a meditation on brokenness

This meditation below reminded me of much that I’ve considered recently. See my thoughts here for example. The reflections below were posted to “The Art of Transfiguration” Facebook page on May 2, 2015 by “Unworthy Seraphim” [Robert Hegwood] (with minor edits in punctuation, spacing, and capitalization):

It’s okay to hurt: a meditation on brokenness.

It’s okay to hurt. It’s okay to feel broken, alone, empty, and depressed. Not that these are good things—certainly not. But are they are part of normal human experience in our abnormally broken world. Sometimes we feel that there is an unwritten rule in our Christian communities that we have to be happy all the time—that it is a sign of true faith or piety if our experience is that of joy and peace and nothing else.

Our ascetic tradition tells us something different. I heard an interview with a monk who stated that the spiritual life is probably at most 10% peace…the other 90% percent being struggle.

Today many of us have the tendency to beat ourselves up for being caught in the struggle. We condemn ourselves for our negative feelings as though we can just “feel good” all the time. We have inherited logismoi (thoughts) from our culture that tells us we are insufficient or abnormal when we experience pain, hurt, and sadness.

Christ calls us to a more radical freedom. Our Divine Physician does not deal with illusions and non-realities. Brokenness is often the exact place where Christ wants to meet us [because it is where we actually are]. Many times we read stories of great monastic elders who found grace through intense struggle with demons. I’ve read on more than one occasion of a monk who [was] standing up and throwing punches at the demons for continually interrupting his prayer! Well perhaps our struggle is not quite that intense. But we’ve probably all had moments of wanting to throw a punch at our short tempter, our chronic lust, our tenacious depression…

The point is that struggle is normal.

During this season of Christ’s Resurrection, we constantly sing “Christ is risen from the dead trampling down death by death.” How was this great victory achieved? By death. Sit for a moment with the mystery…with the paradox. Victory in death? Indeed.

From the moment of His birth, Christ is entering deeper and deeper into the brokenness of the human condition: healing the sick, advocating for the poor, calling us out on the secret sins of the heart. In Gethsemane, Christ even enters into the fear of death, so that we might be freed from it—according to St Maximus the Confessor. And finally Christ confronts death, the climax of our broken state. And by entering into death, He fills it with Himself, the Divine Presence. He fills darkness with light because He is the Light. He fills death with life because He is Life. Christ takes alienation from God and fills it with Love unshakable.

Life is very hard. We experience loss in the death of loved ones, ruptured friendships, and heartbreak. We are disappointed with our relationships, our church, our country, and especially ourselves at times. Maybe we react with addiction, or anger, with blaming or jealousy…maybe we just shut down and find ways to hide our hearts from a world too cruel to cope with.

Christ never says these things don’t happen. He never promises a life without struggle. What He does invite us into is a relationship of trusting His care for us. Of entering into His great victory. Being broken is part of the journey and part of the struggle. One day at a time, we work to bring our brokenness to Christ. It can be a place of meeting with Him. No place is beyond His touch. Know that Christ sees you and loves you and is near to your pain. It’s okay to hurt, it’s okay to feel broken. Christ works with just such things. They are, in fact, great tools for learning holiness, love, and compassion. In all places, times and circumstances, remember God Who is indeed very near to you.

Keep heart.

—Unworthy Seraphim

to heal and to teach suffering men

Saint Athanasius is remembered today. Excerpts from On the Incarnation:

The Lord did not come to make a display. He came to heal and to teach suffering men. For one who wanted to make a display, the thing would have been just to appear and dazzle the beholders. But for Him Who came to heal and to teach, the way was not merely to dwell here, but to put Himself at the disposal of those who needed Him, and to be manifested according as they could bear it (not vitiating the value of the Divine appearing by exceeding their capacity to receive it).

…You know how it is when some great king enters a large city and dwells in one of its houses; because of his dwelling in that single house, the whole city is honored, and enemies and robbers cease to molest it. Even so is it with the King of all; He has come into our country and dwelt in one body amidst the many, and in consequence the designs of the enemy against mankind have been foiled and the corruption of death, which formerly held them in its power, has simply ceased to be.

…The Self-revealing of the Word is in every dimension—above, in creation; below, in the Incarnation; in the depth, in Hades; in the breadth, throughout the world. All things have been filled with the knowledge of God.

…Thus is happened that two opposite marvels took place at once: the death of all was consummated in the Lord’s body; yet, because the Word was in it, death and corruption were in the same act utterly abolished.

