Our Nativity with Christ and Paul’s Expectant World

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.

Traditional Nativity Icon (Elizabeth Zelasko at elizabethzelasko.com)

the Tree of Life blossoms forth from the virgin in the cave

Our homily in church this morning was on Jesus Christ as the tree of life as it is given back to us at Christmas. This idea that Jesus is the tree of life is among the most prominent images from the church’s oldest Nativity hymns and prayers. 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.

I’m not qualified to teach theology or to accurately represent what our priest shared this morning, but here are a few of the key points as I recall them:

  1. The tree of life in Genesis represents God himself as God was present with Adam and Eve in Eden. God is shown to be the source of all life, with living water flowing in four rivers from the tree of life.
  2. Adam and Eve separate themselves from God when they turned away from the source of life to pursue the fruit of another tree, one from which they had been told not to eat because it would lead to death.
  3. This death was not a punishment by God. It was simply the result of turning away from God as the source of all life. This result was actually the grace of God, placing a limit on how much humans would be able to hurt themselves and each other in their blindness and separation form the source of life. Our priest asked us to imagine a world in which men such as Attila the Hun, Hitler and Stalin all were still alive and able to “do what they do.” By placing a guard of cherubim around the Tree of Life, God was putting a limit on the harm that we could do to each other in our sin. Finally, death was part of God’s gracious plan to give us a way back to him as Jesus Christ would unite himself with us in death itself and thereby “destroy death by death.”
  4. In Jesus Christ, we therefore have the Tree of Life from the Garden restored to us. Our priest told us that we would be coming up to that tree and eating its fruit near the end of our liturgy as we partook of the Eucharist. He told us that we should take this quite literally as the fruit from the tree of life.

If you are interested, you can look over a sampling of other old Nativity hymns that I once collected here. Finally, here are a few traditional images related to this old idea that Mary opens up Eden to us, removing the flaming swords of the cherubim and allowing us to eat from the Tree of Life once again:

tree of life

Above: a traditional “Tree of Life” icon showing all the family of Jesus Christ joined together and offering Jesus to the world as the fruit of the tree of life. Left to right, top to bottom, the smaller figures are Jeremiah, Jacob, Malachi, Aaron, Zephaniah, Moses, Gideon, Abraham, Daniel, Elisha, David and Solomon.

Pacino_di_buonaguida,_albero_della_vita,_00

Above: “Tree of the Cross” a panel form the Galleria dell’Accademia by Pacino di Bonaguida, 1302-1340. At the bottom, you see Adam and Eve being separated from the tree of life in contrast to the tree of life being given back to us as Jesus Christ offers himself as the bread of life from the cross.

of the sign icon

Above: traditional “Our Lady of the Sign” icon (Russian in this case) showing Jesus carried by his mother Mary. This shows the Theotokos (mother of God) during the Annunciation at the moment of saying, “May it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). This icon shows Christ a the moment of conception but nonetheless with the face of a wise teacher (and often holding a scroll). His right hand is raised in blessing. This term “of the Sign” is a reference to the prophecy of Isaiah (7:14): “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel [meaning ‘God with us’].”

Santa’s Family Tree in Pictures

Santa Claus has an old and lively family. Like all families, it is filled with stories, but here I want to focus on the images before the stories. Following multiple branches through time is not easy to represent, and I’ve opted to move first down a secondary branch from Odin to Santa Claus and then back up the heaviest branch of the family (with several strange forks) to Saint Nicholas, Bishop of Myra (modern-day Demre, Turkey). These sixty-six images from Santa’s family tree represent all of the basic characters and secondary branches within the these two primary ancestral lines:

01_Y Odin-cabalgando-a-Sleipnir 02

Above: Tjängvide image stone (dated between A.D. 700 and 1000) which features Odin riding his eight-legged horse, Sleipnir.

01_Y Odin-cabalgando-a-Sleipnir

Above: Detail from the Tjängvide image stone focused on Odin and Sleipnir. Odin was often described riding through the sky with animal companions in the Wild Hunt. Some have suggested that Sleipnir’s eight legs inspired the original number for Santa’s eight reindeer (before Rudolph joined in the 1900s and made it nine).

Three figures 12th-century Skog tapestry have been interpreted as the Norse gods Odin Thor and Freyja

Above: These three figures from the Skog tapestry (dated to the 1100s) have been interpreted as the Norse gods Odin, Thor and Freyja.

