We have two extended family chat threads where all the living grandparents, aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews read brief messages and share photos (or occasional videos and memes) from everyone else in a setting that is private to ourselves. (One is on my side of the family and the other is with the family of my wife, Elizabeth.) This practice in each extended family has its moments of fatigue, hurt and confusion of course (and more often than not, these are my fault), but both are ultimately a source of connection and joy to all of us Harrisburg Hakes.
Yesterday, my little sister Elsie shared a post—a less frequent and delightful event in my large family, where I am the oldest (and most obnoxious) of nine siblings (now much extended by our marriages and children). I got her permission to share her comment here on my blog (as well as my father’s permission because Elsie is not yet 18):
Jesse, I’ve enjoyed your comments on the Splintered Light book [by Verlyn Flieger], and am interested in reading it at some point. Here is a memory that I have that goes along with that quote and which would be of interest to you all. A few years before he passed away, Uncle Jerry sent me an email in which he said that he wondered where music and laughter came from. Since then, I had / have toyed with writing a story where music and laughter are in the form of two great waterfalls, and are kept by the Light People. Jesse, you would probably have a better idea and form of conveying those than I do, so I’ll just put it out there. I love you all very much my dear family! May God bless you richly!
I assured Elsie that I would not have a better idea than hers for conveying this idea regarding the source of music and laughter. Both Tolkien and Lewis, I am sure, would fully understand and appreciate these two great waterfalls kept by the Light People.
Also following up in response to Elsie, my sister Katie (mother of seven) shared this passage with waterfalls and song from Psalm 42:7-8 (that Katie had read the same day):
Deep calls to deep at the roar of your waterfalls; all your breakers and your waves have gone over me. By day the LORD commands his steadfast love, and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life.
I’m tempted to write more, but I’ll just note a little here about my Uncle Jerry, my mother’s oldest brother. He was the first of the five children (my mother and her four siblings) in that family to pass away. My mother was the second of those five to die when we lost her about two years ago. My Uncle Jerry started his adult life as a high-school English teacher but eventually ended up building a large and successful swimming pool construction company. He was a generous man who lived large and who loved to laugh and who always resisted making too many claims about God (or any related matters). In some ways Uncle Jerry was a lost sheep (within a family that sometimes seemed to specialize in lost sheep). Near the end of his life, he remarried my Aunt Dotty (who he had divorced for a period of many years) and settled down, much to his mother’s delight. However, he still did not approve of those who claimed to know much about God. His comment to Elsie was typical, however. He promoted wonder. And it’s a blessing to have a little sister who values and continues that legacy. Lord have mercy on me and grant me a heart that does not falter in wonder.
“Did you say that you couldn’t get the coal stove lit?” My mother’s voice was strong and young and all the more evocative because of it.
I pulled my knees closer to my chest and tucked my ears farther under the edge of my sleeping bag, away from the December cold. After their marriage on the third day of Christmas 1975, my parents had spent a couple of hopeless days up here in this ancient farm house. It was a story that I had heard a thousand times. My dad couldn’t get the old furnace lit. Then, without anything on hand but ice and snow, he couldn’t wash the thick coal dust from his face and arms. They had decided to make the best of it and go tobogganing anyway only to hit a tree on their first run down the hill, splintering the toboggan. Finally, given up amid the frigid temperatures, they walked a mile back to their car at the bottom of the mountain only to find its battery dead because they hadn’t turned off the radio.
Rumor had it that this place was built in the late 1700s as a stagecoach inn along the frontier trail from Binghamton to Albany. As a boy, I had loved hearing my uncles tell stories of the Briarcreek Ghost who haunted this house. Just north of the Catskills, my Grandpa Brown bought these 500 acres on top of a mountain as a place to settle down in his retirement. He had just finished his career with the New Jersey power company that had hired him following WWII. When the war broke out, he had dropped out of highschool, married his sweetheart and joined the Merchant Marines. My mom was the second-to-youngest out of Ralph and Arlene’s five children. A spirited girl, with a name that referenced the elemental life of nature, her father used to tell her, “Don’t be facetious, just be Faye.”
The property had a three-story barn built into the side of the hill with timber-frame construction and stacked-stone foundations so solid that you could drive a modern tractor into all three levels despite its one hundred years. My grandpa had just reroofed this barn, remodeled the beautiful old farmhouse and built a massive new fireplace and chimney before he developed the emphysema and Parkinson’s disease that ended his retirement so early.
Here I was, an old man myself now, back to visit the beautiful folks of this place at Christmas with my own grandkids in tow. I’d been down to the cemetery near the Susquehanna River to pay my respects at the graves of my grandparents, Ralph and Arlene Brown as well as Ralph’s sister, my Great Aunt Ruth. My grandma often made me a bed as a child under this hallway window, looking out over the little front porch roof. It was colder than the bedroom, but I had chosen this childhood overflow bed on this Christmas eve night.
My thoughts blurred as I drifted back toward sleep before I heard my mother’s voice again, still strong but not so young: “Jesse, are you upstairs?” She was laughing, knowing that I must be surprised. I had taken her last remark about the coal stove to be a snatch of dream, but this summons was unmistakably part of a wide-awake world. It came up the stairwell that was beside me in the center of the hallway. I got up slowly and made my way around the banister to the top of the stairs. She could likely hear the steps creak as I descended to check the living room from where I had heard her. Yes, there she sat, in a rocker, smiling at me.
I spoke first. “That’s funny, Mom. You know that the Briarcreek Ghost always chose a rocking chair. Are you and he on familiar terms now?”
“Jesse, it’s good to hear you teasing me again. It’s probably going to set me back, but it’s really good to hear you again. I’m glad you’re not terrified or scandalized. I was pretty sure that you’d be up for a chat when I saw you pick out that old bed under the window.”
“Yes, well, I’m pretty old myself, Mom. You can get away with all kinds of things, now, I guess. What did you mean by saying that this will set you back?”
“Oh, I’m not really sure what I mean. A kind angel tried explaining some things to me years ago about my progress, but I was watching Katie’s twins wrangle some sheep. I told the angel to try explaining it to me another time. But I’ve thought more about it since. Whenever that explanation does happen, I can probably already guess the basic gist of it. Since dying, I’ve had a lot of time to pay attention to things around me. There’s something beyond it all that I need to see. I mean, obviously it’s Jesus, my Creator and Savior, but I only sense Him very obscurely, and I’ve never seen him. I thought I would see him when I died. I thought it would be clear after death. In one sense, it is. The world is much more clear after death, but it’s not any easier to see Jesus. It’s harder, actually, when the world gets so clear and bright. Oddly, I think that I’ve fallen more in love with life in this world after dying than I ever did before, and you know that I always loved a whole lot about life in this world. Anyway, if I have to guess, my eventual progress probably has something to do with dying all the way. I’ve got to lose my life to see what it truly is. Of course I always knew this, but I never actually did it, you know. But I’ve got a sense growing in me that Jesus is waiting, and I get this impression, more and more from everything around me. They are all pointing beyond themselves, asking me to let them go so that, together, we can see Jesus and what we are all about.”
We sat silently together for a few moments before I said, “Yes, that makes sense.”
She added, “Sometimes, I understand Aslan and the moon. Remember that passage from Prince Caspian? ‘All night, Aslan and the Moon gazed upon each other with joyful and unblinking eyes.’”
“Yes, I do. It reminds me of that passage after all the journeys and wars are finished for Gandalf, Elrond, Celeborn and Galadriel. ‘Long after the hobbits were wrapped in sleep they would sit together under the stars, recalling ages that were gone and all their joys and labours in the world…. If any wanderer had chanced to pass, little would he have seen or heard, and it would have seemed to him only that he saw grey figures, carved in stone, memorials of forgotten things now lost in unpeopled lands.”
“Yes, there is so much to be seen and said in that way. I’m learning to love it.”
“Were you talking to Dad a few minutes ago about the coal furnace?”
“Ha! Yes, I was. I don’t travel through time in the same way anymore. It’s all more and more present to me in some ways now. I still move slowly through space, as with a normal body, but much of my life is before me continually now. Of course, I don’t remember all of it, but I’m seeing what I do remember better and better. My first time through life, I saw so very little of it, and I was a pretty perceptive woman.” She paused to smile with me over this. “It’s wonderful to go back and watch Dad now, going through all of his labors on behalf of me and our family. He worked hard, that man, and he was good at seeing certain things that I wasn’t quiet enough to see. I was always doing or loving something, but he was my Steve, the first martyr.”
“Have you seen Dad since he passed away?”
“Yes, he and I were together for a while after he was buried. We were a little like that passage that you described with Celeborn and Galadriel. There was a lot to say, but we said it slowly and with long periods of quiet attention. He had learned a lot since my death, and I think he saw Jesus already—more fully than I do even now.”
“When did you come up here to the farm?”
“I’ve walked to a few places since I was buried, including a few trips that took many months. Most of the time, I’m slipping in and out of different times as I walk, but that makes less and less difference. I’m seeing the same beauties triumph more and more amid the sufferings. It’s a delight to see it all. Oh, but to answer your question… I hope you won’t mind. I caught a ride with you and Elizabeth.”
“Ha! That’s good to know. Hope you enjoyed the ride. It will be nice to have you with us all tomorrow.”
“Yes, I’m looking forward to it. Celebrating Christ’s birth with all these beautiful families.”
“You know that passage in Lewis about Aslan and the moon? I think the moon was his mother.”
“Wow, mom. Have you been studying your C. S. Lewis since you died? Yes, at his resurrection after his death on the stone table, Aslan walks out from the brightness of the sun. And Lewis was certainly familiar with the long tradition—inspired in part by John’s language in Revelation 12—of Mary as the one who reflects the life-giving Light of God. That passage about Christ and his mother gazing all night ‘upon each other with joyful and unblinking eyes,’ comes in a book where Casipian marries a star’s daughter and where scholars have identified the entire book as Lewis expounding the life of the sun. What a beautiful image for this Christmas Eve, to reflect on Christ and his mother enjoying each other in eternity.”
“Yes, Jesse. I’m progressing, I suppose. There are things I’m coming to love and see now that I would have laughed at during my own life. You were way ahead of me, but I see that you still enjoy pointing it out.”
“Ha! Well, thanks for waking me up tonight to say hello and to let me know how right I am. With all this flattery, I’m sure to be blinded to the Christ child now. No Christmas for me. You know, Mom, I can’t help thinking of Elder Lua as we sit here chatting together. All those years as missionaries, and all we could do was shake our heads at him. I guess maybe his stories weren’t so crazy after all.”
“Yes, I’ve remembered him as well, often, since I died. Dad and I loved to tell the stories of our Presbyterian elder who would often sit up at night, smoking and chatting with his long-dead father who had been a shaman during his life. This pagan father loved to visit his Christian son around Chinese New Year. I guess we always took him seriously enough, but it was, well, mostly just a story. What did we know? That crazy, generous, strange man. Yes, who knows what he understood that we could not.”
