Christmas Ghost Story 2020: A Chat with Mom

“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)

Mary is our Abraham

Dante called Mary “Virgin Mother, Daughter of thy Son”. Dante’s description of Mary, “Daughter of thy Son”, challenges any assumption that the address to Mary by Jesus from the cross is simply an example of a son’s solicitude for his mother’s welfare.

…In spite of the current presumption that Christianity is important for no other reason than that Christians are pro-family people, it must be admitted that none of the Gospels portray Jesus as family-friendly. In Mark, when he is told that his mother and brothers are “outside asking for [him]”, Jesus responds, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3.34-35).

Nor should we forget that in Luke 14.26 Jesus says that “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” In our desire to make Jesus “normal”, a man who liked children, we are tempted to forget that Jesus never married or had children. That he welcomed the children to come to him as manifestations of the Kingdom may be for no other reason than that children do not have children.

I do not call attention to Jesus’s anti-family remarks to denigrate his address to Mary from the cross. Indeed, I think we can only appreciate his commending Mary to the beloved disciple, as well as his charge to the disciple to regard Mary as his mother, when we recognise that Mary is not just another mother. Rather, Mary is the firstborn of the new creation. Without Mary’s response “Here am I” to Gabriel, our salvation would not be. Raniero Cantalamessa quite rightly, therefore, entitled his book on Mary Mary: Mirror of the Church (Liturgical Press, 1992).

Cantalamessa, moreover, makes the fascinating observation that in the New Testament Jesus is often designated as or assumed to be the new Adam, the new Moses, or the new David, but he is never called the new Abraham. Cantalamessa suggests that the reason Jesus is not associated with Abraham is very simple — Mary is our Abraham.

Just as Abraham did not resist God’s call to leave his father’s country to go to a new land, so Mary did not resist God’s declaration that she would bear a child through the power of the Holy Spirit. Abraham’s faith foreshadows Mary’s “Here am I,” because, just as we are Abraham’s children through faith, so we become children of the new age, inaugurated in Christ through Mary’s faithfulness.

God restrained Abraham’s blow that would have sacrificed Isaac, but the Father does not hold back from the sacrifice of Mary’s son. Jesus’s command that Mary should “behold your son” is to ask Mary to see that the one born of her body was born to be sacrificed so that we might live.

As Gregory of Nyssa put it: “If one examines this mystery, one will prefer to say not that his death was a consequence of his birth, but that the birth was undertaken so that he could die.” When God tested Abraham by commanding the sacrifice of Isaac, Abraham’s “Here I am” (Genesis 22.1) did not result in Isaac’s death. Mary’s “Here am I,” however, could not save her son from being the one born to die on a cross.

In the 11th chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews, we are reminded that “by faith” did our foremothers and fathers live. Yet Mary, true daughter of Israel, was tested as no one in Israel had ever been tested.

Jesus’s “behold your son” asked Mary to witness the immolation of the Son, to enter the darkness that is the cross, yet to hold fast to the promises she had received from the Spirit that this is the one who will scatter the proud, bring down the powerful from their thrones, fill the hungry with good things, and fulfil the promises made to Abraham and his descendants. Her son, the Messiah, will do all this from the cross.

Jesus charges Mary to regard as her own, her true family, the “disciple whom he loved”. Drawing disciples into the Church, Mary shares her faith, making possible our faith. At this moment, at the foot of the cross, we are drawn into the mystery of salvation through the beginning of the Church. Mary, the new Eve, becomes for us the firstborn of a new reality, of a new family, that only God could create.

Augustine observed that the God who created us without us refuses to save us without us. Mary is the first great representative of that “us”. Accordingly Mary, the Jew, in a singular fashion becomes for us the forerunner of our faith, making it impossible for Christians to forget that without God’s promises to Israel our faith is in vain.

When Christians repress the role of Mary in our salvation, we are tempted to forget that God remains faithful to his promises to his people, the Jews. Our Saviour was born of Mary, making us, like the Jews, a bodily people who live by faith in the One who asks us to behold his crucified body.