02_Y odin_with_his_two_crows_hugin_and_munin_poster

Above: Illustration of Odin with his two ravens, Huginn and Muninn, from a 1760 Icelandic manuscript.

03_Y NKS_1867_4to,_97v,_Odin_on_Sleipnir

Above: Illustration of Odin on his eight-legged horse, Sleipnir, from a 1760 Icelandic manuscript.

04_Y Odin_rides_to_Hel W G Collingwood 1908

Above: “Odin Rides to Hel” by W.G. Collingwood, 1908.

05_Y Odin's Hunt Malmström by august-malmstrom 1850s to 1901

Above: “The Wild Hunt” by August Malmström (lived 1829 to 1901), illustration of Odin riding with his wolves and ravens.

06_Y GeorgVonRosenOdin1886

Above: “Odin in the guise of a wanderer” by Georg von Rosen in 1886. (Appeared in the 1893 Swedish translation of the Poetic Edda.)

Frontispiece_to_The_Vindication_of_Christmas_by_John_Taylor_1652

Above: Frontispiece to John Taylor’s pamphlet “The Vindication of Christmas” from 1652 (printed date 1653).

Father Christmas in Josiah King two pamphlets of 1658 and 1678

Above: Father Christmas in an illustration used by two Josiah King pamphlets (1658 and 1678).

07_Y yule goat The Book of Christmas 1836

Above: from The Book of Christmas by Thomas Kibble Hervey with “Old Christmas” shown riding a yule goat, 1836.

08_Y father christmas with Yule Goat

Above: Father Christmas with the Yule Goat (date and source unknown).

Christmas_and_his_children_by_Robert_Seymour_1836

Above: “Christmas and his children” by Robert Seymour, 1836.

11_Y Dicken's christmas carole origional christmas present

Above: A colorized edit of an engraving by John Leech in 1843 for the “Ghost of Christmas Present” in A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens (illustration from first edition).

Merry_Christmas_Illustrated_London_News_25_December_1847

Father Christmas from the Illustrated London News 1847.

09_Y Old Father Christmas_with_the_Yule_Log,_Illustrated_London_News,_23_Dec_1848

Above: “Christmas with the Yule Log” by Alfred Crowquill (Alfred Henry Forrester), 1848 (Illustrated London News).

arthur-rackahm-father-christmas ca 1900

Above: “Father Christmas” by Arthur Rackahm (c. 1900).

arthur rackham old st nick 1907

Above: “Old St. Nick” by Aarthur Rackham from 1907. [Note: This image could fit below among the Saint Nicholas branch of the family, but I include it here because these two illustrations by Rackham show how Father Christmas and St. Nick are two distinct figures. This image of “Old St. Nick” also demonstrates a critical secondary-branch in the Saint Nicholas clan where the human saint is replaced by an elf or a gnome-like creature, often from the far north and living underground. This is the source of the “Jolly Old St. Nick” name that later becomes associated with Santa Claus along with ideas about where and how he lives.]

A-Merry-Christmas-made-in-Saxony-ca 1900

Above: Saxon postcard c. 1900 from the Kemper Chambers Collection.

victorian father christmas

Above: illustration of Father Christmas from the Victorian era (1837-1901, exact date and source unknown).

Victorian English Father Christmas in Green

Above: illustration of Father Christmas from the Victorian era (1837-1901, exact date and source unknown).

Father_Christmas_Tuck_Photo_Oilette_postcard 1919

Above: Father Christmas from a 1919 Tuck postcard (by the London company of Raphael Tuck & Sons), Photo Oilette series number C7513).

12_Y Father Christmas Tolkien

Above: The first Father Christmas letter by J.R.R. Tolkien to his children, 1920.

13_Y Father Christmas in Narnia

Above: Illustration of Father Christmas by Pauline Diana Baynes in the 1950 first edition of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis (colorization added).

father christmas blue

Above: Illustration of Father Christmas (date and source unknown).

father christmas

Above: Illustration of Father Christmas (date and source unknown).

santa claus photo

Above: Contemporary image of Santa Claus. [Note: Although Father Christmas and Santa Claus are separate figures, several indirect influences on Santa Claus can be noted from the above members of the family. Below, after two more contemporary Santa images, the images from here on will reverse direction in time as we move back up the main branch in Santa’s family tree toward Saint Nicholas.]

Orthodox cross adorned with Santa 2015 Child in York Pa

Above: 2015 photo that I took at my Orthodox (Antiochian) church showing a cross decorated by a child with a Santa Claus.

santa-claus photo

Above: One more contemporary image of Santa Claus.