“Wow, it’s good to be with you again, Mom.”
“Jesse, you know that poem by Charles Williams that ends with this stanza?”
But my soul hurrying Could not speak for tears, When she saw her own Child, Lost so many years. Down she knelt, up she ran To the Babe restored “O my Joy,” she sighed to it, She wept, “O my Lord!”
“I’ll be praying for us both to learn better to say yes with Mary.”
“Yes, I’ve listened for a voice telling me from the cross, ‘Son, behold your mother.’ But that is only a help along the way as we listen, finally, for the cry of the babe that our soul bears with Mary. I’ll be praying with you, Mom. Thank you for your prayers. Merry Christmas.”
We didn’t say any more, but we sat quietly, each glad in the other’s gaze. I eventually nodded off to sleep in my chair. When I awoke in the cold darkness, her rocking chair was empty, and I made my way back up to my bed beneath the hallway window. It would be Christmas morning soon, and I would need my rest.
P.S. Today is my parents’ anniversary, two years after my mother’s passing. It is also the Feast of Saint Stephen (or the day after on the Western calendar). This story is just that, a story by a child who loves his parents and misses his mother.
P.P.S. I also realized later that I probably got some of the “pictures” behind this story (without knowing it) from Wendell Berry:
“I imagine the dead waking, dazed, into a shadowless light in which they know themselves altogether for the first time. It is a light that is merciless until they can accept its mercy; by it they are at once condemned and redeemed. It is Hell until it is Heaven. Seeing themselves in that light, if they are willing, they see how far they have failed the only justice of loving one another; it punishes them by their own judgment. And yet, in suffering that light’s awful clarity, in seeing themselves in it, they see its forgiveness and its beauty, and are consoled. In it they are loved completely, even as they have been, and so are changed into what they could not have been but what, if they could have imagined it, they would have wished to be.” —Wendell Berry (A World Lost)
“I know by now that the love of ghosts is not expectant, and I am coming to that. This Virgie of mine, this newfound ‘Virge,’ is the last care of my life, and I know the ignorance I must cherish him in. I must care for him as I care for a wildflower or a singing bird, no terms, no expectations, as finally I care for Port William and the ones who have been here with me.” —Wendell Berry (Hannah Coulter)
In Romans 8:22, Paul describes the world giving birth to a new creation: “For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.” This birth involves all of us because, a few verses earlier, we learned that “the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God” (8:19, ESV here and above). As we prepare for the birth of Christ, there is much to learn from this image of a world waiting with the eagerness of an expectant mother for a renewed humanity and suffering in the pains of childbirth for the revelation of a new cosmos.
Paul understood Christ to be the first human (consider the clear logic of 1 Corinthians 15:44-50, for example), and therefore Mary gives birth to the second Adam who will finally make possible the creation of the first Adam. Christ as the eternal Son of God is the original form upon which the first Adam was modeled, and Christ incarnate also becomes the firstfruits of a humanity for which the first Adam was always intended but to which he and all of his children had never attained.
Therefore, as Mary carried Christ, she carried all of us in our potential as fully realized humans. Moreover, containing Christ, Mary contained the whole of the new creation that Christ would bring about. Many ancient nativity hymns speak of Mary’s womb as paradise restored. Here is one example:
Prepare, O Bethlehem, For Eden has been opened to all. Adorn yourself, O Ephratha, For the Tree of Life blossoms forth from the virgin in the cave. Her womb is a spiritual paradise planted with the Fruit Divine; If we eat of it, we shall live forever and not die like Adam. Christ is coming to restore the image which He made in the beginning.
Creation is ongoing and incomplete apart from Christ. Cut off from the Tree of Life, we are estranged from the Voice of God that is continually creating the world. God’s primary work is speaking as His Logos is coeternal with Him. However, God’s secondary work is shaping, and what we experience within the fallen world is a resistance on our own part to God’s shaping of the world. It is not possible to resist the Logos of God, but God allows us—the material called into existence—to defy the shaping work of His hands to some degree. In fact, our current cosmos, in its entire history, is a result of our rebellion against the image of the Logos that God longs to give to us. We will eventually delight to express this image in its fullness, but our opposition has resulted in a long and difficult labor, one in which the entire world must struggle to give birth to a new creation.
This language of the womb (both Mary’s and the world’s) is the language of creation for Paul. When God shapes humanity in Genesis 2, the same Hebrew verb (yatsar) is used as when the scriptures talk about God shaping each of us within our mothers’ wombs (Psalm 139:13–16 and Isaiah 44:24). Likewise, God’s Spirit hovering over the “welter and waste” in Genesis evokes a mother bird spreading herself over the eggs in her nest. The same verb used for the hovering of the Spirit in Genesis 1:2 is used in Deuteronomy 32:11 where we read that God cares for Israel “like an eagle who rouses his nest, over his fledglings he hovers” (Robert Alter’s translation throughout this paragraph).
Clearly, we have two related images with the work of the potter and the labor of a woman giving birth. Jean Hani, in his book Divine Craftsmanship shares wonderful insights into God as a potter (33-37):
The author of Ecclesiasticus pauses a moment to watch the potter at work and gives us a graphic portrait of him: “So doth the potter sitting at his work, turning the wheel about with his feet, who is always carefully set to his work, and maketh all his work by number. He fashioneth the clay with his arm, and boweth down his strength before his feet.” (Eccles. 38:32-33)
This care, this skill, this freedom of the human artist before his work, perfectly evokes the attitude of the Divine Artist vis-à-vis His creature: “All men are from the ground, and out of earth, from whence Adam was created. As the potter’s clay is in his hand, to fashion and order it all: all his ways are according to his ordering.” (Eccles. 33:10, 13-14)
Saint Irenaeus …presents this gloss of Ecclesiasticus (Contra haer. IV, 39, 2): “If then, thou art God’s workmanship, await the hand of thy Maker which creates everything in due time; in due time as far as thou art concerned, whose creation is being carried out.”
In the Letter of Barnabas 6.9 (AD 70 to 132) we read that “the human being is earth that suffers.” Citing this passage, John Behr expounds on our “suffering as we are molded by the hands of God, as clay in the hands of the potter, into his image, a process that continues throughout our lives, culminating in our death and resurrection, at which point one can even say that we are created” (The Wheel, 2008, “From Adam to Christ”).
Scott Cairns writes about the annunciation and nativity in a poem that is bookended by these images of formation and birth:
Deep within the clay, and O my people very deep within the wholly earthen compound of our kind arrives of one clear, star-illumined evening a spark igniting once again the ember of our lately banked noetic fire. She burns but she is not consumed. The dew falls gently, suffusing the pure fleece. Her human flesh adorns its Lord, and lo, the wall comes down. And—do you feel the pulse?—we all become the kindled kindred of a King whose birth thereafter bears to all a bright nativity.
This poem (composed for Gordon College students during a stay in Orvieto, Italy) opens with the work of God upon our collective clay and ends with the truth that, as Mary gives birth to Christ, she gives new birth to us all.
This world and Mary are both expectant, and we all wait to be born again in a birth that now can only come through death. “Journey of the Magi” by T. S. Eliot contemplates how “this Birth was / Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.” This is why the traditional nativity icons always depict the baby and his mother deep within a cave. It is a cave like that in which Christ’s dead body must be laid after his crucifixion. For the same reason, his swaddling clothes as a baby are the same in all the old icons as those bands that will wrap his body for burial. Christ, joins us in the womb of his mother and in the belly of the earth, both in his birth and in his death. God is with all who are just “earth that suffers” so that we, and the whole cosmos with us, can be remade and born again.
Christmas is a time to draw close together in the dark and to enjoy the lighting of candles as we remember the birth of a baby to parents who were far from their own home. Somewhat in tension with this, I’ve often told my family with a smirk that chapter 12 of John’s Revelation is my favorite version of the Christmas story. I do love returning to it although the scope of John’s account is cosmic and does not fit well within the domestic scene that we associate with Christmas.
Part of our problem these days is that we’ve wandered far away from any capacity to recognize this world as our home. We don’t associate “cosmic” and “cosy” as G. K. Chesterton says that we should (in his beautiful chapter entitled “The Ethics of Elfland” from his book Orthodoxy). Chesterton insists that it is perfectly reasonable of him to say: “I like this cosy little cosmos, with its decent number of stars and as neat a provision of live stock as I wish to see.”
With this turn of phrase, Chesterton almost turns the cosmos into a cow shed filled with sheep and a weary donkey. Similar ideas show up in a very different form within “The Starlight Night” by Gerard Manley Hopkins. His ecstatic recounting of a vision into the starry heavens explodes at first with multiple images but calls forth, in the end, “Prayer, patience, alms, vows.” More quieted, he concludes that the heavens “are indeed the barn; withindoors house / The shocks. This piece-bright paling shuts the spouse / Christ home, Christ and his mother and all his hallows.” The firmament is like a barn wall filled with knot holes that let out points of light from the bright domestic gathering inside—the warm fellowship of “Christ and his mother and all his hallows.” There is a sense that, even in the glory of God’s eternal throne room, Christ and his mother still inhabit a place filled with livestock and the grain from a great harvest.
This idea of a cosmic home is difficult for modern people to appreciate, but it is the right setting for the baby who is born in John’s Apocalypse. “A great sign was seen in the heaven, a woman arrayed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars” (Young’s Literal Translation, used throughout with some adaptations of archaic language). In John’s vision of this woman giving birth, a great red dragon waits just before her in the sky to devour her child as soon as he appears. He has seven heads, ten horns and seven crowns, and his tail lashes stars from the sky as he waits for the child to appear. At the moment of his birth, however, the baby is caught away to God and to His throne.
As her child is carried to safety, the woman flees and hides in “a place made ready from God” while Michael and his angels do battle with the dragon. We now learn that the dragon is “the old serpent, who is called Devil and the Adversary, who is leading astray the whole world.” Michael casts this dragon to the earth along with all of the dragon’s rebellious angels. The heavens are told to rejoice at this removal of the dragon from their midst, while the earth and the sea are told to beware at his wrath as he has been thrown down among them. More angry than ever, the dragon is said to have “pursued the woman who did bring forth the male.” Happily, “there were given to the woman two wings of the great eagle, that she may fly to the wilderness, to her place, where she is nourished a time, and times, and half a time, from the face of the serpent.”
The dragon then attempts to drown the woman in a flood of water that he pours forth out of his mouth, but the land helps the woman and swallows up the torrent of water. Denied his victim for the second time, the dragon “went away to make war with the rest of her seed, those keeping the commands of God, and having the testimony of Jesus Christ.”