…In ancient times before the divine sojourn of the Savior took place, even to the saints death was terrible; all wept for the dead as though they perished. But now that the Savior has raised his body, death is no longer terrible; for all who believe in Christ trample on it as it were nothing and choose rather to die than deny their faith in Christ. And that devil that once maliciously exulted in death, now that its pains were loosed, remained the only one truly dead.

…There were thus two things which the Savior did for us by becoming Man. He banished death from us and made us anew; and, invisible and imperceptible as in Himself He is, He became visible through His works and revealed Himself as the Word of the Father, the Ruler and King of the whole creation.

a secret weapon within our divine image

When God made us in His divine image, this included a hidden divine capacity that has been revealed and perfected by Jesus Christ as our salvation. This secret weapon carried within our divine image is God’s humility and His joyful willingness to suffer. We correctly describe God as infinite and omnipotent, but He is capable of smallness to the point of death. This voluntary suffering and humiliation cannot be comprehended by the demons, and the Devil’s schemes still do not account for this factor in God’s nature. Satan’s mighty efforts are all completely undone by God’s ability to be small and to suffer. Another way to say this is that God values communion (shared life) over glory (while Satan values glory over all else). Ultimately, glory and beauty are revealed as being built upon deeper truths that we cannot typically see. In God, strength, beauty, and glory are built upon voluntary (and hidden) weakness, homeliness, and humility.

What Jesus Christ does is to join divine life and love with human sin and death (as both the first complete human and also fully God). By making humans in His own image, God made possible this seemingly impossible union between His divinity and human suffering. This hidden feature of our design (completed by Jesus Christ) means that we find God perfectly united with us only within our greatest points of need, powerlessness, suffering, and death. What Satan did not realize about divine or human nature is that they were compatible to the point that God remains all-powerful even as a dead human. Furthermore, because of Christ’s death and resurrection, humans can now be united to the fullness of God’s life only in their own deaths. This entirely undoes the schemes of Satan from the inside out (or from the final objective backwards).

Jesus Christ both accomplishes this union of divine life to human death and also shows each of us how to participate in this union. As Scott Cairns writes in The End of Suffering:

He did not come simply to rid the Jews of the oppressive Romans any more than He came to trump the other oppressive circumstances that His oddly beloved creatures have continued to construct for themselves and others. On the contrary, He came to suffer the results of those cosmic bad choices with us, and by so doing to both show us how we might survive them and to enable our survival—in Himself.

He did not come here to undo our choices, but to move through them victoriously, and to show us how we might likewise move. He did not come to eclipse us, or to overrule our persons. On the contrary, He came to endow our persons with the self-same unending life.

“I now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up in my flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ, for the sake of His body, which is the church” (Col. 1:24).

…A more likely translation seems to me to be “what is yet to be done.”

…What the fathers and mothers of the church have taught me is that inevitably each of us will, in one or in a number of ways, partake of Christ’s suffering, and that these experiences will help us to apprehend all the more how we are both joined to Him and how we are joined to each other.

We may well have occasion to ask—as Christ Himself asked—that the cup be taken away, but we will fare far better if that request is followed by “yet not my will, but Your will be done.” We will fare far better if, like the Theotokos, we answer the call of the messenger, saying, “Behold the servant of the Lord. Let it be done to me according to your word.”

…In mystical synergia, He collaborates with His Body, now and ever. In appalling condescension, He remains Emmanuel, God with us. Whereas we had brought only death and brokenness to that mix, He has brought life and wholeness.

As I’ve written in an earlier post:

Saint John Chrysostom said in his Paschal Sermon: “Hell was embittered, when it encountered Thee in the lower regions. …It took a dead body, and met God face to face. It took earth, and encountered Heaven.” God’s glorious and all-powerful strategy has always been to enter death itself, to find us at our weakest point and to join us there. Maximus the Confessor said: “Christ, the captain of our salvation, turned death from a weapon to destroy human nature into a weapon to destroy sin” (from Ad Thalassium 61 “On the Legacy of Adam’s Transgression”). By becoming our sin (2 Corinthians 5:21) and entering death with us, Christ transformed death into something life-giving. Maximus further says that “the baptized acquires the use of death to condemn sin.” By joining with us at our weakest point, Christ gives suffering and death back to us as great weapons against the ravages of our soul sickness and sin.