Jesus, therefore, commands the disciple, his beloved disciple, not to regard Mary as Jesus’s mother, but rather to recognise that Mary is “your mother”. Mary’s peculiar role in our salvation does not mean that she is separate from the Church. Rather, Mary’s role in our salvation is singular because, beginning with the beloved disciple, she is made a member of the Church.

Mary is one of us, which means the distance between her and us is that constituted by both her and our distance between Trinity and us, that is, between creatures and Creator. In Augustine’s words, “Holy is Mary, blessed is Mary, but the Church is more important than the Virgin Mary. Why is this so? Because Mary is part of the Church, a holy and excellent member, above all others, but, nevertheless, a member of the whole body. And if she is a member of the whole body, doubtlessly the body is more important than a member of the body.”

So may we never forget that we, the Church, comprise Mary’s home. A home, moreover, that promises not safety, but rather the ongoing challenge of being a people called from the nations to be God’s people. We are a people constituted by faith in the One who refused to triumph through the violence that the world believes to be the only means possible to achieve some limited good, to ensure that we will be remembered.

The refusal to use violence in the name of the good does not mean this people can forget those singled out in Mary’s song of triumph — that is, the poor and powerless. Rather, it means that such a people, Mary-like, must live by hope — a hope that patiently waits with Mary at the foot of her son’s cross.

If this is not the second person of the Trinity, the One alone who has the power to forgive our sins, then this Mary-shaped patience in a world constituted by injustice and violence would be the ultimate folly. That is why it is so important that we not forget that these words from the cross are the words of the Son of God.

The work that the Son does on the cross through the Spirit makes us the remembered, God’s memory, so that the world may know that there is an alternative to a world constituted by the fear of death. We confess that too often we forget we are God’s remembered. And that is why we pray “Hail, Mary, full of grace, pray for us.”

Cross-Shattered Christ: Meditations on the Last Seven Words by Stanley Hauerwas.
Ethiopian Crucifixion Icon (with Mary and John). Twelve-panel folding icon or chain manuscript, c. 1900. African Art Museum of the SMA Fathers at Tenafly, New Jersey.

saddened was the Tree of Life

Detail from Tree of Life. Artist: Burne-Jones, Sir Edward Coley (1833-1898). Found in the collection of Victoria and Albert Museum.

Greatly saddened was the Tree of Life
when it beheld Adam stolen away from it;
it sank down into the virgin ground and was hidden
—to burst forth and reappear on Golgotha;
humanity, like birds that are chased,
took refuge in it
so that it might return them to their proper home.
The chaser was chased away, while the doves
that had been chased
now hop with joy in Paradise.

St. Ephrem the Syrian (Hymn on Virginity XVI, 10)

St. Ephrem (306-373) wrote some 400 hymns, many of them still used today. This ancient hymn by St. Ephrem is one of many on this theme, which is closely associated with the Nativity. One much-loved hymn sings of how the “Tree of Life blossoms forth from the virgin in the cave.” (I’ve shared that here on a previous Christmas.) Without claiming any direct connections, this theme certainly continues into other Christian traditions.

One example is “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree.” This old English Christmas carol was most likely written by Rev. Richard Hutchins, a Calvinist Baptist clergyman then in Long Buckby, Northhamptonshire. The first known publication, beginning “The Tree of Life My Soul Hath Seen,” was in London’s Spiritual Magazine in August, 1761. This credits “R.H.” as the submitter and presumed author. Another early printing, which cannot be dated and could be earlier, is an English broadsheet. This broadsheet uses the term “Methodists,” which certainly places it after about 1730. (Preceding details from Wikipedia.) Here are those lyrics.

The tree of life my soul hath seen,
Laden with fruit and always green;
The trees of nature fruitless be,
Compared with Christ the Apple Tree.

His beauty doth all things excel,
By faith I know but ne’er can tell
The glory which I now can see,
In Jesus Christ the Appletree.

For happiness I long have sought,
And pleasure dearly I have bought;
I missed of all but now I see
‘Tis found in Christ the Appletree.