Reconstruction of St Nicholas by Professor Caroline Wilkinson

Above: 2014 reconstruction of Saint Nicholas by Dr. Caroline Wilkinson with Face Lab (Liverpool John Moores University). Based on thousands of minutely-detailed measurements and x-ray photographs (roentgenography) from the skull and other bones of St. Nicholas’ (at the request of the Vatican) by anatomy professor Luigi Martino when the bones were removed temporarily from their crypt in the Basilica di San Nicola (Bari, Italy) during the 1950s.

Reconstruction Image Foundry Studios produced a 3D Visualisation of the Real Face of St Nicholas

Above: Initial reconstruction and computer generated image of Saint Nicholas by Dr. Caroline Wilkinson from 2004 (with Image Foundry Studios and Anand Kapoor).

Kris Kringle 02

Above: young Kris Kringle (later Santa Claus) from the 1970 film “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town.”

Kris Kringle holiday-specials-watching-slide

Above: young Kris Kringle (later Santa Claus) from the 1970 film “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town.”

Christkind 2019-20 Benigna Munsi

Above: German girl dressed as the Christkind in a traditional German protestant Christmas celebration. The name “Kris Kringle” comes from an Americanization of Christkind (German for “Christ Child”). This character developed after Martin Luther introduced it to refocus German Christmas traditions away from Saint Nicholas and back toward God’s incarnation as Jesus Christ. However, the Christkind developed into its own figure as an angelic child that sometimes appeared alongside both Jesus Christ and Saint Nicholas.

Coke Santa by Haddon Sundblom 1959 large 01

Above: Santa illustration by Haddon Sundblom for Coca-Cola in 1959.

Coke Santa by Haddon Sundblom 1934 large 02

Above: Santa illustration by Haddon Sundblom for Coca-Cola in 1934.

Coke Santa by Haddon Sundblom 1931 01

Above: another Santa illustration by Haddon Sundblom for Coca-Cola in 1931.

Coke Santa 1931 02

Above: Santa illustrated by Haddon Sundblom for Coca-Cola in 1931.

A-Joyful-Christmas-printed-in-Germany-ca 1908

Above: Card featuring Saint Nicholas printed in Germany c. 1908. Given as a comparison to the developments taking place in the United States.

The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus 1902 children book L Frank Baum illustrated Mary Cowles Clark

Above: cover of The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, a 1902 children’s book written by L. Frank Baum (best know for authoring The Wonderful Wizard of Oz) and illustrated by Mary Cowles Clark.

Santa Claus Missouri History Museum Photographs and Prints Collections c 1900

Christmas color postcard with illustration of Santa Claus inserting a frightened child into sack c. 1900 (Missouri History Museum, photographs and prints collections, ID: N39366).

N-Pole-Wireless-Co-Santa-Claus-Proprietor-ca 1900 Kemper Chambers Collection

Above: “N. Pole Wireless Co Santa Claus Proprietor” c. 1900 from the Kemper Chambers Collection.

10_Y Goody_Santa_Claus_1889

Above: 1889 cover of the songbook “Goody Santa Claus on a Sleigh Ride” by Katharine Lee Bates (best known as the writer of “America the Beautiful”).

Nast Hello Little One 1884

Above: “Hello Little One” by Thomas Nast for Harper’s Weekly in 1884.

Nast Santa Claus or St Nick by Thomas Nast for Harper s Weekly in 1881

Above: illustration of “Santa Claus” or “St Nick” by Thomas Nast for Harper’s Weekly in 1881.

Nast And-to-All-a-Good-Night-1879

Above: “And to All a Good Night” by Thomas Nast for Harper’s Weekly in 1879.

Nast Collection The-coming-of-Santa-Claus-1872 Jolly Old Elf arrival to pets

Above: “The coming of Santa Claus” (the “Jolly Old Elf” arrives to the pets) by Thomas Nast for Harper’s Weekly in 1872.

Nast Visit of Saint Nicholas by Thomas Nast 1869

Above: “Visit of Saint Nicholas” by Thomas Nast for Harper’s Weekly in 1869.

Nast first drawing of Saint Nick, Santa Claus in CampWeekly Cover-January-3-1863 Thomas Nast

Above: “Santa Claus in Camp” was the first of the many Thomas Nast illustrations of Santa Claus for Harper’s Weekly. This was the cover on January 3, 1863. This Civil-War-era image was the most critical step in the development of a unified nation-wide identity for Santa Claus.

