Harry Potter and the Christ-Child

As Christians in the West celebrate the great feast of Christmas (and our Eastern friends make their preparations), let’s take a look at some ways in which the Harry Potter books draw upon Christmas traditions – and especially that of the Christ-Child –  to shape and inform their titular character: Harry Potter, The Boy Who Lived.

First we must examine young Harry’s name. While J.K. Rowling often claims she chose the name simply because she liked it, Harry is a nickname for Henry, which means “estate ruler,” and fittingly holds royal, even divine associations (there’s a reason Princess Diana and Prince Charles chose the name Henry for their son (aka Prince Harry), as opposed to, you know, Neville).

Of course, another divinely-associated title for “estate ruler” is “Lord.” Jesus’ name means “the Lord saves/helps”, and besides “Christ” or “Messiah”, “Lord” was one of the earliest titles associated with Jesus; the phrase “Jesus is Lord” was the most succinct of early Christian creedal affirmations, used to identify Christians from non-Christians in times of persecution. For as St. Paul says to the Romans, “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (10:9) Even aside from Harry’s surname “Potter” (a metaphor for the way God in which God shapes and molds our lives in Isaiah 64:8), Harry’s given name is our first pointer to the Messianic quality of his character in the story.

But we must also look to Harry’s mother’s name: Lily, a flower bearing strong associations with Mary, as it symbolizes purity. (See Beatrice Groves’ writings at The Leaky Cauldron for more on plant lore in Harry Potter.) For this reason, in many depictions of the Annunciation, the angel Gabriel is often shown, as in this John William Waterhouse painting, handing Mary a lily as he greets her: “Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you.” Just as Mary bears the looked-for “Lord”, or leader who will save Israel from sin and death, so Lily Evans Potter bears Harry, who will save his people from death at the hands of the wizarding world’s great enemy, Voldemort.

But Harry’s Christ-Child similarities don’t stop there. Just as Jesus’ birth was surrounded by prophecies, oracles and angelic pronouncements, Harry’s birth was also foretold in prophetic fashion. In the Gospel of Luke, after Jesus is born, some “wise men” (also called “magi” – that is, ancient magicians and astrologers) “came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’” (2: 1b-2) This frightened King Herod, who saw the infant Jesus as a threat to his power and sought to destroy him. Like the wise men’s pronouncement, the prophecy about Harry (“Born to those who have thrice defied him, born as the seventh month dies…” (OOTP, 841)) proved a threat to Voldemort, who then attempted to murder the child to prevent his rise to power. Consequently, the prophecies surrounding their children put both Jesus’ and Harry’s parents on the run from the enemy.

But maybe it’s a coincidence. After all, Joseph Campbell and others have pointed out that prophecies and oracles surrounding a hero’s birth, making him a “despised child” who has enemies from his start, are common features of various heroes in many of the world’s folkoric tales.

But Harry’s story bears another striking resemblance to that of the Christ-Child, this one more subtle, in the narrative presence of Neville Longbottom. Trelawney’s first prophecy, as it happens, could have pertained to two children, both born “as the seventh month dies”: Harry or Neville. For reasons that are not clear, Voldemort decides to go after Harry, but Neville plays a key role as one who both mirrors Harry’s life and prompts and supports Harry’s life-long mission against evil: from losing his Remembrall (which Harry must heroically retrieve from Malfoy) in Book 1 to his role in Book 7 as “substitute Harry,” leading Dumbledore’s Army in Harry’s absence from Hogwarts, to killing Nagini at Harry’s request while Harry is presumed dead. The Christ-Child also has a “twin,” as it were, in his cousin, John the Baptist, the only Biblical figure besides Jesus and Mary with his own solemnity in the Church’s liturgical calendar. John’s birth six months prior to Jesus’ acts as an important forerunner to the coming of the Christ. Thus it is significant that Neville’s birth also precedes Harry’s, even if by only one day. And like Neville, John is never the focus of the story, but hovers on the margins of the narrative, pointing with great faithfulness to the one who will save his people.

(And if you’re really interested in Neville, check out this piece I wrote for Hogwarts Professor on other Biblical ways of interpreting his character and actions.)

But our pay off, in terms of Harry’s Christ-Child connections, comes when Harry is a no longer a baby. At age 11, he steps into Mr. Ollivander’s wand shop to select and purchase his first wand, which as we all know, actually “chooses” him. Interestingly, Mr. Ollivander doesn’t say much about the type of wood – holly – out of which Harry’s new wand is made, only that the Phoenix feather inside it connects Harry to Voldemort. He also reveals that Voldemort’s wand is made of yew, and this sets up a symbolic foil. While Harry’s wand is made of wood from the holly tree, a plant long associated with Christmas, Voldemort’s wand casing is of yew, another tree with red berries. Unlike holly, yew trees are extremely long-lived and toxic, giving them a folkloric association with death.

photo via West Fargo Pioneer

The symbolic key becomes the divergent wand woods, which symbolize the different approaches Harry and his nemesis take to the problem of mortality. Voldemort’s approach to the problem of mortality, symbolized by his yew wand, is toxicity to others – killing and controlling in the hopes of extending his own life. But Harry’s holly wand, with its Christmas associations, points to the Incarnation, in which God comes down to us. In the Christ-Child, God takes our own fragility onto himself, identifying with us in our every human experience (except sin), showing us through his self-sacrificing love what it really means to be human: not to strive for physical immortality, but to live well in this world so as to live forever, through God’s grace, in the next.

Pottermore, J.K. Rowling’s catch-all website for Potter backstory and lore, says “holly wands often choose owners who are engaged in some dangerous and often spiritual quest.” Both are true for Harry Potter, who is what Campbell calls one of those “universal heroes” like Jesus, who bring a message for all the world. At Christmas, that message is peace.