John’s next vision features a beast coming out of the sea to worship the dragon and to receive authority from the dragon before spreading terrible lies throughout the earth and initiating a massive apostasy from God. It is tempting to follow the story through to the end, as we meet our beast again in chapter 17. With seven heads and ten horns, this is clearly our same red dragon but this time carrying “a woman arrayed with purple and scarlet-colour, and gilded with gold, and precious stone, and pearls, having a golden cup in her hand full of abominations and uncleanness of her whoredom.” John “saw the woman drunken from the blood of the saints and from the blood of the witnesses of Jesus,” and he “wondered, having seen her, with great wonder.” It is a vivid and terrible story.
In chapter 19, another woman appears briefly as “we rejoice and exult, and give the glory to Him, because” we have finally arrived at “the marriage of the Lamb and his wife who has made herself ready.” Our delight is brief, however. The dragon still rampages and is confronted again in chapter 20 when John sees “a messenger coming down out of the heaven, having the key of the abyss, and a great chain over his hand.” This angel “laid hold on the dragon, the old serpent, who is Devil and Adversary, and did bind him a thousand years, and he cast him to the abyss, and did shut him up, and put a seal upon him, that he may not lead astray the nations any more, till the thousand years may be finished; and after these it behoveth him to be loosed a little time.”
As the tumult truly subsides, in chapter 21, John finally hears: “Come, I will show you the bride of the Lamb—the wife.” Then, says John, the angel “carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed to me the great city, the holy Jerusalem, coming down out of the heaven from God, having the glory of God, and her light like a stone most precious.”
With all these visions of John’s—each one rising up after another in a fearsome march toward the glorious end—we get the sense that they unfold a longer story while at the same time, perhaps, circling back on themselves and retelling parts of the same story more than once. Amid this swirling sequence of visions, it is not wise to grow too confident. However, this image of a mother with a child followed by images of the harlot and the bride may all hold together. If so, we can connect the righteous lady with the radiant Jerusalem that descends from heaven in the end and have this bride contrasted with the harlot who is named for the great earthly power of Babylon.
While a grand concept of the mother in Revelation 12 as a collective figure standing for “all the people of God” makes sense, it does not need to conflict with a more intimate association directly with Mary. In the Gospel of Luke, early Christians all realized that Luke was parallelling the story of Mary’s pregnancy in the first two chapters very closely with the ark of the Old Covenant in 2 Samuel 6. Luke is a careful scholar of the Old Testament as an educated Greek proselyte to the Jewish faith, and he is clearly portraying Mary as the ark of the New Covenant carrying the Word of God inscribed in flesh (instead of the stone tablets of the law from the Old Testament ark), the body of Jesus Christ as the bread from heaven (instead of the urn filled with manna from the wilderness), and the actual and eternal High Priest (instead of the rod of Aaron that budded to prove and defend the true high priest of the Old Covenant).
As we move from John’s vision in chapter 11 to the new scene in 12, the woman giving birth is directly juxtaposed with the ark of the New Covenant. The last verse of chapter 11 declares “and opened was the sanctuary of God in the heaven, and there was seen the ark of His covenant in His sanctuary,” which gives way in the next verse (at the start of chapter 12) where “a great sign was seen in the heaven, a woman arrayed with the sun.”
It makes sense to see this woman giving birth as Mary, the ark of the New Covenant who carries the bread of life. This does not conflict with her as also the chief representative of all God’s people, as the church and as the faithful bride who descends from heaven in the last vision. God’s people are described repeatedly as the intended bride of God within the Old Testament, and we have the image of the church as the bride of Christ prominent within the rest of the New Testament. Mary should also bring to mind that other great mother of the human race, Eve. Although a daughter of Eve, Mary completes the work left undone by Eve and gives birth to the child who will finally destroy the serpent of old and allow a new creation to take place. (See the fantasy novel Lilith by George MacDonald for a moving account of all these women in one story.)
As mentioned near the start, trying to read chapter 12 as a cosmic Christmas story, we might feel that the baby plays too small a part in the account. He is simply carried up to heaven in the same moment that he appears. The woman flees alone into the wilderness and Michael comes forth with his angelic army to wage war. The child is nowhere to be found. What about the life, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ?
Several considerations tumble out together in response. First, there may be more of an overlap than we realize between the angels singing in the gospel account of Christ’s birth and angels waging war in this apocalyptic version of the story. Our prayers and songs of praise are described as great outpourings of judgement upon God’s enemies throughout John’s Revelation, and there may be little difference between an angelic choir and an angelic army from a devil’s perspective. As for the disappearing baby, where was Christ when every mother in Bethlehem had her baby slaughtered? Was he not kept safe by God in the far-off land of Egypt? From the perspective of eternity in heaven, Christ’s life on earth was a brief interlude amid the course of His endless reign as Son of God and then, as the firstfruits of the human race, the King seated upon the throne of David that will never fall. Moreover, as our King, Christ clearly puts a high value on the sufferings of his earthly people. He told His disciples that they would do greater things than he did because he is going to the Father while they would remain behind (John 14:12). Inspired by Christ, Paul also says that “in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Colossians 1:24, ESV).
Christ appears a few times in the rest of Revelation as a mighty warrior and judge, but his primary presence is as a lamb, offered up as spiritual food for God’s people. This image of the child-like priest and king—humble as a lamb and feeding his people with himself as the bread of life—is an image that shows up in the primary Christian icon associated with this Revelation 12 passage. In this icon, the mighty Angel Michael fills the center of the image, riding a red winged war horse while destroying Satan amid a glow of fiery colors. Far from the turmoil, Christ sits as a young child at an altar in heaven, ministering our heavenly food with quiet humility. It is true that the altar holds His cross and His body broken for us. Christ is fully present with us in our sufferings, and our sufferings are only made true when united to His own earthly life and death. However, Christ is alive and He is undisturbed by our sufferings. He has already overcome them and another mighty one does battle with an enemy whose defeat is already assured.
We are invited to seek help before the manger, the tomb and the altar as Michael battles Satan upon our doorstep, but perhaps this cosmic story still does not yet have the familiarity of home. It can help to approach this all from the opposite direction: to consider that the whole fury and majesty of the cosmos is contained within our homes and our hearts. G. K. Chesterton takes this approach when he describes our private life as a greater work than our public life: “For anyone who makes himself responsible for one small baby, as a whole, will soon find that he is wrestling with gigantic angels and demons” (“Turning Inside Out” in Fancies vs. Fads, 1923).
A passage attributed to Saint Macarius the Great places the cosmos within our heart itself:
Within the heart are unfathomable depths. …It is but a small vessel: and yet dragons and lions are there, and there poisonous creatures and all the treasures of wickedness; rough, uneven paths are there, and gaping chasms. There likewise is God, there are the angels, there life and the Kingdom, there light and the Apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasures of grace: all things are there.
The Fifty Spiritual Homilies, 15.32
If you struggle to recognize this vast universe as your private home, try to recognize the vast universe that is at home in you. Within that universe, a child is born for whom angels both ride forth to war and stand to sing. Good news.
“The curtain of history rises on a world already ancient, full of ruined cities and ways of thought worn smooth. Mediterranian peoples knew there had been disasters, but remembered little in detail” (2). These opening lines of Ancient Mediterranean Philosophy mesmerized me, and the spell remained throughout the book. Clark participates throughout his book in philosophy’s true task: “Philosophical discussion and reflection are not simply means for solving intellectual problems (though they are and must be that). They are also charms, counter-charms, for the deliverance of the soul” (41, quoting Hilary Armstrong). To put it more modestly, “what we need—tradition says—is to awaken insight” (36).
Clark does not remain modest in his claims for philosophy, however. Reflecting on the death of Socrates, Clark claims that he practiced “a kind of philosophy at once more dangerous and more obscure than moderns now remember” (43). The deadliness of philosophy was a commonplace as we see with Zeno who was “one of those who perished as philosophers were meant to do: defying a tyrant with such courage that, after his murder, the tyrant was overthrown” (63-64). This standard carried through to Christian sages as well. Describing Saint Maximus (who had his right hand removed and his tongue cut out to prevent his writing and speaking), Clark points out that “parrhesia, ‘outspokenness’, was the hallmark and privilege of the awkward holy man in all periods of Byzantium” (203, quoting The Byzantines by Averil Cameron). Stephen R. L. Clark clearly advocates the practice of what these sages preach, saying in his preface, “I have my own beliefs about the only truth that matters, but it is the nature of that truth, as Plato recognized, that it cannot be conveyed by writing” (xi).
The book moves chronologically overall but with a fluid topical arrangement providing enough systematic clarity to make me imagine using this book in a classroom with students. Although sweeping in its scope, Clark is not shy about identifying a center and taking sides. The chapter on Plato is titled “Divine Plato” and is placed at the center of a chiastic structure, with four chapters before and four after, each with some reverberating echoes in their content leading up to Plato and receding from him. Chapter ten functions more like an epilogue that places the entire ebb and flow of Mediterranean philosophy into active contact with our own world—one of a long-crumbled Christendom and of established modern superstitions (as Clark calls them, more below). Echoing his opening lines, Clark points out that we are once again “being brought up among the ruins” and that we are likely soon to pass through another period of youth which is always an opportunity to “rediscover glory” (208).
In a further example of taking sides, Clark calls Plotinus “probably the greatest” of Hellenic sages (196) and provides a delightful section of chapter9 (“The way we didn’t take”) which considers what Rome might have looked like had it become a “Plotinian empire” (200). It would at least have been kinder, Clark says, than the attempt at a pagan renaissance made by the emperor Julian. Despite his love for Plato, Clark gives a thoughtful and positive treatment to all the schools of wisdom seeking within the Mediterranean world. He gives none of them a corner on the market and recognizes multiple threads that link them together.
Although the book is not polemical, Clark quietly points out modernity’s blindspots at several points. For example, he says:
The story that has most affected recent writers is that our ancestors were enmeshed in superstition, that ‘the Greeks’ invented science to escape, then lost their nerve and succumbed again to ‘Oriental’ fantasies. Popular works on science refer disparagingly to the ‘Dark Ages’ and to ‘Medieval Superstition’. This story too is a fable. (5)
Another critique of the modern world is its greed. Clark notes that “‘wanting more’ (Greek morealists called it pleonexia) is the disease of progress” and that “not everyone has succumbed” (3) and goes on to say:
The very realism of much Greek thought was not friendly to the growth of anything we could call ‘science’. It was better not to disturb things, not to image that we could control the world, or always evade disaster. Even if we succeeded in the short term, the effects might not be good. (19) …Most philosophers gradually concluded …that …only small groups of friends, or even solitaries, could live well. (72)
Part of the solution for Clark is recognizing that we occupy a world that is more than material. Sounding like my hero Wendell Berry, Clark says that “in the merely material world, there are no privileged places, times or scales: there is nowhere that is uniquely here, no time that is uniquely now, no reason to suggest that the human scale of things is especially important” (116). As I have already pointed out, the way forward that Clark holds out for us is to rediscover glory. Based on the many examples of courageous sages that Clark holds up, however, any recovery of glory would seem likely to require a high degree of personal sacrifice, commitment and self-imposed limits (again very much like Wendell Berry). A modest assessment of ourselves as those who should “contemplate and imitate the world” in part “by building things” can open up “a mode of understanding” (176).