Santa Claus in Camp

Above: another image of Thomas Nast’s “Santa Claus in Camp” from 1863.

Swan-pulled-strawberry-sled-with-demons-reprinted-1870s-post card Kemper Chambers Collection

Above: Small demons on swans pull “Santa Claus” in a strawberry sled in this 1870s post card from the Kemper Chambers Collection.

Bram van der Vlugt nog één keer Sinterklaas

Above: a Dutch celebration of a traditional visit from “Sinter Klaas” accompanied by Zwarte Piet (Dutch meaning “Black Pete”). This traditional figure among largely Protestant Dutch colonists in New York city (originally called New Amsterdam) likely provided the primary basis for the name “Santa Claus” as well as for his basic features and costume. [Note: this tradition of Zwarte Piet has sad and hurtful aspects with regard to the portrayal of different people groups. See next image. Many other “companions of Saint Nicholas” showed up in other countries throughout Europe: Père Fouettard (French), Knecht Ruprecht (German meaning Farmhand/Servant Rupert/Robert), Belsnickel or Pelznikel (German meaning “Walloping-Nickel”), Kriskinkle (German for “Christmas woman”) and Krampus (a fearful figure in Austria, Bavaria, South Tyrol, Slovenia, and Croatia probably originating in the pre-Christian Alpine pagan folklore).]

Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet or Black Pete

Above: a contemporary cartoon by Andy Warner (2013 for an article the-magazine.org) showing the concern of parents at the troubling associations with Sinter Klaas as he is typically surrounded by numerous figures in costume as Zwarte Piet. Although the idea was much older in other parts of Europe, the idea that Sinterklaas had a servant was first printed in Dutch within a book by Jan Schenkman called Sint Nicolaas en Zijn Knecht (English: Saint Nicholas and His Servant, 1850).

08_St._Nikolaas_bij_een_Snoeper

Above: Illustration from Jan Schenkman’s book Sint Nicolaas en Zijn Knecht (English: Saint Nicholas and His Servant, 1850).

Sinterklaas Dutch

Above: one more image of a traditional Dutch Sinterklaas costume. [Note: Another theory sometimes given for the name “Santa Claus” is that it was an American mispronunciation of the saint’s name as used by Italian immigrants: “Sant Nikolas.” However, given how early “Santa Claus” appears in print in New York city, it is most likely derived from the Dutch “Sinterklaas.”]

Old Santeclaus with Much Delight 1821 page 1

Above: illustration from page 1 of “Old Santeclaus with Much Delight,” an anonymous children’s poem published in New York in 1821. [Note: A few other publication dates to note are: 1809 with A History of New York by Washington Irving (a satirical book that described the Dutch settlers’ Christmas traditions including a jolly St. Nicholas who delivered presents and flew over houses in a cart pulled by horses), 1823 with “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (better known subsequently as “Twas the Night Before Christmas”) by American Bible scholar Clement Clarke Moore (first published anonymously and then under Moore’s name in 1844 and with some arguing that the poem was actually by Henry Beekman Livingston, Jr. from a few years before) and 1836 with “The Knickerbocker’s Rescue Santa Claus” by James Kirke Paulding (1778–1860) from The Book of Saint Nicholas.]

Christkind_1893

Above: Looking again at contemporary developments outside of the United States, this is a German “Christkind” illustration from 1893 (Stadt Gottes, Illustrierte Zeitschrift für das katholische Volk, Sammelband). Children are throwing open a window to watch an infant Christ and angels descending to them with a Christmas tree.

Knecht_Ruprecht_und_das_Christkind 1800s

Above: “Knecht Ruprecht und das Christkind” from the 1800s in Germany, showing how the Protestant figure of the “Christ child” was mixed with older figures such as Knecht Ruprecht (one of the German companions of Saint Nicholas).

Krampus victorian xmas 02

Above: Krampus in a Victorian era Christmas card. Krampus was first connected to Saint Nicholas in the 1600s. After a period of repressing this figure in many areas, postcards featuring Krampus were extremely popular again in the 1800s and 1900s.

Krampus 02

Above: Krampus in a Christmas card from the 1870s.

Krampus 03

Above: Krampus in a Victorian era Christmas card.

Saint Nicholas and Krampus visit a Viennese home 1896 illustration

Above: Saint Nicholas and Krampus visit a Viennese home in a 1896 illustration.