A very Happy Christmas to you and yours!

Literally, stop saying “literally”

I just stopped reading a blog piece I was interested in because the author used the word “literally” twice, both superfluously, before the third paragraph had ended. I mean, I literally stopped reading. Literally. Stopped.

But how else can I stop, besides literally? If I had done anything but actually stop reading, then I would use another word or phrase, such as “slowed down”, “took a break from” or “read with less interest”. But I stopped reading, which means my reading ceased, it came to an end.

Friends, we have a problem with the word “literally”. We have become utterly addicted to throwing it into sentences. Its overuse knows few bounds. I hear my college students overusing it, I hear adults overusing it, I hear second-graders overusing it. I went to an academic conference last month where it was so overused that at one point during a mid-afternoon breakout, I had the following text exchange with my colleague who sat next to me: Continue reading “Literally, stop saying “literally””

Pop Culture in the Classroom: Rogue One and the Gospel of Mark

One of the challenges of reading scripture in a college course in North America is the perceived saturation of any Christian text in a society in which Christianity dominates the religious landscape. When my students see the Gospel of Mark listed on the syllabus, they assume encountering the text will be a matter of review. “I mean, obviously, I’m a Christian, so I’ve read it before.” I hear this frequently, yet in teaching the text, I find many students have never read the Gospel the way they have read other assigned literary texts such as The Odyssey or Jane Eyre. They’ve heard the Gospel, but then only in snippets (or thematic extracts called pericopes). We can thank the various churches (mine included) for this; in proclaiming and studying scripture bit-by-bit (even, in some churches, phrase-by-phrase), we’ve created a “snippet” Christian scriptural culture, whose members struggle to put the whole story together and think critically about what it means, especially as members of the dominant culture. Continue reading “Pop Culture in the Classroom: Rogue One and the Gospel of Mark”

First (really third) thoughts on Solo: A Star Wars Story

With me, when a new Star Wars movie comes out on DVD/streaming, the question is not whether I will purchase it, but when. Though it became available Saturday night, I had to wait until last night to purchase access to Solo: A Star Wars Story due to conflicts (which included my eager interest in the current offering from PBS Masterpiece on Sunday night: part 2 of The Miniaturist – very unexpected and highly recommended!).

I saw Solo only twice in the cinema, not because I didn’t love it (I did!) but because of timing, and the annoying lack of people as excited about it as I was. So last night I had my third viewing, managing to watch about a third of the film and wanted to share these thoughts.  Continue reading “First (really third) thoughts on Solo: A Star Wars Story”

Now Is the Time

“Brothers and sisters: In this instruction I do not praise the fact that your meetings are doing more harm than good.” (1 Cor. 11:17)

I have always loved the first reading for Mass today, from St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. First, it demonstrates Paul’s fiery spirit; one can hear the passion of the Apostle to the Gentiles coming through clearly (maybe a little too clearly for those whose behavior he speaks against).

Secondly, and more importantly for me, he’s fired up about the liturgy, about getting the way we do liturgy right. I think of this passage, and hope I’m standing with St. Paul when I advocate for or against some seemingly insignificant liturgical observance or practice. Too often, eyes glaze in response. “Surely it doesn’t matter that much,” many argue. “If our hearts are in the right place, if we’re participating with gusto, who cares about the details?”

This is an argument I’ve heard a lot lately with regard to the music we use in liturgy. Why can’t we sing more songs from this or that Christian radio station, or from this or than experience of charismatic youth camp? The young folks love them! And isn’t that the point, to evangelize? To engage the youth, to get them excited about Mass? Continue reading “Now Is the Time”

Welcome to Liturgy and Life!

I’m thrilled to write the first post of this long-dreamed-of blog, Liturgy and Life. I hope and pray it will lend needed insight to both Church and world and foster fruitful dialogue. So what will this blog be about? That question reminds me of another question I find it difficult to answer quickly: “what do you do?” Well, I do a lot of things, and at first glance they may not all seem related. I teach catechetical courses for my Roman Catholic Diocese of Columbus, Ohio and for the University of Dayton’s Virtual Learning Community for Faith Formation. I teach first-year nursing students at Mt. Carmel College of Nursing how to be culturally competent in caring for patients of diverse religious backgrounds. I serve my parish, Immaculate Conception in Columbus, as a pastoral musician. I write about liturgy. And I speak, write and talk (especially on podcasts such as Mugglenet Academia and Reading, Writing, Rowling) about the symbolism in Harry Potter, Star Wars and other fictional works. Hence the title of the blog: Liturgy and Life. There is so much to say about the current state of liturgical practice here in the United States more than 50 years after the changes of Vatican Council II. I plan to use this space to reflect on liturgical theology and practice, emphasizing the Paschal Mystery of Christ –  the life, death and resurrection to which we are all called as members of his Body, and into which we ourselves enter boldly whenever we gather to celebrate the Eucharist – as central to any experience of Catholic worship. And I hope this blog can be a space where we recognize our liturgical experience of the Paschal Mystery more broadly – not just in liturgy, but in life. Because the Paschal Mystery can be found not just in stories from the Scriptures, but in those which entertain us and in the everyday experiences of human life. In this thorough-going approach to the Paschal Mystery, we lend its privileged expression in the liturgy more power, more meaning, and we find ourselves, as the Mystical Body of Christ, better equipped to live the liturgy we celebrate, “that we may draw from so great a mystery, the fullness of charity and of life.” (Roman Missal, Third Edition, Collect of Holy Thursday)