Clark insists that “we [moderns] should acknowledge our own superstitions: that each of us is competent to reason our way to truth and good behavior, and that we can identify ourselves entirely with particular human bodies. These are the errors that Socrates—maybe—spent his life rebutting.” (93) These are lessons that do not come easily to any of us today. We still believe the Enlightenment promise that reason can single-handedly provide solutions to all of our blindnesses and failures, and we consider our “particular human bodies” to be the ground of all ethical, economic, political and medical reasoning.
To more fully understand what Clark means by the modern superstition “that we can identify ourselves entirely with particular human bodies,” we would need to turn to another book of his where Clark says, “A human person requires a cosmos to sustain it: of anyone it is literally true that the whole world is her body, since the light of the sun, and the respiration of algae, are essential to her bodily survival” (God, Religion and Reality, 108). This idea is touched upon in Ancient Mediterranean Philosophy from an ethical angle when, for example, the Mishnah is cited as evidence that Hebrew scriptures say “each person is himself/herself a world” (149) and that “it is the duty of everyone to say: for my sake the world was created” (165).
This concept recalls what Dale Martin has to say about the Apostle Paul in The Corinthian Body (Yale UP, 1995, reviewed here):
The human body was not like a microcosm; it was a microcosm—a small version of the universe at large. (16) …No ontological dichotomy between the individual and the social can be located in Paul’s logic in 1 Corinthians 5. One may argue that the modern concept of the individual is simply unavailable to Paul. In any case, the logic underlying 1 Corinthians 5 depends on the breaking down of any possible boundary between the individual body and the social body. (173)
Likewise, contemporary Christian philosopher James K.A. Smith has written about this in many places. See, for example, this passage from How (Not) To Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor:
At this point Taylor introduces a key concept to describe the premodern self: prior to this disenchantment and the retreat of meaning into an interior “mind,” the human agent was seen as porous (35). …Just as premodern nature is always already intermixed with its beyond, and just as things are intermixed with mind and meaning, so the premodern self’s porosity means the self is essentially vulnerable (and hence also “healable”). …To be human is to be essentially open to an outside (whether benevolent or malevolent), open to blessing or curse, possession or grace. “This sense of vulnerability,” Taylor concludes, “is one of the principal features which have gone with disenchantment.” (36)
Although Clark is clearly not opposed to modern science, he suggests that “we are looking in the wrong place to find traces of experimental science” (11) and says that “it was not the Ionean theories that marked them as experimentalists but the engineering skills that they had learned from older societies” (12). The atomism of Democritus “was less a physical theory than a mystical conclusion” (58), and all the theories of the great Mediterranean sages “were not lisping attempts at modern science, but meditations on the transience of commonsensical subjects, and the strangeness of what comes ‘before’ our world” (60). Identifying the roots of modern science in examples such as “the technical skills of Thales, who enabled Croesus of Lydia to bypass the river that was in his army’s way” (19-20), Clark only suggests that such powers of experimental engineering should always be subject to “the moral lessons that the Greeks preferred (especially ‘don’t go too far’)” (20).
While issuing such warnings, Clark is not shy to point out the beauties of modern science as a potential source for rediscovering glory:
Plato’s demand for beauty in our equations was not vindicated until first Copernicus (following Aristarchus of Samos) and then Kepler devised a better mathematical model for the system of stars and planets. Even now, we are often faced by the ugly or the arbitrary in the heavens: stars may appear and disappear and matter falls together in whirls and clouds in unpredictable ways. The distant ideal is still a Platonic or Pythagorean one, to grasp the numbers that lie behind the phenomenal and also the physical world. (118)
…The Platonistic View is the only one tenable. Thereby I mean the view that mathematics describes a non-sensual reality, which exists independently of the human mind and is only perceived, and probably perceived very incompletely, by the human mind. (111, quoting Gödel’s “Some basic theorems on the foundations of mathematics and their philosophical implications” from 1951)
Likewise, Clark quotes Stephen Hawking at length on the self-sustaining power and beauty of a unified theory and suggests that Plato would have approved (118-119).
While supporting modern science in these ways, Clark asks us not to read the ancient Meditteranian sages and “label one speculative thinker ‘a philosopher’ and another only ‘a poet’ or ‘mystic’ merely because they speak of ‘elements’ instead of spirits’” (10). He turns our attention instead toward how they might help us to see the glory that lies hidden in our world. “We shall not see things straight, so Platonists supposed, until we see their glory” (199). Aristotle agrees in so far as concluding that “beauty is visible, for those who care to look, even in the smallest and the vilest of creatures (Aristotle, De Partibus Animalium, 1.645a15f). Every visible creature is, in a way, an image of the divine” (193). In the current state of this world, truth and glory are hidden. “The Greek word that we translate as ‘truth’ is Aletheia, and a stream of puns makes clear that the Greeks could, if they chose, hear this as ‘the Unhidden’, or as ‘the Unforgotten’” (57). Finding the truth requires the perception of what is hidden within and the recollection of what might easily be forgotten. “What Plato conceived as a proper dialectic …[was] to test hypotheses against each other and against the basic rules of logic, and so at length prevent good arguments from escaping or being forgotten” (63). Yet much is missed and forgotten.
In this plight of an unrecognized ignorance, we need harsh measures to awaken us:
We should attend more sympathetically to such dialogues as Cratylus and Enthydemus. In the former, familiar words are deconstructed by random etymologies (so that alethea becomes ‘a godly wandering’). In the latter, wildly fallacious arguments—including ones that seem to show how falsehood is impossible, and that anyone who knows anything must actually know everything—are greeted with mounting hostility by Socrates’ young companion, but with continued respect by Socrates himself. Confusion and not clarity may be the goal: the moment when we find ourselves entirely at a standstill, knowing that we know nothing.
After all, “only when we are dumbstruck by our own incompetence is there much chance of hearing what the Truth will tell us” (90).
In his analysis of Plato, Clark claims that “the principle effect of Plato’s work, in many differing schools, lies not …in his ideas, but in the figure of Socrates, and his delight in argument” (109). This figure was best captured in dialog:
Plato was correct, in Phaedrus and elsewhere, to say that writings, on their own, are easily misunderstood, especially if we don’t practice what their authors preached. So also in the Hebraic tradition, the oral teaching is the medium through which the written is to be interpreted. ‘The Talmud is essentially an activity, not a book: you engage in it, rather than read it as you would a piece of literature.’ The same should be true when reading any philosophy. (104-105)
Clark does justice to Plato’s ideas, nonetheless, and reminds us that “however abstract or pedantic Platonic Forms may seem, especially when they are identified with Numbers, we should remember that they are the objects of passionate love. They are Beauty in its several forms, and derive their being from the Good Itself.” (112) Describing the nous (or perceptive mind or intellect) that can “look at what transcends” the things that it typically perceives, Plotinus says that this is “the Intellect in love, when it goes out of its mind ‘drunk with the nectar’” (115).
Much of my own poor intellectual life could be summarized as a quest to find out what C. S. Lewis meant when he had Digory Kirke say, “It’s all in Plato, all in Plato: bless me, what do they teach them at these schools!” (The Last Battle). I’m therefore happy to see a chapter devoted the “divine Plato” and to hear his claim that:
The immortal Mind in me is just the same as the immortal Mind in you. That mind, in fact, is a god—though the way a particular corporeal being thinks is only intermittently, and waveringly, the immortal mind. We do not think the truth: when we do, there is only one thought in each of us, and that thought will survive our mortal bodies. (112-113).
Speaking of “our particular corporeal being,” however, it is critical to note that Clark clarifies one important misunderstanding of neoplatonism. These philosophers did not despise the material world:
Both pagan and Abrahamic Platonists have found corporeal nature sacramental. Plotinus was vegetarian, refused medicines made from animals, and denounced those ‘gnostics’ who despised the earth. Porphyry, his pupil, was until recently the only ‘professional philosopher’ to write at length in favour of ‘the rights of beasts’ (Porphyry 2000). Nor was this at odds with Plato. (110)
In describing all the schools of gnosticism, David Bentley Hart confirms that “there is none that has an explicit metaphysics of participation” (see this podcast transcript where Hart identifies this lack of “a metaphysics of relation between God and creation” as the “one thing that these schools had in common so that you could classify them as gnostic”). Plotinus likely would have identified Christians as belonging among these gnostic sects (199 in Clark), and David Bentley Hart notes that Christians identified themselves as true gnostics. Nonetheless, this sacramental understanding of corporeal nature (this “metaphysics of participation” in the divine) is actually something that all pagan and Abrahamic Platonists (including early Christians) held in common over against the gnostics sects who did not see this world as a revelation, in any respect, of glory and truth.