I’m weary with my former toil –
Here I will sit and rest awhile,
Under the shadow I will be,
Of Jesus Christ the Appletree.

With great delight I’ll make my stay,
There’s none shall fright my soul away;
Among the sons of men I see
There’s none like Christ the Appletree.

I’ll sit and eat this fruit divine,
It cheers my heart like spirit’al wine;
And now this fruit is sweet to me,
That grows on Christ the Appletree.

This fruit doth make my soul to thrive,
It keeps my dying faith alive;
Which makes my soul in haste to be
With Jesus Christ the Appletree.

The Cosmic Christmas of John’s Apocalypse

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.”

Bamberg Apocalypse, Folio 31

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.)

Bamberg Apocalypse

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.

Icon of Saint Michael Horseman (Russia, 19th c., priv. coll.)
Russian, 18th century

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 prophetic astonishment in the tedious talking

Advent

Patrick Kavanagh

We have tested and tasted too much, lover—
Through a chink too wide there comes in no wonder.
But here in the Advent-darkened room
Where the dry black bread and the sugarless tea
Of penance will charm back the luxury
Of a child’s soul, we’ll return to Doom
The knowledge we stole but could not use.

And the newness that was in every stale thing
When we looked at it as children: the spirit-shocking
Wonder in a black slanting Ulster hill
Or the prophetic astonishment in the tedious talking
Of an old fool will awake for us and bring
You and me to the yard gate to watch the whins
And the bog-holes, cart-tracks, old stables where Time begins.

O after Christmas we’ll have no need to go searching
For the difference that sets an old phrase burning—
We’ll hear it in the whispered argument of a churning
Or in the streets where the village boys are lurching.
And we’ll hear it among decent men too
Who barrow dung in gardens under trees,
Wherever life pours ordinary plenty.
Won’t we be rich, my love and I, and
God we shall not ask for reason’s payment,
The why of heart-breaking strangeness in dreeping hedges
Nor analyse God’s breath in common statement.
We have thrown into the dust-bin the clay-minted wages
Of pleasure, knowledge and the conscious hour—
And Christ comes with a January flower.

Noun. 1. whin – very spiny and dense evergreen shrub with fragrant golden-yellow flowers; common throughout western Europe. furze, gorse, Irish gorse, Ulex europaeus. genus Ulex, Ulex – genus of Eurasian spiny shrubs: gorse.

compared to the celebrations we like to hold on Twelfth Night

New Year’s is still a minor observance for us, and nothing to compared to the celebrations we like to hold on Twelfth Night, the eve of Epiphany, when the last of the Christmas presents are opened, games are played, and the decorations come down from the tree. (I know many Americans think of Christmas as a single day and like to clear away the trappings of the season well before the fifth of January, but that is sheer barbarism, if you ask me, morally only a few steps removed from human sacrifice, cannibalism, or golf.)

—David Bentley Hart

the Magi worship

Stichera from the Vespers of the Nativity (Translated by Fr. Seraphim Dedes):

What shall we offer you, O Christ, because You have appeared on earth as a man for our sakes? For each of the creatures made by You offers You its thanks: the Angels, their hymn; the heavens, the Star; the Shepherds, their wonder; the Magi, their gifts; the earth, the Cave; the desert the Manger; and we, a Virgin Mother. God before the ages, have mercy on us.

Lines from Orthros hymns on the Leavetaking of the Nativity (Antiochian Orthodox):

They that worshipped the stars did learn there from to worship You.

Come, you faithful, let us see where Christ the Saviour has been born; let us follow with the kings, even the Magi from the East, unto the place where the star directs their journey. For there, the Angels’ hosts sing praises ceaselessly.
In that you did bear the Giver of Life, O Virgin, you did redeem Adam from sin, and did give to Eve joy in the place of sadness.

I behold a strange and wonderful mystery: the cave a heaven, the Virgin a cherubic throne, and the manger a noble place in which has lain Christ the uncontained God.