In all this, it helps to recall that sin is not primarily about legal guilt. Sin is primarily about a desire for (and an aiming at) anything other than God’s love (for which we are made and which is the only thing that enables us to fully become the unique person we are made to be). Sin is therefore a desire for anything apart from its communication of God’s love (which is a desire for a lie because all created things communicate the Creator’s love). Sin is an inclination toward (or a step toward) a falsehood and the unmaking of our unique personhood—that is our death. However, Jesus Christ has gotten to the end of this road before us. Jesus united God’s own fullness to our final self-annihilation and carried God’s life into our grave. God has met us at the very end of our desperate flight away from Him. This has made voluntary death into our ultimate weapon against sin (our tool for learning to find and to know God’s love). We are not to pursue our death, but we do accept our death as the end of our failures and as the means by which we can be united to God’s life.

Therefore, in this Advent season, do not fear smallness and suffering. Instead, wait to find God within your own smallness and suffering just as the shepherds and the wise men found Him come to us all as a baby and a refugee.

the tomb is happy

Great and Holy Friday Lamentations (Antiochian):

Verily, Hades was pierced and destroyed by the divine fire when it received in its heart him who was pierced in his side with a spear for the salvation of us who sing: Blessed art Thou, O delivering God.

The tomb is happy, having become Divine when it received within it the Treasure of life, the Creator, as one who slumbereth for the salvation of us who sing: Blessed art Thou, O delivering God.

The life of all was willing to lie in a grave, in accordance with the law of the dead, making it appear as the fountain of the Resurrection for the salvation, of us who sing: Blessed art Thou, O delivering God.

The Godhead of Christ was one without separation in Hades, in the tomb, in Eden, and with the Father and the Spirit, for the salvation of us who sing: Blessed art Thou, O delivering God.

Midnight Office for Pascha (Antiochian):

Whether in hades or in the tomb or in Eden, the Godhead of Christ was indivisibly one with the Father and the Spirit, for the salvation of us who sing: “O God our Redeemer, blessed art Thou.”

Life from Inside of Death

“You may be certain that as long as someone is in hell, Christ will remain there with him.” Elder Sophrony gave this famous reply to a question from Olivier Clement regarding those who will not open their hearts to the love of God. In this Easter season, with Christ’s glorious and victorious resurrection preeminent, it is worthwhile asking if Jesus Christ is still, in any sense, within hell and among the dead. After all, we do see Jesus one time, long after the resurrection, appearing to be dead and yet enthroned in heaven. When we are introduced with John to the glorious “Lion of the tribe of Judah” enthroned in power at the right hand of the Father, what we actually see is “a Lamb as though it had been slain” (Revelation 5:2-10). Even while reigning victoriously from heaven, Jesus Christ is revealed as a victim of sacrifice. Jesus remains, in some important sense, dead.

This idea is in keeping with many fundamentals of biblical truth: that we are united with Christ in his death as well as his life, that we are commanded to take up our cross daily as we follow Jesus, and that we feed ourselves repeatedly upon the sacrificed body and blood of Jesus Christ.

Many mothers and fathers of the church have taught that God is most fully revealed, in all of His glory and power, when Jesus is hanging upon the cross. Fr. Thomas Hopko shared in a lecture that, according to Hugo of St. Victor, “God wants to speak to us, to reveal himself to us, …and when he hangs on the Cross and his arms are open, the Book is open. The Book is totally open, like in the book of Revelation.”

Even before sin and death and all of creation, God was a God who emptied himself. Stephen Freeman has written about an “unfallen suffering” that is found within the life of our Trinitarian God even before creation and outside of time. Each person of the Trinity continually empties themselves in relation to the other persons of the Trinity. Within God’s inner life, there is a profound kind of self-giving, and this should not surprise us because “God is love” (1 John 4:8). Therefore, God has always been one who gives Himself fully, and this God is only perfectly revealed by God’s entire self-emptying upon the cross.

Another way of understanding this is to recognize God’s entire strategy against sin and death itself. As Saint John Chrysostom said in his Paschal Sermon: “Hell was embittered, when it encountered Thee in the lower regions. …It took a dead body, and met God face to face. It took earth, and encountered Heaven.” God’s glorious and all-powerful strategy has always been to enter death itself, to find us at our weakest point and to join us there. Maximus the Confessor said: “Christ, the captain of our salvation, turned death from a weapon to destroy human nature into a weapon to destroy sin” (from Ad Thalassium 61 “On the Legacy of Adam’s Transgression”). By becoming our sin (2 Corinthians 5:21) and entering death with us, Christ transformed death into something life-giving. Maximus further says that “the baptized acquires the use of death to condemn sin.” By joining with us at our weakest point, Christ gives suffering and death back to us as great weapons against the ravages of our soul sickness and sin.