Clark puts this sacramental understanding of the cosmos on display with language from Plutarch that exactly lines up with many passages in C. S. Lewis where he describes the “motions of the universe …not as those of a machine or even an army, but rather as a dance, a festival, a symphony, a ritual, a carnival, or all these in one” (Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature). Here is Plutarch (De Tranquillitate Animi):
I am delighted with Diogenes, who, when he saw his host in Sparta preparing with much ado for a certain festival, said, ‘Does not a good man consider every day a festival?’ and a very splendid one, to be sure, if we are sound of mind [nous]. For the universe is a most holy temple and …into it man is introduced through birth as a spectator, not of hand-made or immovable images, but of those sensible representations of knowable things that the divine mind, says Plato, has revealed, representations which have innate within themselves the beginnings of life and motion, sun and moon and stars, rivers which ever discharge fresh water, and earth which sends forth nourishment for plants and animals. Since life is a most perfect initiation into these things and a ritual celebration of them, it should be full of tranquillity and joy, and not in the manner of the vulgar. (quoted in Clark 239)
When Clark speaks of Abrahamic Platonists, it is clear that he identifies himself among them as a Chrisitan Platonist. From what I have read elsewhere, Clark is a devout Anglican, and he gives full consideration to Jesus Christ among the Medditeranian sages that he covers. In distinguishing Christians from most of the other “Hellenistic Schools” who “offered a way of life,” Clark cites Clement of Alexandria: “I long for the Lord of the winds, the Lord of fire, the Creator of the World, He who gives light to the sun. I seek God himself, not for the works of God.” (154-155)
In another passage, Clark identifies Jesus Christ with “the very Word of God, the thing that the Omnipresent has been saying, is saying, from the beginning and through whom all things were made.” Clark frames the revelation of Jesus Christ in this way, with characteristic modesty and stopping just short of an absolute claim to knowledge:
We cannot, in short, work out what the world is like merely by examining our own ideas of it, as philosophers often hoped. Is there any chance of locating God’s idea of it? Later writers conceived that Jesus himself was the very Word of God, the thing that the Omnipresent has been saying, is saying, from the beginning and through whom all things were made. Rabbinic speculative poetry or metaphysics proposed that Zion, which is Jerusalem, was the very first thing to be made: Jerusalem the City was the centre of history, even if — in human history — it came late. Muslims similarly were to suggest that the heavenly Koran was written ‘before’ all worlds. Christians concluded instead that Jesus was the center, the very first bit of the story as it is conceived in God. In all these cases, there were some features of the story, the place, the text as it was enacted in human history that really could have been otherwise, and other features that really could not have been different, since they were what God always is and says. Is this a story that Jesus himself could have told, as the gospel writers suggest he did? It is at least not clear that he couldn’t have: either the story is true (and clearly He could have told it) or it is at least a story that Hellenized Jews could tell (as Philo of Alexandria almost did). (168-169)
In the end—although this broken and transitory cosmos does contain within its every least and ugliest part a revelation of the divine and although God is even revealed perfectly within history by Jesus Christ—we circle back time and again to the need for small human communities with strong self-limiting practices and a deep desire to see the glory around them. This life is only possible when we remain intentionally modest, recognizing that a human scale is necessarily limited:
Solon told King Croesus that the best the gods could offer in answer to a mother’s prayers was the prompt death of her sons—though he also acknowledged that the unassuming life of a peasant farmer (in good times) was good (or at least was better than the life that Croesus lived). Similarly, in Plato’s Myth of Er, where he imagines how discarnate souls select the earthly life they will be living next, Odysseus shows his wisdom by searching out an ‘ordinary’ life, unnoticed by all others during the choice and destined to be unnoticed during life. The very worst life is one in which we do everything that we momentarily wish, seduced by sense. (194)
What, then, is our right course? We should pass our life in playing games—certain games, that is, sacrifice, song and dance. …[Mankind should] live out their lives as what they really are—puppets in the main though with some touch of reality about them, too. (Plato, Laws 7.803-4 quoted by Clark 120)
This survey of Clark’s book, though wordy, does no more than give a brief glimpse into the wealth of his short work. I’ve not covered the many schools of thought that he surveys with a myriad of bright insights or mentioned the breadth of the relationships that he suggests between the Mediterranean world and its neighbors. Clearly, this is a book that I commend. For my part, I will be looking for other books of his as well. The list is long. His most recent is Can We Believe in People?: Human Significance in an Interconnected Cosmos. Others include: God, Religion, and Reality, From Athens to Jerusalem, Aristotle’s Man, Plotinus: Myth, Metaphor, and Philosophical Practice, and G. K. Chesterton: Thinking Backward, Looking Forward. Clearly, Clark has spent some time laboring to point out glory amid the ruins that we inhabit. One small fragment of this is Clark’s own translation of a famous line from a song composed by Pindar (Pythian 8 line 95 is quoted by Clark on page 186 without citation). It was was commissioned by the family of an aristocrat named Aristomenes as a celebration of his victory in the wrestling event at the Pythian Games of 446 BC: “A shadow’s dream is man, but when a god sheds a brightness, shining light is on earth and life is as sweet as honey.”
Every early church father that I have found (Justin Martyr, Chrysostom and Origen) understands Christ in Matthew 10:28 to be saying that God can destroy body and soul (or breath) in hell (Vale of Hinnom). Only a tiny minority of recent scholars think that Christ is talking about Satan in Matthew 10:28. According to Peter Kreeft, N.T. Wright and Ben Witherington, Christ is saying that Rome is not the real enemy because Rome can only destroy your body, while Satan can destroy body and soul.
Reading over the passage some more, “fear” appears four times within a few verses: “do not fear” (them) twice in verses 26 and 28 followed by “instead fear” (the one) in verse 28 and finally “do not be afraid” (of my Father) almost immediately again in verse 31. This makes it clear that the overall message of Christ to his disciples is that they do not need to fear those who can kill them now and that their Father in heaven cares for every sparrow that falls and every hair on their heads and will honor this care for them despite their calling now to pick up their own cross and to suffer with Christ.
Finally, Christ speaks positively about the loss of our soul (or breath) just a couple verses later: “whoever loses his soul for my sake will gain it” (verse 39). Paul also says that our “soulish body” must die in order for us to receive our “spiritual body” (1 Corinthians 15:44-45). The same Greek word for soul (or breath) is used twice by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 that Christ uses in Matthew 10:28 and 39, with both Christ and Paul indicating that our soul must be lost in order to inherit the fullness of life with God (having received what Paul calls a “spiritual body”). [As an aside, N. T. Wright and David Bentley Hart had an exchange a few years back over this passage from 1 Corinthians 15.]
Taking all of this together surrounding Matthew 10:28, a good case can be made for understanding Christ to be saying:
Don’t be afraid of the Romans who can kill your body because the real threat is Satan who can kill body and soul. My Father in heaven, however, cares for every sparrow that falls and every hair on your head, and you therefore have no reason to be afraid. I will recognize you as my own before my Father if you have recognized me as your own by giving up your life for me when terrible persecutions will come upon you. In fact, you need to be willing to give up your body and your soul for my sake in order to gain eternal life with me for your soul.
However, the vast majority of Christians from the earliest years understood Christ to be saying something more like:
Don’t be afraid of the Romans who can kill your body. Only God has the power to destroy your body and your soul in the final refuse heap. Do not fear my Father in heaven, however, who cares for every sparrow that falls and every hair on your head. I will recognize you as my own before my Father if you have recognized me as your own by giving up your life for me when terrible persecutions will come upon you. In fact, you need to be willing to give up your body and your soul for my sake in order to gain eternal life with me for your soul.
Here are a variety of resources that I found on Matthew 10:28 from various places:
Peter Kreeft makes the same claim “Satan not God” as the destroyer of souls in his book Practical Theology.
The earliest commentary I could find, takes the position that has been the strong majority understanding throughout Christian history:
“Fear not them that kill you, and after that can do no more; but fear Him who after death is able to cast both soul and body into hell.” Matthew 10:28. And hell is a place where those are to be punished who have lived wickedly, and who do not believe that those things which God has taught us by Christ will come to pass.
Justin Martyr in The First Apology, Chapter 19
When Origen comments on Matthew 10:28 (and Luke 12:45), he admits that it is God who ‘can destroy both the body and the soul in Gehenna’ but emphasizes that while the text speaks of human beings who do in fact kill, it says of God only that God can destroy the sinner. How could God actually do such a thing, he wonders, ‘since the Savior has come to seek and save those who perished’? In view of Christ’s saving act, Origen seems inclined to doubt the eternal character of divine punishment, If there are some texts in which he speaks of Gehenna as a definitive state, there are many others which seem to view it as a purifying chastisement.
“Apocatastasis in Patristic Theology” by John R. Sachs, S.J., Weston School of Theology. Theological Studies 54 (1993).
In “Homily 34 on Matthew,” Saint John Chrysostom makes the case that Christ in the 10:28 passage is giving his disciples the ultimate confidence against persecution:
Then, because He had lifted them up on high, He again gives warning of the perils also, adding wings to their mind, and exalting them high above all. For what says He? Fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul. Matthew 10:28 Do you see how He set them far above all things, persuading them to despise not anxiety only and calumny, dangers and plots, but even that which is esteemed of all things most terrible, death? And not death alone, but by violence too? And He said not, you shall be slain, but with the dignity that became Him, He set this before them, saying, Fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul; but rather fear Him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell; bringing round the argument, as He ever does, to its opposite. For what? Is your fear, says He, of death? And are you therefore slow to preach? Nay for this very cause I bid you preach, that you fear death: for this shall deliver you from that which is really death. What though they shall slay you? Yet over the better part they shall not prevail, though they strive ten thousand ways. Therefore He said not, Who do not kill the soul, but, who are not able to kill. For wish it as they may, they shall not prevail. Wherefore, if you fear punishment, fear that, the more grievous by far.
Do you see how again He does not promise them deliverance from death, but permits them to die, granting them more than if He had not allowed them to suffer it? Because deliverance from death is not near so great as persuading men to despise death. You see now, He does not push them into dangers, but sets them above dangers, and in a short sentence fixes in their mind the doctrines that relate to the immortality of the soul, and having in two or three words implanted a saving doctrine, He comforts them also by other considerations.
Thus, lest they should think, when killed and butchered, that as men forsaken they suffered this, He introduces again the argument of God’s providence, saying on this wise: Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? And one of them shall not fall into a snare without your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Matthew 10:29-30 For what is viler than they? says He; nevertheless, not even these shall be taken without God’s knowledge. For He means not this, by His operation they fall, for this were unworthy of God; but, nothing that is done is hid from Him. If then He is not ignorant of anything that befalls us, and loves us more truly than a father, and so loves us, as to have numbered our very hairs; we ought not to be afraid. And this He said, not that God numbers our hairs, but that He might indicate His perfect knowledge, and His great providence over them. If therefore He both knows all the things that are done, and is able to save you, and willing; whatever ye may have to suffer, think not that as persons forsaken ye suffer. For neither is it His will to deliver you from the terrors, but to persuade you to despise them, since this is, more than anything, deliverance from the terrors.
Finally, here is the passage form Matthew’s Gospel with context (from a recent translation of the New Testament by David Bentley Hart):
13And if in-deed the household should be worthy, may your ‘Peace’ come upon it; but if it should be unworthy, may your ‘Peace’ revert back to you. 14And whoever should not welcome you, or should not listen to your words, on departing outside that household or that city shake the dust off your feet. 15Amen, I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that city. 16See: I send you forth as sheep into the midst of wolves; so be as wise as serpents and as guileless as doves. 17And beware of men; for they will deliver you up to councils, and they will flog you in their syna-gogues; 18And you will be led before leaders and even kings for my sake, as a witness to them and to the gentiles. 19But when they deliver you up do not worry over how or what you might speak; for whatever you might say will be given to you in that hour; 20For you are not the ones speaking, but rather the Spirit of your Father is speaking in you. 21And brother will deliver up brother to death, and father child, and children will rise up against parents and put them to death. 22And you will be hated by all on account of my name; but whoever endures to the end, that one will be saved. 23And when they persecute you in one city, flee to another; for, amen, I tell you, you will most certainly not have finished with the cities of Israel before the Son of Man arrives. 24A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a slave above his lord. 25It suffices that the disciple become as his teacher, and the slave as his lord. If they have arraigned the master of the household as ‘Beelzebul,’ how much more so those who belong to his household? 26Therefore, do not fear them; for there is nothing that has been veiled that will not be unveiled, and nothing hidden that will not be made known. 27What I say to you in the dark, speak in the light; and what you hear in your ear, proclaim upon the house-tops. 28And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; but rather fear the one who can destroy both soul and body in the Vale of Hinnom. 29Are not two sparrows sold for the smallest pittance? And not one of them will fall to earth without your Father. 30But even the hairs of your head have all been numbered. 31So do not be afraid; you are of greater worth than a great many sparrows. 32Therefore, everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge him before my Father in the heavens; 33And whoever denies me before men, I also will deny him before my Father in the heavens. 34Do not suppose that I have come to impose peace upon the earth; I came to impose not peace but a sword. 35For I came to divide a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a bride against her mother-in-law-36And a man’s enemies: the members of his house-hold. 37Whoever cherishes father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever cher-ishes son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. 38And whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me. 39Whoever gains his soul will lose it, and whoever loses his soul for my sake will gain it. 40Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who has sent me forth. 41Whoever welcomes a prophet because he is called prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and whoever welcomes a just man because he is called just will receive a just man’s reward. 42And whoever gives one of these humble ones a cup of cold water solely because he is called disciple, amen, I tell you, he most certainly will not lose his reward.