When the Magi saw a new and strange star appearing suddenly, moving in a wonderful way, and transcending the stars of heaven in brightness, they were guiding by it to Christ.

The star declares, the Magi worship, the shepherds wonder, and creation rejoices.

Rejoice, O Living temple of God the King, in whom Christ having dwelt worked salvation. Wherefore, we with Gabriel do praise you.

 

Saint John Chrysostom and Saint Theophylactus, commenting on Saint Matthew’s Gospel, say that the star followed by the Magi was no ordinary star. Rather, it was “a divine and angelic power that appeared in the form of a star.”

Several lines in this selection of Nativity hymns represent the large body of very early Christian hymnography that is focused on the Magi. These foreign sages are the highest examples of human worship within the Nativity story. (Mary is the greatest example of co-operation with God; Joseph of faithful discernment and care; the shepherds of humble wonder and adoration; and the angles of the eternal and heavenly worship in which humans should participate.) As the ideal examples of human worship, the Persian Magi stand in for the conspicuous absence of the religious leaders among God’s people. The priests and scholars of Jerusalem have every opportunity to seek the Christ child and to worship him. However, they hang back and whisper in passive collaboration with the insane jealousies of King Herod. The religious leaders with their critical insider knowledge become complicit in the slaughter of the innocent children of Bethlehem while the more uninformed pagans (who worshipped stars) brought the divine gifts that were due to this little baby. (As many scholars have noted, these gifts of the Magi are kingly and they also suggest care for the little child’s eventual death. However, the gifts are most importantly priestly and are connected to the Old Testament worship of God alone within the Holy of Holies.)

These two images below are from the Catacombs of Priscilla in Rome which date back to the 1st or 2nd century (and which have long been believed to contain graves of Christian martyrs who had the Apostle Peter as their Pastor). One is a faded picture of the Magi worshiping the Christ Child as He is held by Mary. The other is a very early image of Mary and the Child Jesus (next to them is a prophet, possibly Daniel, holding a scroll and pointing to the Bethlehem star that heralded the birth of the King of Kings).

magi

maria and child

Advent Reading of George MacDonald’s Lilith

George MacDonald’s Lilith is almost entirely populated by mothers and children. Therefore, it was natural to think often of Mary and her child while washing dishes and listening to Lilith during this Advent season. (I used an audio recording made by Pete Williams for LibriVox supplemented by occasional references to a free text download from Project Gutenberg.) Lilith: A Romance was George MacDonald’s last fantasy work (1895), and it strongly resembles Phantastes: A Fairie Romance for Men and Women which was his first (1858). Both novellas involve a young man coming of age during the course of a journey through the world of myth and faerie (including encounters with child-like innocents as well as several women who run the gamut from mysterious and majestic to macabre and monstrous).

In Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis describes his first reading of Phantastes at age sixteen: “That night my imagination was, in a certain sense, baptized; the rest of me[,] not unnaturally, took longer. I had not the faintest notion what I had let myself in for by buying Phantastes.” All of his life, Lewis was outspoken about his debt to George MacDonald (publishing an anthology of his writings in 1947). In another tribute to MacDonald’s fantasy works, Lewis says in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950) that Jadis (the White Witch) was descended from Adam’s first wife Lilith:

But she’s no Daughter of Eve. She comes of your father Adam’s … first wife, her they called Lilith. And she was one of the Jinn. That’s what she comes from on one side. And on the other she comes of the giants. No, no, there isn’t a drop of real Human blood in the Witch. (8.35)

In his story Lilith, George MacDonald is drawing deep on mystical traditions and apocryphal stories from the Jewish exile period as well as medieval Christianity. These stories depict a host of characters around Adam, including his first wife Lilith. In some stories, Lilith is made from clay at the same time as Adam. In other accounts, Adam and Lilith are made as one person and only later separated by God into male and female. In these stories, Lilith refuses to remain united in purpose with Adam, is caste out of the garden, and intermarries with angels and/or demons to spawn a race of monstrous Jinn. In some accounts, Lilith takes on the body of a serpent, and she is sometimes depicted as the one who slips back into the garden to tempt Eve with the forbidden fruit. Another prominent feature of these stories is that Lilith hates human children and carries them off to feed upon them. In this fresco by Filippino Lippi (1502, Fresco, Strozzi Chapel, Santa Maria Novella, Florence, Italy), Adam is depicted protecting a young boy from Lilith the child snatcher.