1863 Otto von Reinsberg-Düringsfeld Das_festliche_Jahr_img444_Weihnachtsmasken

Above: 1863 illustration of a visit from Saint Nicholas and Krampus by Otto von Reinsberg-Düringsfeld in Das festliche Jahr in Sitten.

St Nicholas with Money bag icon Our Brother For the Birds

Above: traditional iconography showing the story of Saint Nicholas saving a man’s three daughters from slavery by secretly bringing them money during the night.

Saint-Nicholas-Icon-1500

Above: traditional icon of Saint Nicholas. Prior to the 1600s, images of Saint Nicholas were all religious icons used for prayer and veneration (primarily within the life and services of local churches). These icons contained only the saint (with no companions, although he was sometimes surrounded by smaller images of fellow saints as well as his Lord Jesus Christ).

Icon veliky-novgorod-russian-st-nicholas-painted-on-wooden

Above: traditional icon of Saint Nicholas.

Saint-Nicholas-Icon

Above: traditional icon of Saint Nicholas.

Icon St Nickolas from monastery of St Catherine in Sinai 10th cent

Above: traditional icon of Saint Nicholas dating from 900s. This icon is from the monastery of Saint Catherine in Sinai, and it is the oldest image of the saint that is still in existence.

To recap, the images above represent these two main branches of Santa’s ancestral tree:

1. Christian and Wider-European Folklore Branch: Saint Nicholas of Myra (the town of Demre in today’s Turkey) lived from A.D. 270 to 343. He grew to be deeply loved throughout the Christian world (including Africa and Asia). Many stories and figures were connected to him in later European folklore. Key names from this family clan:

  • Saint Nicholas
  • Companions of Saint Nicholas
    • Knecht Ruprecht: German meaning Farmhand (or Servant) Rupert (or Robert)
    • Belsnickel or Pelznikel: German meaning “Walloping” and “Nickel” (from “Nikolaus”)
    • Kriskinkle: German for “Christmas woman” a variation on Belsnickel
    • Zwarte Piet: Dutch meaning “Black Pete” a serving person who was a Spanish Moor [Note: this and the French equivalent below clearly have deeply sad and hurtful aspects with regard to the portrayal of different people groups.]
    • Père Fouettard: French equivalent to Zwarte Piet
    • Krampus: Austria, Bavaria, South Tyrol, Slovenia, and Croatia a fearful figure probably originating in the pre-Christian Alpine traditions and sometimes accompanying Saint Nicholas
  • German Protestant Folklore Branch: Martin Luther wanted to recenter Christmas on the incarnation of Jesus as an infant. In German protestant traditions, the Christkind became a sprite-like child, usually depicted with blond hair and angelic wings. Sometimes the Christkind is shown as a specific angel bringing the presents (as it appears in some processions together with an image of little Jesus Christ). Later, the Christkind was also said to make rounds delivering gifts with Saint Nicholas as one of his companions. In United States, the term developed into Kris Kringle which was then sometimes used in stories as a proper name for the person with the title of Santa Claus. Key names from this family clan:
    • Christkind
    • Kris Kringle (developed from “Christkind” later in the United States)

2. British Pagan and Folklore Branch: Stories of Odin likely developed among (or were introduced to) the Germanic Iron Age peoples. With over 170 names, Odin is the god with the most names among the pantheon of the Germanic peoples. Key names from this family clan:

  • Odin
  • Yule Father
  • Father Christmas

This family tree culminates in the images and stories of Santa Claus as they developed in the United States. Do in large part to product marketing and popular entertainment, these stories and images of Santa Claus have also spread to many other parts of the world (including back into many of the originating countries such as Holland, England and Germany):

  • Sinter Klaas (Dutch meaning “Saint Nicholas,” although another version of the story is that Santa Claus comes from Americans imitating the pronunciation of Saint Nickolas by Italian immigrants).
  • Santa Claus

P.S. Some of you might appreciate these excerpts from a delightful GKC essay on Santa Claus and the giftedness of life.

P.P.S. Here are some more illustrations by Mary Cowles Clark from The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus by Frank L. Baum in 1902 (which I have read).

Baum The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus 1902 children book L Frank Baum illustrated Mary Cowles Clark 01

Above: a wood nymph finds the baby who grows up to be Santa Claus.

Baum The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus 1902 children book L Frank Baum illustrated Mary Cowles Clark 03

Above: bringing the baby to the king.

Baum The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus 1902 children book L Frank Baum illustrated Mary Cowles Clark 02

Above: the child who grows up to be Santa Claus.