David Bentley Hart’s translation of this passage (Yale UP, 2017).
Here is a list of readings that I’ve found related to the creatures that Lewis calls the longaevi (long-livers). Pease comment with other readings that you have found. I would be glad to collect more. Meanwhile, enjoy some of these:
C.S. Lewis lecture on “THE LONGAEVI” published as chapter VI in The Discarded Image (see some excerpts here).
J.R.R. Tolkien essay “On Fairy-Stories” (see extended excerpts here).
Seyyed Hossein Nasr essay “In the Beginning was Consciousness” that appears to be chapter 14 from The Essential Sophia (Library of Perennial Philosophy, 2006) by Seyyed Hossein Nasr and Katherine O'Brien, a book that is not in print as of this posting (November of 2020).
In several writings, David Bentley Hart connects human sin and suffering strongly with the idea of oppression by fallen angelic powers. Hart points this out as a strong theme in Paul’s letters and the rest of the New Testament but also make it clear that he holds this same position himself. However, Fr. Aidan (Al) Kimel wrote recently: “Yesterday I learned that contrary to what I had believed for several years, David Hart does not locate the origin of evil in the angelic fall. I don’t know why I thought he did. I probably misinterpreted a line or two in The Doors of the Sea. So I wrote David and asked him to clarify. He wrote back: ‘I think Origen was right. And I think John Behr is right about Origen.'”
Of course being subject to oppressive and fallen angelic powers is not the same thing as saying the evil has its origin in the fall of angels before humans. Perhaps Hart would simply say that human’s damaged themselves (and were uniquely capable of damaging the cosmos with themselves because of the special priestly function of humans within the cosmos) but that after their fall humans became subject to oppressive fallen angels who had also fallen in their own separate way. This distinction seems reasonable but also feels a little arbitrary. Either way, humans now suffer under the dominion of fallen angelic powers.
One commenter (Roman Montero) pointed out that there is a consistent tension “between an apocalyptic [or] perhaps mythological narrative of an angelic fall and a tighter more philosophically elegant one such as what is provided by Origen.” This distinction helps in my mind. Below are two sets of passages from David Bentley Hart illustrating these two styles or modes of thought. The first represents a sample of what Hart has written on Origen’s ideas about the fall.
For Behr, one thing that Origen grasped with particular genius was the sheer incommensurability of eternity and time. Rather than, say, the mythology of a realm of disembodied intellects dwelling continuously in some sort of pre-temporal but consecutive eternity, then falling away into ensoulment and corporeality, and then being led by Christ upward again to their original condition, Origen taught merely that God’s creative and rational intentions and principles are with him from everlasting, in his “foreknowledge” and by virtue of the divine Wisdom, his Son. We were all of us, that is to say, in some sense created in our last end, before the foundations of the world, called into existence in the heavenly court; there, in the eternal intention and perfected creation of God, we are already—and in that sense eternally have ever been—joined to God, pervaded by his glory like iron thrust into the fire. But that does not mean that our worldly lives are merely the middle chapters in the several histories of isolated psychological selves. Our descent from that eternity is simply the difference between our eternal end and the temporal reality of creation, by which alone we can make our ascent to God in his Son. Our “fall” away from God was, and has always been, nothing other than our actual turning away from the reality of the union of God and humanity on the cross of Christ.
…I am not at all sure that a subtler but nonetheless somewhat more literal notion of a real fall of spiritual beings from the “aeon” around God would have been a particularly outrageous supposition in Origen’s time, or would be any more so today. Sergei Bulgakov, for instance, very ingeniously takes up such a theme without allowing it to degenerate into a crude mythology; and I have found it possible in the past to read Origen through Bulgakov without feeling I was imposing an alien scheme on the texts. But that may be purely a matter of taste and temperament.
From David Bentley Hart’s review of John Behr’s translation of Origen: On First Principles (Oxford Early Christian Texts).
In this second set of passages, Hart speaks much more apocalyptically about our fallen state in connection to the oppression of fallen angelic powers.
The story of salvation concerns the entire cosmos; and it is a story of invasion, conquest, spoliation and triumph. For Paul, the cosmos has been enslaved to death, both by our sin and by the malign governance of those ‘angelic’ or ‘daemonian’ agencies who reign over the earth from the heavens, and who hold spirits in thrall below the earth. These angelic beings, these Archons, whom Paul calls Thrones and Powers and Dominations and Spiritual Forces of Evil in the High Places, are the gods of the nations. In the Letter to the Galatians, he even hints that the angel of the Lord who rules over Israel might be one of their number. Whether fallen, or mutinous, or merely incompetent, these beings stand intractably between us and God. But Christ has conquered them all.
From “Everything you know about the Gospel of Paul is likely wrong” by David Bentley Hart at aeon.co on 8 January 2018.
The fall of rational creation and the conquest of the cosmos by death is something that appears to us nowhere within the course of nature or history; it comes from before and beyond both. We cannot search it out within the closed totality of the damaged world because it belongs to another frame of time, another kind of time, one more real than the time of death. …It may seem a fabulous claim that we exist in the long grim aftermath of a primaeval catastrophe—that this is a broken and wounded world, that cosmic time is a phantom of true time, that we live in an umbratile interval between creation in its fullness and the nothingness from which it was called, and that the universe languishes in bondage to the “powers” and “principalities” of this age, which never cease in their enmity toward the kingdom of God—but it is not a claim that Christians are free to surrender.
From “The Devil’s March” by David Bentley Hart.
Hart evidently considers both of these ideas of the human fall to be true and compatible:
“Our ‘fall’ away from God was, and has always been, nothing other than our actual turning away from the reality of the union of God and humanity on the cross of Christ. …[Because] we were all of us …in some sense created in our last end, before the foundations of the world, called into existence in the heavenly court; there, in the eternal intention and perfected creation of God, we are already—and in that sense eternally have ever been—joined to God, pervaded by his glory like iron thrust into the fire. …[And] our descent from that eternity is simply the difference between our eternal end and the temporal reality of creation, by which alone we can make our ascent to God in his Son.”
“The fall of rational creation and the conquest of the cosmos by death is something that appears to us nowhere within the course of nature or history; it comes from before and beyond both. …We exist in the long grim aftermath of a primaeval catastrophe—[meaning] that this is a broken and wounded world, that cosmic time is a phantom of true time, that we live in an umbratile interval between creation in its fullness and the nothingness from which it was called, and that the universe languishes in bondage to the ‘powers’ and ‘principalities’ of this age, which never cease in their enmity toward the kingdom of God.”
Perhaps Hart understands them to be two ways of speaking about the same realities, or perhaps Hart is saying that these two modes of describing our fall “may be purely a matter of taste and temperament.”
[Note: the title refers to this longer post from a couple months ago, and this current post contains some inadequate initial efforts to correct and adjust some of the points that I made in that earlier post.]
Trying to grasp creation and the fall rests on concepts of time and wholeness. With the first day of creation, time is pure and in participation with all of cosmic and human history in their fullness. Within this pure time, all of the seven days are contained within the first day in some sense. Angels were created in this light of the first day with their own relation to God outside of this pure time that was revealed with the unfolding of seven supratemporal days. Some of the angelic council did not want the cosmos and humanity to be created. This angelic fall could not touch the cosmos directly but could touch humanity. The seven days of creation in the first chapter of Genesis tell a story outside of time as we now know it, but this story also unfolds (in a distorted and fallen form) within time as we now experience it. We are still inside of those seven supratemporal days but also profoundly estranged from them and their goodness (except in Christ who brings us back into communion with God’s kingdom and His time).
We might speak of ourselves as currently estranged from the Voice of God that is continually creating the world while what we experience now is a resistance on our own part to God’s shaping of the world. There is no resistance possible to God’s Word, but God allows us, the material called into existence, to resist the hands of the Potter to some degree. Our current cosmos, in its entire history, is a result of our resistance to the shape of God’s Word that we will eventually long to express in our fullness.
The creation story reveals the goodness of life with God as it was provided for the entire cosmos created with humanity (in our wholeness—i.e. all of us) as its crown and its integrating link to life with God. As humanity (all of us) listened collectively to the lies of fallen angels, we disintegrated our union with this pure time, with the cosmos, with each other and with God. All of cosmic history and human history (as we experience and know it now) is a result of this human and cosmic fall and this disintegration of time into a constant loss and death rather than an ever-present fullness of a collective unfolding and maturation in participation with the life of God. All of cosmic and human history as we know it is shattered and estranged from true time and from God—a temporary aberration from the plan that we have pursued (apart from God) and a false history that does not show up anywhere within the seven days of creation as they truly exist and are revealed in Christ.
In this account, Adam and all of us are contained within the sixth day (or the first six days), awaiting the seventh day of God’s rest (with Christ’s incarnation, glorification and offering of Himself in the Eucharist) and the eighth day of new creation (which contains the final accomplishment or fulfillment of all seven days as the “Sons of God” are revealed). Even more, as we are contained within these first six days of creation, humanity is actively resisting creation and allowing it to be subject to malicious powers that are perverting it and holding it back from being finished. With Jesus Christ coming out of the tomb on the day after His Sabbath in the grave, however, we have the eighth day of resurrection proclaimed and revealed. John Calvin, in his commentary on Genesis 17:12, says: “It is probable and consonant with reason, that the number seven designated the course of the present life. Therefore, the eighth day might seem to be fixed upon by the Lord, to prefigure the beginning of a new life.” Calvin was agreeing (if a little tentatively) with many other Christian authors who, from the earliest years, drew this conclusion from the Gospels. Augustine reflected on this theme with a little more enthusiasm that Jesus “suffered voluntarily, and so could choose His own time for suffering and for resurrection, He brought it about that His body rested from all its works on Sabbath in the tomb, and that His resurrection on the third day, which we call the Lord’s day, the day after the Sabbath, and therefore the eighth, proved the circumcision of the eighth day to be also prophetical of Him.”