Filippino_Lippi-_Adam

George MacDonald’s story of Lilith follows a young man, Mr. Vane, who has inherited an ancient home with a library that was started long before printing. Mr. Vane spends most of his time in this library and finds it frequented by a spectral librarian, Mr. Raven, who has served the family time out of mind. Following this ghostly librarian one day, Mr. Vane wanders into another realm where he learns that Mr. Raven is Adam and that Adam lives with his wife Eve in a home where they tend to all those who are ready to give up their lives and die the death that brings true life. Invited to lie down in his place among these cold sleepers, Mr. Vane finds that he is unable to do it. Instead, he wanders back out and alone into the world outside the great house of Adam and Eve.

Within this realm, over the course of a prolonged adventure, he encounters a girl and two grown women: Lona, Mara, and Lilith. Lona is the innocent child of Adam and Lilith, abandoned at her birth but kept safe from her cannibal mother. He meets Mara and Lilith separately. Mara is a queenly daughter of Eve who tends to all the suffering souls who are still wandering and unready for death. With a biblical name meaning sorrow or bitterness (and often associated with the name Miriam or Mary), Mara is also called the Lady of Sorrow and the Mother of Sorrow. She is a protectress and her home is a sanctuary at times. However, her primary task is to attend upon sorrow and suffering as agents of salvation.

Lona is a child-mother, tending a tribe of abandoned and innocent babes (called “Little Ones” and “Lovers”). These children bring to mind the slaughtered innocents of Bethlehem and of all human history (infants aborted and left to die). They live together in a Paradise of little fruit trees and are only very vaguely threatened by a neighboring tribe of utterly stupid giants.

Several subplots ensue as the story follows Mr. Vane’s wandering and striving within this world. However, all these plots converge on Lilith’s salvation as she faces bitter defeat and comes to accept the life-restoring death offered by Adam and Eve. George MacDonald’s universalism is openly defended in this story. Generally well within the bounds of historic Christian teaching (on Christology, trinitarianism, etc.), this is one point on which George MacDonald dissents. In Lilith, Adam says that even Satan (reduced to a dimensionless although expansive and sinister shadow who follows Lilith with a desperate and dependent hunger) will one day give up his flight from God’s love and submit to the memory-restoring sleep of death (ultimately given back his purpose as a creature of God). This salvation of Satan is a heterodox speculation for which the great Origin was sanctioned.

George MacDonald is a profound metaphysician, and this heterodox claim for Satan does not negate an otherwise profound understanding of God’s goodness in creation, the bottomless of our suffering and evil, and the faithful depths to which God will go in restoring us to Himself. Lilith is largely about soteriology, and his heterodox claims are not integral to the insights at the core of his story. While MacDonald’s doctrine of salvation strays far from the typical framework of his own Presbyterian tradition, it is faithful to the oldest ideas of the church fathers. The story of Lilith connects salvation to death and suffering. Adam speaks repeatedly about the need to die and about the presence of true life within death itself. Maximus the Confessor crystallizes the teachings of all the church fathers (including, prominently, that of Irenaeus) when he describes the trick that God played by entering into death itself and placing the source of life at the heart of death. Jesus Christ gave death a new purpose as a weapon that destroys sin instead of a weapon that destroys human nature:

[T]he Lord, …naturally willed to die…. Clearly he suffered, and converted the use of death so that in him it would be a condemnation not of our nature but manifestly only of sin itself. …The baptized acquires the use of death to condemn sin. …Christ, the captain of our salvation (Heb 2:10), turned death from a weapon to destroy human nature into a weapon to destroy sin. [Ad Thalassium 61 “On the Legacy of Adam’s Transgression.”]

