
“Who fashions at another’s feet will get no good of pride.’
The Catholic Encyclopedia gives us Aquinas’ definition of humility:
“The virtue of humility”, he says, “Consists in keeping oneself within one’s own bounds, not reaching out to things above one, but submitting to one’s superior” (Summa Contra Gent., bk. IV, ch. lv, tr. Rickaby).
According to Saint Crispin, shoemakers “fashion at another’s feet”, i.e. they have to bow low to measure the feet of their customers in order to craft their shoes. This act of fashioning, however, calls to mind the act of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples, which imbues a sense of service on the art of shoemaking. Saint Crispin thus exhorts those under him to remember their place and not grow too arrogant.
I think that it is significant that Chesterton chose to include Saint Crispin as one of the three saints he chooses to write about, as his presence is not as easily explainable as the other two. We can tell at a glance why Saint Joseph is there, given his pivotal role in Jesus’ birth and childhood, while Saint Luke’s Gospel is the one which contains Jesus’ Infancy Narratives, which means that he is responsible for showing us why Jesus is the Reason for the Season. But Saint Crispin? Crispin has been all but forgotten by history, save for one event of both historical and literary significance – one that would be very dear to the heart of an Englishman like Chesterton. But we will get to that in due time.
My point here is that I believe on some level, Chesterton is demonstrating an awareness of the fact that Saint Crispin is the odd one out. This is why Saint Crispin is chosen to demonstrate humility – he kinda knows he’s the one that least deserves to be there, from a worldly perspective. Just because God chooses to exalt us from where we are doesn’t mean it’s okay to grow prideful about it!
‘They were bleeding on the Mountain, the feet that brought good news,
The latchet of whose shoes we were not worthy to unloose.’
I think these two lines have to be my favourite lines of the whole poem, because they so seamlessly blend two Bible verses – Isaiah’s proclamation: “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of one who brings good news, who heralds peace, brings happiness, proclaims salvation, and tells Zion ‘Your God is King!’” (Is 52:7) coupled with John the Baptist’s declaration: “Someone is following me, someone who is more powerful than I am, and I am not fit to undo the strap of his sandals.” (Mk 1:7-8).
So what do we make of these two lines? I think it is obvious that the one who brings good news is Our Lord Jesus. I find the image of the bleeding feet of Jesus extremely striking, as it speaks of His sacrifice to come. Imagine how fast he must have run – without shoes – for His feet to be bleeding, to bring us the Good News that he has come to free us! And we are not even worthy to touch his sandals, or to help him in any way. All the more cause for us to be humble, no matter how much good we seem able to do.
‘See that your feet offend not, nor lightly lift your head,
Tread softly on the sunlit roads the bright dust of the dead.’
I don’t have much to say about these two lines, beautifully written as they are, except for the fact that I think it is a nice reminder to be careful in the things we do or say. I’ve come to realize that a careless word or action can really go a long way in hurting someone.
‘Let your own feet be shod with peace; be lowly all your lives.
But if they touch the Charter, ye shall nail it with your knives.
And the bill-blades of the commons drive in all as dense array
As once a crash of arrows came, upon St. Crispin’s Day.”’
Once more, we find ourselves at the turn towards action. I mentioned a historical event connected to Saint Crispin that an Englishman might look to with pride. That event is the Battle of Agincourt, an event in the Hundred Year’s War which saw the defeat of mighty French knights by a much weaker English army, thanks in large part to the skill of the English longbowmen (“a crash of arrows”), most of whom were commoners, as compared to the more aristocratic composition of the French force. Shakespeare would later immortalize this event in his play Henry V, where the king addresses his army the day before battle in the famous St. Crispin’s Day speech:
“And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.”
For an Englishman like Chesterton, St. Crispin comes to represent the triumph of the humble over the arrogant. It is a reminder that “The meek shall inherit the earth”, to hold fast to the things that make us simple and humble, and to celebrate the triumph of the King who went meekly and humbly to death in order that all could be raised up.
In Part 4, we’ll wrap things up. Till then, let’s ask for Saint Crispin’s intercession to keep us humble, and to champion the small and simple things in life. God bless!
© 2017 Christ Centered Conversations/Garrett Christopher Ng