As Charles Andrew Gottshall put it:
For now the first day of creation is closed off until the last. But the glory of that first day, in all its radiance, purity, and possibility shone again in the Taboric light of Easter morning, the dawning of the last day that casts back its light on that other world that was, that should have been, the world that will be when “God will be all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28).
From “Sergius Bulgakov on Evolution and the Fall: A Sophiological Solution” posted on 1 May 2017 at Eclectic Orthodoxy.
Finally, here are some similar thoughts that Jedidiah Paschall posted to social media yesterday (but even more focused and well-expressed):
There’s hardly a day in my life where I don’t think about the meaning of Genesis 1-2 (nerdy, I know). The more I think on it, the more I read the thoughts of others on it, the more and more I am convinced that Genesis 1 should be read as a promise, or a prophetic outline for the whole of history, and not something that just ‘happened’ in the past. In this sense, human civilization, and the long catastrophic history entailed within it, remains in the 6th Day, and still awaits its consummation in the creation’s great Sabbath. Creation is not a descrete event that happened in the past, but an act, or an occurance in which we are all intimately involved. The big question then, in my mind, is what is the nature of my involvement in this story? Will I look upon the formless and void chaos in this world (or in my own life), and toss up my hands in resignation; or, will I roll up my sleeves and get to work, knowing that when my part is done a true Sabbath awaits me?
Christians claim that we live in a damaged world, although it still reveals to us an undamaged reality beyond and within. Growing up in a Christian home, I lived constantly with the idea that our brokenness is obvious and that all the beauty and wonder of this world speaks to us ceaselessly of a goodness from which we are somehow estranged. Despite this upbringing, it surprised me recently to read that we cannot recognize the fallenness of our world without a revelation given to us from outside our frame of reference. As I’ve grown older, however, I see that I don’t always live as if this world is incomplete. Instead, I act as if this world commands my full allegiance—as if what I can acquire and achieve is all that matters. I treat the world around me as all that I have or as the full picture of reality.
Recently, however, I’ve come to reflect on some Christian claims that place us even more deeply within a tragically reduced creation than I would have previously understood or expressed. I’m considering that even our experience of time has fallen so that the fullness of reality does not fit within our temporal history and even our fall itself is beyond our immediate grasp as a specific point within the timeline of our past. This remoteness of our own fall leaves us with the powerful illusion that we know our own story and the full scope of what exists. In fact, however, we are heavily blinded and “we see through a glass, darkly” (1 Cor. 13:12). We are easily inclined to live and act as if evil and death are normal and as if there is nothing fundamentally wrong with ourselves and our world. In response, this supratemporal understanding of the fall has challenged me to consider just how separated we are from the fullness of reality—cut off in ways that leave us blinded to who we truly are as God’s children.
Even during this life, God’s presence within a quieted heart allows us to begin seeing the true nature of ourselves and our world. We have God fully revealed to us within human history in the person of Jesus Christ, and he reveals a strange relationship to sin, evil, suffering and death:
If it is from Christ that we to learn how God relates himself to sin, suffering, evil and death, it would seem that he provides us little evidence of anything other than a regal, relentless and miraculous enmity. Sin he forgives, suffering he heals, evil he casts out, and death he conquers. And absolutely nowhere does Christ act as if any of these things are a part of the eternal work or purposes of God, which it is well to remember.
From The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? by David Bentley Hart, chapter 9.
It is not an easy thing to live as if sin, suffering, evil and death are not a part of the eternal realities of our world. Ultimately, this requires going to the cross and communing there with our loving God “who was slain before the foundations of the world” (Revelation 13:8). We find in this communion a courage and joy that is far from a reliance on great emotions or great ideas. It is a beautiful relationship with what is true and good. This all requires learning to live with our fears and sufferings as part of what we carry now but ultimately as falsehoods that will be overcome by the true gifts that our loving God offers to us with His presence.
C.S. Lewis writes in Mere Christianity and several other places about the ache of joy as a sign to us that we are all clearly “made for another world.” J.R.R. Tolkien wrote stories of a Straight Road kept open only for the Elves so that they could continue to sail their ships along the pathway of the once-flat sea and into what is now our sky. The bending of our world into its current reduced shape took place in Tolkien’s stories at the downfall of Númenor. This shrinking of our current world cut us off from Aman and the realm of the Valar (see “Akallabêth: The Downfall of Númenor” in The Silmarillion for one depiction of this by Tolkien). In the “The Ballad of the White Horse,” G.K. Chesterton writes: “For the end of the world was long ago, / And all we dwell to-day / As children of some second birth, / Like a strange people left on earth / After a judgment day.”
These ideas from Chesterton, Tolkien and Lewis (who I have read since childhood) are clearly of a piece with other claims about the fall that I have read more recently as a summary of ancient Christian teaching:
The fall of rational creation and the conquest of the cosmos by death is something that appears to us nowhere within the course of nature or history; it comes from before and beyond both. We cannot search it out within the closed totality of the damaged world because it belongs to another frame of time, another kind of time, one more real than the time of death.
…It may seem a fabulous claim that we exist in the long grim aftermath of a primaeval catastrophe—that this is a broken and wounded world, that cosmic time is a phantom of true time, that we live in an umbratile interval between creation in its fullness and the nothingness from which it was called, and that the universe languishes in bondage to the “powers” and “principalities” of this age, which never cease in their enmity toward the kingdom of God—but it is not a claim that Christians are free to surrender.
From “The Devil’s March: Creatio ex Nihilo, the Problem of Evil, and a Few Dostoyevskian Meditations” by David Bentley Hart, published in Theological Territories: A David Bentley Hart Digest.
Many ancient Christian teachers have said that our entire cosmos exists within a weakened and reduced condition of space and time. Our access to reality is obstructed by our current fallen condition. Time, as we now know it, does not contain all that is true about time in its fullness. Human history and our entire physical universe exists within an incomplete form of time and space. Our fall cut us off from access to our true selves, our true history and from the fullness of the realities to which we still belong but from which we are estranged.
Speaking about the history of how all of this happened is not fully possible within our current temporal categories. Ancient myths and great stories point toward this history over and over in images and language that help us to see beyond our current condition. In The Silmarillion, Tolkien describes the Ainur as the first living beings kindled by Eru Ilúvatar with love for the Flame Imperishable and who therefore had the power of creativity. Ilúvatar taught each of them to sing, and they slowly began to make music on their own and in small groups. Hearing and observing each other singing taught the Ainur more and more about the mind of Ilúvatar, increasing their “unity and harmony.” Eventually, their creator gathered all of the Ainur and told them that he would guide them in a song so great and complex that every one of them would participate together. At first the Ainur were so amazed at this idea, that they bowed before Eru Ilúvatar in silence. When they began to sing, their voices filled the depths and heights of sound “beyond hearing” and filled even the Void so that it “was not void.” Their singing then went through multiple themes with it’s first theme increasing their unity, harmony and their knowledge of Ilúvatar. However, discord was eventually introduced by the voice of Melkor who drew other voices with him so that Ilúvatar needed to introduce a theme that would eventually enfold and resolve the discord of Melkor (a theme involving sacrifice and eucatastrophe). As you read further in Tolkien’s stories, his entire mythic history of Middle Earth is depicted as existing within these powerful but temporary discords of Melkor.
As ancient storytellers and Tolkien understood, any attempt to give a brief history of the cosmos must somehow transcend time as we now experience it. To go to the beginning, requires a look into the life of God. However, to consider God’s life, we can only begin with what we know about our lives together. We all know that admiring something good in another person satisfies us deeply. In the Christian teaching of Imago Dei, to admire goodness in someone else is also to see God revealed in them. Seeing two other persons find this kind of satisfaction in each other likewise invites us to admire each of them in return. This kind of fellowship between three or more people is described in clear and simple terms by C.S. Lewis:
In each of my friends there is something that only some other friend can fully bring out. By myself I am not large enough to call the whole man into activity; I want other lights than my own to show all his facets. Now that Charles is dead, I shall never again see Ronald’s reaction to a specifically Charles joke. Far from having more of Ronald, having him ‘to myself’ now that Charles is away, I have less of Ronald.
From The Four Loves.
Although not relatable within our terms of finitude and need, Jesus Christ reveals God to us as a timeless community of three persons sharing one perfect nature. Christianity maintains that everything is founded upon the love of these three persons within the life of God. Dante references an ancient classical and Christian tradition with his lines about how it is “love that moves the sun and other stars” (The Divine Comedy, Paradiso, XXXIII.145).
In fact, not only all movement but all existence is a result of God’s love. Everything that exists only exists as a response to this life and love shared between these three persons as they enjoy the same complete goodness in each other but manifest and appreciate this goodness each in their own distinct ways. For its own sake, our cosmos exists in response to this fullness of God’s life and love. He needs no goodness added to his own, but his superabundant goodness calls for our response so that we too might enjoy it.
Before our cosmos began to suffer, however, and even before our place as humans within the cosmos was shaped by God’s superabundance of life and love, many other ranks of free and glorious spirits first came to be in response to God. In this uncorrupted time and space, a community of heavenly life exists continually where mighty living lights move in a dance filled with awe and joy, breathing out their songs around the throne of God. In a passage about the heavenly life at the end of time, C.S. Lewis describes a dynamic that is true from the beginning and that remains unchanged around the throne of God even throughout all the tumult of our human history:
Friendship exhibits a glorious ‘nearness by resemblance’ to heaven itself where the very multitude of the blessed (which no man can number) increases the fruition which each of us has of God. For every soul, seeing Him in her own way, doubtless communicates that unique vision to all the rest. That, says an old author, is why the Seraphim in Isaiah’s vision are crying ‘Holy, Holy, Holy’ to one another (Isaiah 6:3). The more we thus share the Heavenly Bread between us, the more we shall have.
Again from The Four Loves.
Out of this harmonious life with God, God called forth yet another form of life. Humans were like children wearing garments of light and placed to grow up within a well-watered garden of beautiful plants and animals. Our cosmos was already shaped long before humanity was placed into it, and our cosmos was filled from the start with powerful lights that danced and sang from out of the darkness. These great spirits made up the mighty household of God, and their dances and voices formed the great harmonious movements that exist still as the metaphysical foundation of our cosmos. Remember Dante’s claim (echoing Augustine and many others) that it is “love that moves the sun and other stars.”
Plato taught us this about the stars as well, i.e. that they are moved (as are all things) by unseen realities and that their visible movements (although imperfect like all the rest of the visible world) reveal perfect realities. Alan Scott has an excellent summary of Plato’s teaching on the stars in Origen and the Life of the Stars: A History of an Idea by (Oxford Early Christian Studies, Clarendon Press, 1994):
True astronomy is not concerned merely with what is seen in heaven but with the understanding of what lies behind what is seen. …To the mind which understood properly, there was true harmony in heaven even if this was not possible for the material bodies of heaven, even as there is exactness in geometry though it is not part of any merely visible diagram. …Just as Plato accepts elements of the latest astronomical research but not the philosophical and religious implications it was sometimes thought to have, so too before his later writings he can accept the popular veneration of the heavens without taking it altogether seriously. In the Republic, Plato does say that the craftsman of heaven, like Daedalus, fashioned the courses of the stars with the greatest beauty possible, and at one point Plato even goes so far as to refer casually to ‘the gods in heaven’, one of which is the sun, and yet he also openly doubts that the visible stars are eternal and immutable.