Upon the verge of following the Little Ones into the very presence of Jesus Christ (described only as “the beautifullest man” and whose only words are recounted by “the smallest and most childish of the voices” as “’Ou’s all mine’s, ‘ickle ones: come along!”), Mr. Vane finds himself suddenly back in this world, alone among his library books. Returning to his own life, Mr. Vane reports that he does not see any of the characters from Adam’s realm again, with one exception: “Mara is much with me. She has taught me many things, and is teaching me more.”

Mara, as the Lady of Sorrow who helps each one in the searching out of their own hearts, certainly has much in common with Mary:

And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. …Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also) so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.” [Luke 2]

Mary is the ultimate point of contact between God and His rebellious creation. Her “let it be to me according to your word” opens the way for God to be present with his fallen creatures in their suffering and death, making their suffering and death into something new, into something divine. Just as Mary is the only point of contact between our fallen humanity and God, so Mara is the only point of contact between our mortal history and the world of myth and faerie. And in both cases, the point of contact is our suffering and sorrow, where God meets us and transforms the purpose of our suffering and death. George MacDonald has this message throughout his writings:

The Son of God suffered unto the death, not that men might not suffer, but that their sufferings might be like His. [George MacDonald in “The Consuming Fire” from Unspoken Sermons (First Series), 1867. This passage has also been quoted by Madeleine L’Engle in Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art and by C.S. Lewis in The Problem of Pain.]

Mary’s most glorious appearance in the Bible is in Revelation chapter 12, which is marked by both celestial glory and intense earthly suffering:

And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth. [For an excellent scholarly exposition of this passage, see the transcription of this lecture by Scott Hahn.]

Mary, like us, was and is vulnerable. She suffered and fled to Elizabeth in the face of expulsion from her community. But she is also the heavenly Queen Mother, and we understand her in the characters of Eve, Mara, Lona, and Galadriel. We also understand her in the tyrants of Lilith and Jadis, those self-imposed queens who hate the destiny of Adam and all his children, those mothers-apposed-to-God who hate the thought of their children bearing God’s image and mediating God’s presence.

In the end, Mara patiently but persistently reveals that this life of mediating God’s presence is available only within suffering and death because creation has fled from God and God has met us at the end of our flight from Him. This is why Mr. Vane comes so close to seeing Jesus Christ in this vision (hearing the Little Ones exclaim as they encounter Jesus) but parts the final veil himself only to find himself alone within his library again, with only Mara and bitterness as his teacher.

Nativity is the intrusion of God’s glorious intention and conclusion into the midst of our moment-by-moment travails in this life. George MacDonald’s story allows Mr. Vane to experience this end briefly without reaching it fully. In this attempt to describe God’s purposes for humanity, George MacDonald pushes his language to the limit. Humanity is the living point of contact between God and His creation—the interplay or amplification-chamber of thanksgiving, consciousness, and desire—where creation knows its Creator. This is humanity’s purpose and life as the priest and the divine image within the temple of creation:

Every growing thing showed me, by its shape and colour, its indwelling idea—the informing thought, that is, which was its being, and sent it out. …I lived in everything; everything entered and lived in me. To be aware of a thing, was to know its life at once and mine, to know whence we came, and where we were at home. …When a little breeze brushing a bush of heather set its purple bells a ringing, I was myself in the joy of the bells, myself in the joy of the breeze to which responded their sweet TIN-TINNING, myself in the joy of the sense, and of the soul that received all the joys together. To everything glad I lent the hall of my being wherein to revel.

…Now, the soul of everything I met came out to greet me and make friends with me, telling me we came from the same, and meant the same. …Two joy-fires were Lona and I [a new Adam and Eve]. Earth breathed heavenward her sweet-savoured smoke; we breathed homeward our longing desires. For thanksgiving, our very consciousness was that.

