the fall of rational creation and the conquest of the cosmos by death is something that appears to us nowhere within the course of nature or history

The moral apostasy of rational beings from the proper love of God is somehow the reason for the reign of death and suffering in the cosmos, that human beings—constituting what Maximus the Confessor called the priestly “methorios” (the boundary or frontier) between the physical and the spiritual realms—severed the bond between God’s eternity and cosmic time when they fell. Thus we may say, as fantastic as it seems—and as fantastic as it truly is when reduced to fundamentalist literalism regarding the myth of Eden—that all suffering, sadness, and death, however deeply woven into the fabric of earthly existence, is the consequence of the depravities of rational creatures, not of God’s intentions. Not that we can locate the time, the place, or the conditions of that event. That ours is a fallen world is not a truth demonstrable to those who do not believe; Christians can see it only within the story of Christ, in the light cast back from his saving action in history upon the whole of time. The fall of rational creation and the conquest of the cosmos by death is something that appears to us nowhere within the course of nature or history; it comes from before and beyond both. We cannot search it out within the closed totality of the damaged world because it belongs to another frame of time, another kind of time, one more real than the time of death—perhaps the divine or angelic aeon beyond the corruptible sub-sidereal world of chronos, or perhaps the Drcamtime or the supcrcclcstial realm of the pure forms or the Origcnist heaven of the primordial intelligences, or what have you. In any event, this (or something roughly like it) is the story that orthodox Christianity tells, and it can tell no other.

…It may seem a fabulous claim that we exist in the long grim aftermath of a primaeval catastrophe—that this is a broken and wounded world, that cosmic time is a phantom of true time, that we live in an umbratile interval between creation in its fullness and the nothingness from which it was called, and that the universe languishes in bondage to the “powers” and “principalities” of this age, which never cease in their enmity toward the kingdom of God—but it is not a claim that Christians are free to surrender. There is a kind of “provisional” cosmic dualism within the New Testament that simply cannot be evaded: not an ultimate dualism, of course, between two equal principles, but certainly a conflict between, on the one hand, a sphere of created autonomy that strives against God and, on the other, the saving love of God in time.

The explicit claim of Christian scripture is that God’s will can be resisted by a real and (by his grace) autonomous force of defiance, and that his purposes can be hidden from us by the history of cosmic corruption, and that the final realization of the good he intends in all things has the form—not simply as a dramatic fiction, for our edification or his glory, nor simply as a pedagogical device on his part, but in truth—of a divine victory.

From “The Devil’s March” by David Bentley Hart.

There is a lot in this echoing Chesterton who writes that we are “the survivors of a wreck, the crew of a golden ship that had gone down before the beginning of the world” (more here) and that “the end of the world was long ago, / And all we dwell to-day / As children of some second birth, / Like a strange people left on earth / After a judgment day” (citation here).

the stubbornness to accept our gladness

“A Brief For The Defense” by Jack Gilbert.

Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick. There is laughter
every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered cafés and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.

His mother had been careful to make him aware of that

From Across Five Aprils by Irene Hunt (chapter 4):

Suffering at the mercy of the elements was accepted by Jethro as being quite as natural as the hunger for green vegetables and fresh fruit that was always with him during the winter. When one found comfort, he was grateful, but he was never such a fool as to expect a great deal of it. The hardships one endured had a purpose. His mother had been careful to make him aware of that.

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.

He remains in the very thick of it

From Scott Cairns’ book The End of Suffering:

Well, the story goes that He has descended into the very thick of it.

The story goes that He remains in the very thick of it.

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.

…He did not save Himself, but gather gave Himself.

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.

That is to say, 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.

In any case, this does not exactly solve our puzzle. One is very likely still to ask, what is yet to be done?

What is it that Saint Paul and the rest of us are expected to supply?

Could it be ourselves?

The very heart of an efficacious faith, it seems to me now, is bound up precisely in our—watchfully—living into this mystery of what appears to be God’s continuing desire for collaboration between Himself and His creation.

From Adam’s naming of the animals through each successive patriarch, prophet, and holy man or woman, God has shown a predilection for working with His people, as opposed to simply working on them. God is intent, generation after generation on finding one or more of us to suffer the chore with Him. They may or may not always be the best specimens—Moses, Abraham, Lot, David, etc.—but their success is inevitably bound up with their complying with His will, and colluding with it. We find instances of this dynamic collaboration throughout our biblical texts and throughout their surrounding traditions.

One chief instance that comes to mind is illustrated in the Gospel dialogue that accompanies the event we call the Annunciation—that most curious exchange between the Archangel Gabriel and the Theotokos—and I glimpse in that fascinating give-and-take the Holy Mother’s necessary concurrence with the angelic messenger’s announcement. The angel reveals to her the message from on high, and she replies, “Behold the majdservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word” (Lk. 1:38).

The point is, she said yes to God’s messenger. One despairs to think what would have become of us if she had said no.

…What, then, has yet to be done? What—so far as you are concerned—is the nature of this odd-seeming isterimata that gives Saint Paul cause to rejoice even in the midst of suffering?

You’ll probably have to tell me.

I suspect that, just as each of us is unique in the eyes of our God Who loves us, each of us also will find a unique remedy for our separation from Him. Each of us will discover-—and either will bear or will shirk—a unique cross.

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.”

if she ever took to praying it would be for that time and all those people

From Lila by Marilynne Robinson:

She meant to ask him sometime how praying is different from worrying. His face was about as strained and Weary as it could be. White as it could be.

Now here she was again, worrying over people who were long past help. You can’t even pray for someone to have his pride back when every possible thing has happened to take it away from him. She thought, everything went bad everywhere and pride like his must have just drifted off the earth, more or less, as quiet as mist in the morning, and people were sad and hard who never were before. Looking into each other’s faces, their hearts sinking.

If she ever took to praying it would be for that time and all those people who must have wondered what had become of them, what they had done to find themselves without so much as a good night’s rest to comfort them. She would call down calm on every one of them, on the worst and the bitterest ones first of all. Doane and Arthur walking away; Mellie, too, never looking back, leaving her an orphan on the steps of a church. Without the bitterness none of that would have happened. If Boughton dropped a lamp and set his house on fire, what would the Reverend say about that? He was looking at her then with as much fear in his eyes as she had ever seen anywhere, even counting those poor raggedy heathens who never thought the Almighty would have the leastibit of interest in them.

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.

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.]