God’s strategy (of entry into death to commune with those who flee from him) has not changed since Christ’s resurrection. Although God’s entry into death is only accomplished in Jesus Christ, we now also participate in it through our union with Christ. God is now entering into suffering and death through all those who commune with Jesus. In fact, this is the only place to find full communion with Christ, the “Lamb slain before the foundation of the world” (Revelation 13:8). We see this at work in every Christian life and when Paul says: “Now I rejoice in what I am suffering for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church” (Colossians 1:24).

Even after the end of time, worship around the throne of our majestic and living king will always include a recognition of his greatest moment: “his voluntary, glorious, and life-giving death” as Christian liturgies repeatedly refer to it. The resurrection power that Jesus Christ displayed on Easter morning came easily to him. His first action after this surge of life brought breath back to his dead body, was to lift the small square of cloth from his face and fold it gently before laying it down. Christ’s great labor came in the final hours of an entire adult life that was directed toward the cross, and this is all that he empowers us to do. If we would seek to exercise the power of God graciously offered to us by Christ’s resurrection, we must shoulder our own cross and pray for the strength to enter death itself. Christ reopened the gates of Paradise that had been shut behind Adam, but he set these gates up just inside the gates of Hades.

a flame to lay down

I was encouraged to rewrite this poem that I wrote recently:

Your body holds you tighter hourly.
Jacob wrestled the Lord’s angel.
You have your gasped breaths and throbbing heart.
This morning, your eyes bring less daylight,
and you have let go, almost, of saying.

This less of sight, less of hearing, heralds more.
Today’s snowfall blankets your roof and windows
without your knowing now, joining many here
that taught long of rest and waiting.
These small white bodies
carry downward flames from heaven,
without heat but made of fire still
that banks and burns
in quiet.

Your body holds closer its own light
as a treasure carried far,
carried up, soon, amid a snow that you’ll
know newly,
a flame to lay down before your Lord.

[Note: here’s the first draft.]

teaching long of rest and waiting

These are thoughts that I put down as I sat with my Grandma and other family members near the end of my Grandma’s life. She was in her own bedroom and surrounded by loved ones:

My body holds me closer hourly
It will have me know it fully before I’m fully known
Jacob wrestled the Lord’s angel
I have my gasped breaths and throbbing heart

This morning, my eyes bring less daylight
But this less of sight, less of hearing, heralds more
And I have let go, almost, of saying

Today’s snowfall blankets my roof and windows
Without my knowing now
Still, it joins the many here over months and years
Teaching long of rest and waiting
These small white bodies
Carry downward flames from heaven
Without heat but made of fire still
That banks and burns
In quiet

My body cradles its own light as a treasure carried far,
Carried up, soon, past a snow that I’ll know newly,
A flame to lay down before my loving lord

Among her last words to me (the day before) were: “My little Jesse, you brought me tadpoles.”

And here also are the two passages that I included in my remarks at my Grandma’s funeral:

And following that train of thought led him back to Earth, back to the quiet hours in the center of the clear water ringed by a bowl of tree-covered hills. That is the Earth, he thought. Not a globe thousands of kilometers around, but a forest with a shining lake, a house hidden at the crest of the hill, high in the trees, a grassy slope leading upward from the water, fish leaping and birds strafing to take the bugs that lived at the border between water and sky. Earth was the constant noise of crickets and winds and birds. And the voice of one girl, who spoke to him out of his far-off childhood.

From Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card.

A man may say, “I like this vast cosmos, with its throng of stars and its crowd of varied creatures.” But if it comes to that why should not a man 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”? One is as good as the other; they are both mere sentiments.

…I was frightfully fond of the universe and wanted to address it by a diminutive. I often did so; and it never seemed to mind. Actually and in truth I did feel that these dim dogmas of vitality were better expressed by calling the world small than by calling it large. For about infinity there was a sort of carelessness which was the reverse of the fierce and pious care which I felt touching the pricelessness and the peril of life. They showed only a dreary waste; but I felt a sort of sacred thrift. For economy is far more romantic than extravagance. To them stars were an unending income of halfpence; but I felt about the golden sun and the silver moon as a schoolboy feels if he has one sovereign and one shilling.

From “The Ethics of Elfland,” chapter III in Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton.

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 their sufferings might be like His

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” in 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.]