Baum illustrated Mary Cowles Clark

Above: Santa Claus as a grown man.

If you would find the newborn king

From the sermons of Meister Eckhart. Sermon One (Pf 1, Q 101, QT 57):

Here, in time, we are celebrating the eternal birth which God the Father bore and bears unceasingly in eternity, because this same birth is now born in time, in human nature. St. Augustine says, ‘What does it avail me that this birth is always happening, if it does not happen in me? That it should happen in me is what matters.’ We shall therefore speak of this birth, of how it may take place in us and be consummated in the virtuous soul, whenever God the Father speaks His eternal Word in the perfect soul. For what I say here is to be understood of the good and perfected man who has walked and is still walking in the ways of God; not of the natural, undisciplined man, for he is entirely remote from, and totally ignorant of this birth. There is a saying of the wise man, “When all things lay in the midst of silence, then there descended down into me from on high, from the royal throne, a secret word.” This sermon is about that Word.

…Now I say, as I said before, that these words and this act are only for the good and perfected people, who have so absorbed and assimilated the essence of all virtues that these virtues emanate from them naturally, without their seeking; and above all there must dwell in them the worthy life and lofty teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ. They must know that the very best and noblest attainment in this life is to be silent and let God work and speak within.

…Now observe the use and the fruit of this secret Word and this darkness. The Son of the heavenly Father is not born alone in this darkness, which is his own: you too can be born a child of the same heavenly Father and of none other, and to you too He will give power. Now observe how great the use is! For all the truth learned by all the masters by their own intellect and understanding, or ever to be learned till Doomsday, they never had the slightest inkling of this knowledge and this ground. Though it may be called a nescience, an unknowing, yet there is in it more than in all knowing and under­ standing without it, for this unknowing lures and attracts you from all understood things, and from yourself as well. This is what Christ meant when he said, “Whoever will not deny himself and will not leave his father and mother, and is not estranged from all these, is not worthy of me” (Matt. 10:37), as though he were to say, he who does not abandon creaturely externals can be neither conceived nor born in this divine birth. But divesting yourself of yourself and of everything external does truly give it to you. And in very truth I be­lieve, nay, I am sure, that the man who is established in this cannot in any way ever be separated from God. I say he can in no way lapse into mortal sin. He would rather suffer the most shameful death, as the saints have done before him, than commit the least of mortal sins. I say such people cannot willingly commit or consent to even a venial sin in themselves or in others if they can stop it. So strongly are they lured and drawn and accustomed to that, that they can never turn to any other way; to this way are directed all their senses, all their powers.

May the God who has been born again as man assist us to this birth, eternally helping us, weak men, to be born in him again as God. Amen.

Sermon Two (Pf 2, Q 102, QT 58):

“Where is he who is born king of the Jews?” Now observe, as regards this birth, where it takes place: “Where is he who is born?” Now I say as I have often said before, that this eternal birth occurs in the soul precisely as it does in eternity, no more and no less, for it is one birth, and this birth occurs in the essence and ground of the soul.

…Your heart is often moved and turned away from the world. How could that be but by this illumination? It is so charming and delightful that you become weary of all things that are not God or God’s. It draws you to God and you become aware of many a prompting to do good, though ignorant of whence it comes. This inward inclination i s in n o way due to creatures o r their bidding, for what creatures direct or effect always comes from without. But by this work it is only the ground (of the soul) that is stirred, and the freer you keep yourself the more light, truth, and discernment you will find. Thus no man ever went astray for any other reason than that he first departed from this, and then sought too much to cling to outward things. St. Augustine says there are many who sought light and truth, but only outside where it was not to be found. Finally they go out so far that they never get back home or find their way in again. Thus they have not found the truth, for truth is within, in the ground, and not without. So he who would see light to discern all truth, let him watch and become aware of this birth within, in the ground. Then all his powers will be illuminated, and the outer man as well. For as soon as God inwardly stirs the ground with truth, its light darts into his powers, and that man knows at times more than anyone could teach him. As the prophet says, “I have gained greater understanding than all who ever taught me.” You see then, because this light cannot shine or lighten in sinners, that is why this birth cannot possibly occur in them. This birth cannot coexist with the darkness of sin, even though it takes place, not in the powers, but in the essence and ground of the soul.