Mr. Vane does not stay here with Lona but returns very shortly after this scene to life alone with the Mother of Sorrow for his only teacher. However, Mary’s Magnificat announces that God is with the down-trodden. “He has put down the mighty from their seat: and has exalted the humble and meek.” At the climax of Mara’s ministry to Lilith, Mara can do nothing herself but sit down to weep as Lilith suffers:

Then came the most fearful thing of all. I did not know what it was; I knew myself unable to imagine it; I knew only that if it came near me I should die of terror! I now know that it was LIFE IN DEATH—life dead, yet existent; and I knew that Lilith had had glimpses, but only glimpses of it before: it had never been with her until now. …Mara buried her head in her hands. I gazed on the face of one who knew existence but not love—knew nor life, nor joy, nor good; with my eyes I saw the face of a live death! She knew life only to know that it was dead, and that, in her, death lived. It was not merely that life had ceased in her, but that she was consciously a dead thing. She had killed her life, and was dead—and knew it. She must DEATH IT for ever and ever! She had tried her hardest to unmake herself, and could not! she was a dead life! she could not cease! she must BE! In her face I saw and read beyond its misery—saw in its dismay that the dismay behind it was more than it could manifest. It sent out a livid gloom; the light that was in her was darkness, and after its kind it shone. She was what God could not have created. She had usurped beyond her share in self-creation, and her part had undone His! She saw now what she had made, and behold, it was not good! She was as a conscious corpse, whose coffin would never come to pieces, never set her free!

Lilith is all of us. We are Adam’s first family. Lilith is Eve without God’s unmerited grace (to use a little Presbyterian lingo). Lilith is Eve without Seth and Mary. Take or leave any part of Lilith and her story, and you are still left with Adam, Eve, and all of their children. When the end finally comes for Lilith, and she yields to Mara, we see a picture of ourselves accepting our poverty and our need apart from God:

Without change of look, without sign of purpose, Lilith walked toward Mara. She felt her coming, and rose to meet her. …Like her mother, in whom lay the motherhood of all the world, Mara put her arms around Lilith, and kissed her on the forehead. The fiery-cold misery went out of her eyes, and their fountains filled. She lifted, and bore her to her own bed in a corner of the room, laid her softly upon it, and closed her eyes with caressing hands.

Lilith lay and wept. The Lady of Sorrow went to the door and opened it.

Morn, with the Spring in her arms, waited outside.

At Christmas, it is the Lady of Sorrow who opens the door for morning and spring to enter our world and our lives. God’s arrival as a baby does not spare the innocent children from tyrannical slaughter, but this baby who is driven into exile with his young mother will establish a Kingdom that belongs to “such as these.” This “beautifullest man” will always welcome the “smallest and most childish” with: “You’re all mine, little ones. Come along!”

that trinity of eating, drinking and praying

Dickens had in his buffoonery and bravery the spirit of the Middle Ages. He was much more mediaeval in his attacks on medievalism than they were in their defences of it. It was he who had the things of Chaucer, the love of large jokes and long stories and brown ale and all the white roads of England. Like Chaucer he loved story within story, every man telling a tale. Like Chaucer he saw something openly comic in men’s motley trades. Sam Weller would have been a great gain to the Canterbury pilgrimage and told an admirable story.

…It would be hard to find a better example of this than Dickens’s great defence of Christmas. In fighting for Christmas he was fighting for the old European festival, pagan and Christian, for that trinity of eating, drinking and praying which to moderns appears irreverent, for the holy day which is really a holiday. He had himself the most babyish ideas about the past. He supposed the Middle Ages to have consisted of tournaments and torture-chambers, he supposed himself to be a brisk man of the manufacturing age, almost a Utilitarian. But for all that he defended the mediaeval feast which was going out against the Utilitarianism which was coming in. He could only see all that was bad in mediaevalism. But he fought for all that was good in it. And he was all the more really in sympathy with the old strength and simplicity because he only knew that it was good and did not know that it was old. He cared as little for mediaevalism as the mediaevals did. He cared as much as they did for lustiness and virile laughter and sad tales of good lovers and pleasant tales of good livers.

From G.K. Chesterton’s book on Dickens.