…The author of [Epinomis] tells us as Plato did that most people regard the stars as lifeless because of their uniform motion, but that this is in fact a clear sign of their intelligence. [As an aside, this claim that uniform motion is a sign of intelligence is brilliantly expanded and defended here by G.K. Chesterton.]
Scripture has many passages where “the hosts of heaven” can just as well be translated with either “stars” or “angels.” What we see as the movements of the stars does ultimately reflect the life of God and his entire creation. However, what we see of everything in this world equally reflects God’s life—from earthly weather patterns to cellular life. But I’ve wandered far away from the storyline again. Back to the arrival of humanity.
Some Christian sages have said that when God made humans amid this great assembly, a few powerful voices in the heavens grew jealous or proud. There is something glorious (imponderable to some degree) about the introduction of humans into creation. Most early Christian teachers took it for granted that God created humanity after the pattern of the second person of the Trinity—the eternal Son of God—as a first step in God’s own incarnation. Our creation was the means for God to participate fully within the life of all his creation. In a way that should be understood as related to our image-bearing and incarnational intent, human life is made to tend, protect and call into harmonious voice all the beauties of the entire cosmos around us. Job says that the stars sang as the earth was made (even before humans were here), and yet humans are placed upon the earth so that we can call upon the stars themselves to sing (as we do in several of the Psalms). There is something mysterious (and easily offensive) about this sequence of events within God’s divine plan.
Some time not too long after God makes humans, we come to a critical and obscure detail within the story. There is a forbidden tree within the garden. This in and of itself is not an issue as it is simply understood by most ancient scholars of the Bible to indicate that humans were made to mature. We were not created fully developed in our moral and relational capacities. This tree of the knowledge of good and evil is not for the young and untested. More messy is the fact that there is a tempter. Some scholars point out that the instructions to “care for the garden” would have been read by ancient people as “guard,” and that our first parents should have prevented the serpent from entering. This may be the case. Alternatively, the snake was part of God’s first household and there was already some discord within that house. In this case, the fallenness of humanity and our world is wrapped up to some degree with a fall of some variety among powerful spirits who were made before us. This point cannot be taken too far, however, because humanity is clearly held responsible for the current condition of our cosmos. We see this in Romans 8:19-23, for example, where we read that “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God …for we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.”
All Christian theologians agree to a remarkable degree that humanity provides a vital link between God and this new creation (again tied to the incarnational purpose of our creation from the start). David Bentley Hart summarizes it this way: “Human beings—constituting what Maximus the Confessor called the priestly ‘methorios’ (the boundary or frontier) between the physical and the spiritual realms—severed the bond between God’s eternity and cosmic time when they fell” (from “The Devil’s March” again). Both pagan and Christian sages throughout history have spoken of each human person as a microcosm of the whole cosmos. Great women and men of prayer and contemplation have repeatedly insisted that there is a powerful connection between the depths of the human heart and the central throne of God. In some sense, each human heart is the center of all that God has made (creating what we call a “place”), and each human heart also touches every other place because each heart stands directly before God. To see God as well as the places that we occupy, requires that what the ancient Greeks called our “nous” (intuitive apprehension) be given a complete and quiet authority within our heart (which is the only location from which the nous can see God and reality directly). To get back to the point (and to repeat once more), all of this means that humanity displays God to the world in some central way and also receives the gifts of God from all of the world surrounding us. We are each a living sacramental or eucharistic center of seeing, receiving and thanksgiving (making our bodies temples of the Holy Spirit as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6:19). When our relationship to God is broken, it is not just (or even primarily) an individual tragedy. Each human’s broken relationship to God is a cosmic tragedy with extremely real and terrible implications. Likewise, for any human to live in restored communion with God means that all of creation and every fellow human may witness and share, to some degree, a substantial return to the true and intended arrangement of things. Holiness is this participation of particular persons and things with this original purpose of communicating God’s presence.
Whatever might be made of these glorious claims surrounding humanity and the serious implications of our fall, we have a divinely inspired story that clearly makes our fall the essential reason for cosmic suffering. It is tempting to identify the exact temporal sequence of these events. However, it seems that angelic rebellion and the human fall took place before our current time and space were fractured and reduced to an incomplete existence that can no longer contain any of the points in heavenly time at which any of these events took place. In other words, the actual account of our own fall does not fit within our current experiences of time and space. If this is true, then our fall is something that transcends our time. It may have happened in some kind of sequence within a kind of heavenly time, but it can’t be located within earthly time. One quality of a higher dimension in math (to use one easy analogy) is that it can “contain” all of a lesser dimension (as a sphere contains many circles). In an analogous way, every one of our personal lives may be contained within the single event of the human fall. We may each be an active participant in the fall of our first parents.
There are clearly other events within human history that transcend our standard understandings of time according to the biblical accounts. Consider the exodus as well as the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We see this kind of supratemporal reality clearly described within this passage about a prayer from the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus (“a little book with prayers for the Eucharist, baptism, ordination, and other rites reflecting practice in Rome at the end of the second century”) in Robert Louis Wilken’s The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God (32-36):
It is apparent from the wording of the prayers that something more is at work here than recalling ancient history. After reciting the history of salvation leading up to the “night on which he was betrayed,” the prayer continues as follows: “And we sinners make remembrance of his life-giving sufferings, his death, and resurrection on the third day from death and ascension to the right hand of You, his God and Father, and his second glorious and fearful coming.” The key term here is the Greek word anamnesis, usually translated “remembrance,” which in this context means “recall by making present.”
There are parallels between this sense of remembrance and the way the Exodus out of Egypt is remembered in the Jewish Passover. In the Mishnah, the collection of Jewish law from the early third century, it is reported that Rabbi Gamaliel used to say, “…In every generation a man must so regard himself as if he came forth himself out of Egypt, for it is written, ‘And you shall tell your son on that day saying, “It is because of that which the Lord did for me when I came forth out of Egypt.”’ Those who celebrate Pesach are not spectators, they are participants. “It is I who came forth out of Egypt,” says Rabbi Gamaliel. Remembrance is more than mental recall, and in the Eucharist the life-giving events of Christ’s death and Resurrection escape the restrictions of time and become what the early church called mysteries, ritual actions by which Christ’s saving work is re-presented under the veil of the consecrated bread and wine. Speaking of the Christian paschal celebration Origen wrote, “The Passover still takes place today” and “Those who sacrifice Christ come out of Egypt, cross the Red Sea, and see Pharaoh engulfed.” What was once accomplished in Palestine is now made present in the action of the liturgy, as the prayers indicate: “We offer to You O Lord, this awesome and unbloody sacrifice, beseeching You to deal with us not according to our sins.” Liturgy is always in the present tense. The past becomes a present presence that opens a new future.
What is being claimed about the human fall is different then what is being claimed about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Our fall did not take place in human history, it was in some sense the start of cosmic history as we know it (that is as a broken and reduced experience). God’s great actions in human history (with Jesus Christ fulfilling all of these) are both historic events and transcendent events. They have a particular place in history but also touch every other point in history (as a transcendent event). Our fall, as I’m explaining it also touches every other point in history, but it cannot also be located within human history as we can locate Jesus Christ.
With these explanations in place, the history of our cosmos can be told briefly:
God’s joyous, free and self-sufficient life as three persons brought many great and diverse spirits to a free yet contingent life so that they could share in and enjoy the life of God.
This household of free and sub-creative spirits rejoiced as God’s life continued to invite more life into newly shaped space and time. God made a beautiful cosmos and then brought humanity into it as those showing forth God’s image within this new realm of spirits whose creation would be fulfilled with the incarnation of God’s Son among them.
God warned his new children that great and mysterious powers were still beyond their reach and that their own pursuit of this knowledge would bring terrible damage, destruction and death.
Evidently, however, some in God’s first household did not simply rejoice at the creation of this second household. They invited humans to forgo growth and maturation, to grasp on their own for goals and ends that they were not yet developed enough to see clearly or to understand. As humans followed these promptings, bitterness, mistrust and fear resulted. As God had warned them, they fled from God and faced death.
Many ancient accounts of the expulsion from the garden note that God was protecting humanity from the tree of life, not punishing them. Our first parents would cause more damage to themselves and their world in their fallen condition if they had been given continued access to the tree of life.
We might say that a reduced cosmic history began here, but we would need to recognize that our entire history to which we have any conceivable access is a reduced history. We lost all access to the kind of time and space in which we were initially created, and our entire story as well as the entire story of our current cosmos became a story characterized by death and suffering from beginning to end.
Taking compassion on us in our fallen condition, God clothed our first parents in garments of skin (with many ancient accounts saying that this covered or replaced their original garments which had been made of light), and God commanded members of his first household to attend and help fallen humanity within the sad confines of our now reduced and limited history.
Our fall, however, left a great vacuum in our hearts and therefore in all of the cosmos so that members of God’s first household could abuse us and our world, claiming it as their own dominion. Humanity followed much of this abuse in our own lust for power as well as in fear, and we neglected our life as God’s image bearers and caretakers more and more for the sake of desperate ventures and false worship.
Amid the ravages and terror of this sad history, Jesus Christ nonetheless fulfilled God’s original intention for us and revealed that God could unite his life even to death and to the grave itself, shattering them from within and offering us the life of God (the fruit of the tree of life as his own body) in communion with our own sufferings and deaths.
After this astounding victory and revelation, Jesus Christ returned to God’s throne where he now offers his own body to us as our bread and where he remains who he was revealed to be upon the Cross: the Lamb slain from before the foundation of the world and our bread of life.
God has united himself and his life to us once again from his own real and eternal kingdom. In Jesus Christ, our broken and incomplete cosmos has been opened up and brought back into contact with the life of God.
This history is not over, but we now can see, through Jesus Christ, that the entire history of our cosmos has a beginning and an end that is not currently visible to us, and that all things must truly be made new so that we live now as heavenly citizens but also as future inheritors of a new heavens and an a new earth. United with Christ in his death now as we feed upon his incorruptible body, our own deaths will not hold us captive but will give way to Christ’s death and therefore also to his life.
This exercise has shown me, again, that there are good reasons why these truths are related in great stories and powerful images. They ring shallow and false when reduced to truisms and propositions. Nonetheless, I hope that some of these foolish babblings, for anyone desperate enough to have read them, might have pointed you toward something of the life of God in which “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).