…The blessed see God in a single image, and in that image, they discern all things. God too sees Himself thus, perceiving all things in Himself. He need not turn from one thing to another, as we do. Suppose in this life we always had a mirror before us, in which we saw all things at a glance and recognized them in a single image, then neither action nor knowledge would be any hindrance to us. But we have to turn from one thing to another, and so we can only attend to one thing at the expense of another. For the soul is so firmly at­tached to the powers that she has to flow with them wherever they flow, because in every task they perform the soul must be present and attentive, or they could not work at all. If she is dissipated by attending to outward acts, this is bound to weaken her inward work. For at this birth God needs and must have a vacant free and unencum­bered soul, containing nothing but Himself alone, and which looks to nothing and nobody but Him. As to this, Christ says, “Whoever loves anything but me, whoever loves father and mother or many other things is not worthy of me. I did not come upon earth to bring peace but a sword, to cut away all things, to part you from sister, brother, mother, child, and friend that in truth are your foes” (Matt. 10:34-36; d. 19:28). For whatever is familiar to you is your foe. If your eye wanted to see all things, and your ear to hear all things and your heart to remember all things, then indeed your soul would be dissipated in all these things.

Accordingly a master says, ‘To achieve an interior act, a man must collect all his powers as if into a corner of his soul where, hiding away from all images and forms, he can get to work.’ Here, he must come to a forgetting and an unknowing. There must be a stillness and a silence for this Word to make itself heard. We cannot serve this Word better than in stillness and in silence: there we can hear it, and there too we will understand it aright – in the unknowing. To him who knows nothing it appears and reveals itself.

…Here we must come to a transformed knowledge, and this un­ knowing must not come from ignorance, but rather from knowing we must get to this unknowing.6 Then we shall become knowing with divine knowing, and our unknowing will be ennobled and adorned with supernatural knowing. And through holding ourselves passive in this, we are more perfect than if we were active.

…Our bliss lies not in our activity, but in being passive to God. For just as God is more excellent than creatures, by so much is God’s work more excellent than mine. It was from His immeasurable love that God set our happiness in suffering/ for we undergo more than we act, and receive incomparably more than we give; and each gift that we receive prepares us to receive yet another gift, indeed a greater one, and every divine gift further increases our receptivity and the desire to receive something yet higher and greater. Therefore some teachers say that it is in this respect the soul is commensurate with God. For just as God is boundless in giving, so too the soul is boundless in receiving or conceiving. And just as God is omnipotent to act, so too the soul is no less profound to suffer; and thus she is transformed with God and in God.8 God must act and the soul must suffer, He must know and love Himself in her; she must know with His knowledge and love with His love, and thus she is far more with what is His than with her own, and so too her bliss is more dependent on His action than on her own.

…In this way your unknowing is not a lack but your chief perfection, and your suffering your highest activity. And so in this way you must cast aside all your deeds and silence your faculties, if you really wish to experience this birth in you. If you would find the newborn king, you must outstrip and abandon all else that you might find. That we may outstrip and cast behind us all things unpleasing to the newborn king, may He help us who became a human child in order that we might become the children of God. Amen.

These passages are from The Complete Mystical Works of Meister Eckhart, translated and edited by Maurice O’C. Walshe (revised with a foreword by Bernard McGinn). Taken from an edition by Crossroad Publishing Company, copyrighted 2009 by The English Sangha Trust, this work is a reissue of the three-volume Meister Eckhart: Sermons and Treatises translated and edited by M. O’C. Walshe. Sermon three in this collection continues to speak of this birth in us while continuing into the childhood of Jesus Christ with an exposition of “I must be about my Father’s business.”

I came across these sermons when seeking to find the source of this passage that is attributed to Meister Eckhart in many places (but without any full citation that I can find beyond “as quoted in Christianity by Joe Jenkins, 1995, p. 27″):

We are all meant to be mothers of God. What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly, but does not take place within myself? And, what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace if I am not also full of grace? What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to His Son if I do not also give birth to Him in my time and my culture? This, then, is the fullness of time: When the Son of Man is begotten in us.

she will carry to her rambling race that bright and living fire

God’s Mother was born today, the first of the twelve great feasts in the church year. These poor thoughts rattled around in my mind over the last few days, so I set them down. Those familiar with the feasts connected to Mary’s life will see that my words are just clumsy responses to three of the most common images in the church’s hymns about Mary: Moses’s burning bush, Jacob’s heavenly ladder and Ezekiel’s closed gate.

Today a green bud came out upon a once dead branch from deep within the heart of our own tree. Unwitting, song birds and myriad wild creatures chorused, flitted and chattered amid the many wide-reaching boughs of this great tree. Around its heart, tangled branches have rubbed raw their brothers, bruised and sometimes barren. This spray of life from within the thicket will receive sap and sun and all—when, lighted at her core by divine flame, she will carry to her rambling race that bright and living fire.

Today a ladder was set down by the Creator that would extend with her humble prayers and attentive heart to span from earth to heaven—saying yes to God’s desire that He might descend to make a throne upon the earth and a paradise with us.

Today, the Architect set upon its hinges the one gate within our rebellious city that stood ready for its Maker’s voice—ready to open only for our God that He might come forth to live with us, sharing our homes and our full humanity.

And here is a favorite passage from Fr. Thomas Hopko of Blessed Memory that summarizes, as succinctly as I’ve found, the entire history of those differences over Mary that developed between the Greeks and Latins:

As Father Alexander Schmemann used to say, ‘Mary is not the great exception.’ You know, exceptionally conceived, exceptionally ending her human life, bypassing original sin, bypassing death. No, no, that is not the teaching at all. It’s just the opposite. She’s the great example. She exemplifies and patterns the Christian life.

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!”

we are meeting Christ in Bethlehem today

From Words for Our Time: The Spiritual Words of Matthew the Poor (The Nativity of Our Lord, 1974):

God proclaimed something on Christmas Day which neither narrative nor history itself can fully contain. …We can say that Christ’s birth is above time; and so we cannot deal with it as just a record with historical details to be analyzed. No, our intention this evening is to make a living entrance into the story of Christ’s birth.

Again, no matter how long or wide history becomes, it will never be able to encompass the story of the Nativity. The Nativity is eternal life itself that shown forth from Bethlehem and remains shining until the end of the ages. …As we sit here together, I would like us to imagine that our gathering is in Bethlehem. And our imagination is not fantasy, but very truth. Our question now is, what is our position or place in Bethlehem? …Judge for yourselves and understand our place in the Bethlehem stable from this: We are bone of his bones, and flesh of his flesh [Eph. 5:30]. Joseph, as I said, is the guardian of the Virgin Birth, and Mary, the pure saint, is Mother; but you and I are His own flesh and bones! We comprise His entire body. Therefore, I say, we are meeting Christ in Bethlehem today, but it is an incredible and marvelous rendezvous; and it requires us to constantly and repeatedly review ourselves as well as the Nativity story. …I am not merely the beneficiary of Christmas—rather, I am flesh of his flesh and bone of His bones. You and I take up a central place in Bethlehem. This One who is born, the wonderful Child, this magnificent gift from heaven, contains me as a vital part.

…For the sake of the One born in Bethlehem, come with me to meet Christ, who awaits you with open arms. Christ was not born to make a short visit on earth and then leave. He was not a passing visitor. He was the Son of God who took flesh, and will never cast it off. He took us, beloved. He took humanity unto Himself and formed a union with it, complete and perfect. All things that belonged to the divinity and humanity respectively are now united. What a wonderful doctrine! …Beloved, in the Spirit we assemble today in Bethlehem, in Adam’s Paradise, the doors of which are opened for us never to close again.

he again becomes a child in the womb of our soul

Jesus the Christ who was born in the flesh once for all of us, desires to be born again in the spirit in those who desire Him. In each of us, he again becomes a child in the womb of our soul and forms himself from the virtues. He reveals as much of Himself as He knows each of us can accept. Let us contemplate the mystery of the incarnation and in simplicity praise Him who became man for us.

Saint Maximus the Confessor (quoted in the Philokalia).

he is curtailed who overflowed all skies

Mary’s Song by Luci Shaw:

Blue homespun and the bend of my breast
keep warm this small hot naked star
fallen to my arms. (Rest…
you who have had so far to come.)
Now nearness satisfies
the body of God sweetly. Quiet he lies
whose vigor hurled a universe. He sleeps
whose eyelids have not closed before.
His breath (so slight it seems
no breath at all) once ruffled the dark deeps
to sprout a world. Charmed by dove’s voices,
the whisper of straw, he dreams,
hearing no music from his other spheres.
Breath, mouth, ears, eyes
he is curtailed who overflowed all skies,
all years. Older than eternity, now he
is new. Now native to earth as I am, nailed
to my poor planet, caught
that I might be free, blind in my womb
to know my darkness ended,
brought to this birth for me to be new-born,
and for him to see me mended
I must see him torn.