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.
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).
In this book, we shall look at the world and try and see it whole. …Mapmaking is an empirical art that employs a high degree of abstraction but nonetheless clings to reality with something akin to self-abandonment. It’s motto, in a sense, is “Accept everything; reject nothing.” If something is there, if it has any kind of existence, if people notice it and are interested in it, it must be indicated on the map, in its proper place.
…Descartes limits his interests to knowledge and ideas that are precise and certain beyond possibility of doubt, because his primary interest is that we become “masters and possessors of nature.” …Descartes broke with tradition, made a clean sweep, and undertook to start afresh, to find out everything for himself.
…From the point of view of philosophical map making, this meant a very great impoverishment: entire regions of human interest, which had engaged the most intense efforts of earlier generations, simply ceased to appear on the maps.
Working to capture the first step of Charles Taylor’s argument within A Secular Age, James K.A. Smith summarizes five pre-modern ways of understanding (or of inhabiting life) that served for centuries as powerful obstacles to unbelief:
Understanding shared eternal values or an aiming of all human life toward something beyond ordinary human flourishing.
Understanding of a higher sense of time that is not merely linear or chronological.
Understanding of a porous cosmos that is suspended within its own beyond (i.e. that we inhabit a world that is created and dependent on a reality that is greater than itself).
Here are a few excerpts from Smith. On the 3th understanding:
We miss this if we retroactively impose our “privatized” picture of faith upon abbeys and monasteries and imagine that the monks are devoting themselves to personal pursuits of salvation. The monks pray for the world in the world’s stead. So the social body loves this tension between transcendence and the mundane by a kind of division of labor.
Second, the social body in Christendom has a sense of time that allows even those daily engaged in domestic life to nonetheless pursue rhythms and rituals that inhabit this tension between the pressures of now and the hopes of eternity. Rhythms and seasons create opportunity to live the tension.
On the 4th understanding:
Higher times “introduce ‘warps’ and seeming inconsistencies in profane time-ordering. Events that were far apart in profane time could nevertheless be closely linked” (p. 55). This is somewhat akin to Kierkegaard’s account of “contemporaneity” in Philosophical Fragments: “Good Friday 1998 is closer in a way to the original day of the Cruciﬁxion than midsummer’s day 1997” (Secular Age, p. 55). Our “encasing” in secular time has changed this, and so we take our experience of time to be “natural” (i.e., not a construal): “We have constructed an environment in which we live a uniform, univocal secular time, which we try to measure and control in order to get things done” (p. 59). So nothing “higher” impinges upon our calendars — only the tick-tock of chronos, and the self-imposed burdens of our “projects.”
On the 5th understanding:
It’s as if the universe has layers, and we are always folded into the middle. If the premodern self is “porous,” so too is the premodern cosmos.
From “Imagination and Thought in the Middle Ages” by C.S. Lewis, first delivered as a lecture in 1956, the piece was published posthumously in the 1966 collection of essays called Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature:
Go out on any starry night and walk alone for half an hour, resolutely assuming that pre-Copernican astronomy is true. Look up at the sky with that assumption in mind. The real difference between living in that universe and living in ours will, I predict, begin to dawn on you.
…You will be looking at a world unimaginably large but quite definitely finite. At no speed possible to man, in no lifetime possible to man, could you ever reach its frontier, but the frontier is there; hard, clear, sudden as a national frontier.
…We find (not now by analogy but in strictest fact) that in every sphere there is a rational creature called an Intelligence which is compelled to move, and therefore to keep his sphere moving, by his incessant desire for God.
…The motions of the universe are to be conceived 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. They are the unimpeded movement of the most perfect impulse towards the most perfect object.
These people seemed to think it singularly inspiring to keep on saying that the prison was very large. The size of this scientific universe gave one no novelty, no relief. The cosmos went on for ever, but not in its wildest constellation could there be anything really interesting; anything, for instance, such as forgiveness or free will. The grandeur or infinity of the secret of its cosmos added nothing to it. It was like telling a prisoner in Reading gaol that he would be glad to hear that the gaol now covered half the county. The warder would have nothing to show the man except more and more long corridors of stone lit by ghastly lights and empty of all that is human. So these expanders of the universe had nothing to show us except more and more infinite corridors of space lit by ghastly suns and empty of all that is divine.
Wrapping up (again) from the “The Ethics of Elfland,” chapter III in Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton.