Originally at: http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2015/12/17/4374791.htm
by Ralph Wood
G.K. Chesterton’s abiding devotion to the Holy Virgin was not prompted by pious longing for motherly comfort – the usual canard about “sentimental Marianism.” It sprang, instead, from his estimate of her as the Theotokos, the God-bearing mother of Jesus who is also mother of his Body called the Church.
Mary is both the prime exemplar of Christ and thus also the Mother of the Church. She is, as Brian Daley puts it, “a unique representative of the human participation in God’s life that we call grace or divinization.”
The word “divinization” is derived from the Greektheosis. For the Eastern Church, as increasingly also for Western Christianity, it is the key term for authentic Christian existence. We are meant so fully to participate in God’s own triune life, through the sacraments and practices of the Church, as gradually to be made divine.
So declared the author of the second letter of St. Peter: If we are to receive God’s blessings in His Son, he asserted, we must become “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4, 10-11). St. Athanasius of Alexandria gave theosis its most celebrated formulation in the fourth century: “God became man so that man might become god.”
This renewed emphasis on theosis helps to resist a one-sided emphasis on forensic salvation -the notion, namely, that we are simply declared righteous in and through the merits of Christ’s atoning death, even though we remain sunk in sin, untransformed by grace.
Perhaps it is also time for evangelicals to recognize that a similar understanding of theosis underwrites the Marian doctrines of both Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism. Thus should we too exalt the Blessed Virgin as the first person to realize full divinization. As the Second Vatican Council declared, she is the one who:
“in this singular way … cooperated by her obedience, faith, hope and burning charity in the work of the Saviour in giving back supernatural life to souls. Wherefore she is our mother in the order of grace.”
Two drastic conclusions follow: we cannot speak of Christ without speaking of his Mother; nor can we speak of Christ’s Church without honouring Mary’s mothering of it as well. In his various obiter dicta concerning Our Lady, Chesterton confirms these two central claims.
In The Everlasting Man, for example, Chesterton recounts a bizarre occurrence in his childhood Church of England parish, where a statue alleged to give undue regard for the Blessed Virgin was drastically modified. These latter-day iconoclasts quite barbarously removed the Christ Child from the arms of the Holy Mother. This struck Chesterton as passing strange:
“One would think that this [act] was even more corrupted with Mariolatry, unless the mother was counted less dangerous when deprived of a sort of weapon. But the practical difficulty is also a parable. You cannot chip away the statue of a mother from all round that of a newborn child. You cannot suspend the new-born child in mid-air; indeed you cannot really have a statue of a newborn child at all. Similarly, you cannot suspend the idea of a newborn child in the void or think of him without thinking of his mother. You cannot visit the child without visiting the mother, you cannot in common human life approach the child except through the mother. If we are to think of Christ in this aspect at all … we must admit, if only as we admit it in an old picture, that those holy heads are too near together for the haloes not to mingle and cross.”
These aureoles “mingle and cross” in Chesterton’s finest Marian poem:
The thatch on the roof was as golden,
Though dusty the straw was and old,
The wind had a peal as of trumpets,
Though blowing and barren and cold,
The mother’s hair was a glory
Though loosened and torn,
For under the eaves in the gloaming
A child was born.
Have a myriad children been quickened,Have a myriad children grown old,
Grown gross and unloved and embittered,
Grown cunning and savage and cold?
God abides in a terrible patience,
And again for the child that was squandered
A child is born.
What know we of aeons behind us,Dim dynasties lost long ago,
Huge empires, like dreams unremembered,
Huge cities for ages laid low?
This at least – that with blight and with blessing,
With flower and with thorn,
Love was there, and his cry was among them,
“A child is born.”
Though the darkness be noisy with systems,Dark fancies that fret and disprove,
Still the plumes stir around us, above us
The wings of the shadow of love:
Oh! Princes and priests, have ye seen it
Grow pale through your scorn;
Huge dawns sleep before us, deep changes,
A child is born.
And the rafters of toil still are gildedWith the dawn of the stars of the heart,
And the wise men draw near in the twilight,
Who are weary of learning and art,
And the face of the tyrant is darkened,
His spirit is torn,
For a new king is enthroned; yea, the sternest,
A child is born.
And the mother still joys for the whisperedFirst stir of unspeakable things,
Still feels that high moment unfurling
Red glory of Gabriel’s wings.
Still the babe of an hour is a master
Whom angels adorn,
Emmanuel, prophet, anointed,
A child is born.
And thou, that art still in thy cradle,The sun being crown for thy brow,
Make answer, our flesh, make an answer,
Say, whence art thou come – who art thou?
Art thou come back on earth for our teaching
To train or to warn – ?
Hush – how may we know? – knowing only
A child is born.
Chesterton the poet is at his best in his Christmas verse. He rightly credits Charles Dickens as almost single-handedly recovering this holy feast for the Anglophone world, after the Puritans had almost succeeded in suppressing Christmas as the ultimate display of papist paganism. In fact, their celebration of Thanksgiving was an attempt to displace Christmas as a holy day. Chesterton wittily suggested that the English might want to devise their own counter-Thanksgiving, praising God that the Puritans had departed!
Chesterton exalted Christmas because he regarded it not as the Feast of the Incarnation, but of the Nativity. In fact, until recent times the term Incarnation named the entire event of Christ’s conception, birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension – not just his entrance into the world. Nor does the Nativity centre upon Jesus alone, but on his Holy Mother as well. Thus does Chesterton begin and end his poem “The Nativity” with splendid Marian moments, though the last one often goes undetected.
Chesterton does not idealize the Bethlehem scene. By means of alternating trochees and iambs, we are shown a stable made externally golden by the setting sun. Within, it is draughty and chill and lifeless.
In accord with the ancient tradition that regards a woman’s tresses as her most feminine feature, the sinless Virgin’s hair is wondrously modest but also noticeably dishevelled. Here is a woman in the pangs of childbirth. In full consent to the divine will, she consents for her hair to be torn, as she thrashes in agony. Perhaps her flesh is also ripped as the infant is brought forth from her womb.
Here, and for once only, Chesterton resorts to the past tense in describing the birth of Jesus. Because this child is born to this woman in this way, every child’s birth now acquires new significance. The human race no longer repeats itself in endless and weary iteration, as the engine of animal reproduction runs on. Because this one divine Child subsumes the whole of humanity in his Nativity, every newborn is meant to be reborn. Hence Chesterton’s crucial replacement of the definite article that we expect (“the child”) with the indefinite article that startles and surprises (“a child”).
Though published in 1897, when Chesterton had only recently begun identifying himself a Christian, and a quarter century before he was received into the Church of Rome, this poem is filled with remarkable theological discernment. In the claim that Christ assumes the whole of humanity within himself, Chesterton is echoing the teaching of the ancient church as well as anticipating the work of le nouvelle theologie. Its most characteristic exponent, Henri de Lubac, also insists that human nature is not one thing here and another thing elsewhere. However twisted and tarnished, every person bears the imprint of God as the result of both their creation and their redemption in Christ. Humanity constitutes, in fact, a bodily no less than a spiritual whole.
To desecrate even a single person, therefore, is to desecrate all others. “The divine image,” de Lubac declares, “does not differ from one individual to another: in all it is the same image.” Our embodied souls/ensouled bodies display our shared human dependence, our singleness as a race, our commonality that makes us “so entirely one that we ought not speak of man in the plural any more than we speak of three Gods.” Hence the teaching of St. Augustine that we are “one spiritual family intended to form the one city of God.” The effect of the Incarnation, it follows, is all-encompassing:
“Christ from the very first moment of his existence virtually bears all men within himself … For the Word did not merely take a human body; his Incarnation was not a simple corporatio, but as St. Hilary says, a concorporatio. He incorporated himself in our humanity, and incorporated [our humanity] in his humanity.”
Chesterton makes a radical theological claim in shifting from the past tense to the present in all of the succeeding stanzas. For in this one birth, we can now take the measure of all other births, whether for good or ill.
In the second stanza, for instance, we are shown the awful waste and loss entailed in most human lives. The promise heralded by the infant’s first motion within its mother’s womb (its “quickening”) is fulfilled not in a long and happy life, but in a long and living death. The child becomes the father of the man, alas, in a terrible and anti-Wordsworthian way. Instead of reaching healthy maturity, he becomes passively withdrawn, alienated, void of all sensibility; or else he becomes aggressively crass and clever and heartless – all for want of the Love that both conceived and birthed this all-defining Child of Bethlehem.
Yet not one of Chesterton’s stanzas ends in dejection, as the final lines always return to the hope now resident in the birth of every child. God waits with a frightening forbearance. Chesterton’s reversed trochaic and spondaic rhythm echoes God’s own reversal – namely, his refusal to grow weary and angry with human sinning. Not a single castaway child is now or ever has been excluded from the compass of divine mercy. Whether in time irrecoverably past or in time all too pressingly present, every child is reclaimed with this Child’s birth.
The measure of the Nativity is historical no less than personal. The long unfurling course of human history is too lengthy to be recalled in its terrible successiveness. Mighty civilizations have risen and collapsed beyond all recovering, indeed beyond all remembering. Yet of one thing we can still be assured, amid the endless cycles of time wherein – to use Milton’s metaphor of the wind-flattened flower – many children are “no sooner blown than blasted.” Christ’s birth stretches backwards no less than forward to lay claim on every child born to woman. Even when those nameless and numberless children were most horribly conceived in the loveless and violent act of rape – even there the Good News of this gentle Love-Child and his Mother was also proclaimed in the infant’s wail.
Chesterton’s tropes shift from the personal and the historical to the luminous and the tenebrous in the fourth and fifth stanzas, as the gloaming passes into nightfall. Despite the loud clamour made by logical thinkers and political actors, despite the worried fantasies of those who can only negate, despite the withering contempt shown by high officials of state and church alike, the quiet motion of angel feathers first heard by Mary can be felt again, hovering over the rude stable. The sun rising afresh over the Bethlehem stall is the dawn that will soon break upon the entire world, awakening men from their terrible slumbers. This Day Spring from on high now illumines all who dwell in darkness. The rural shepherds who keep watch over the world’s sheep, perhaps representing all who guard the well-being of others, will now be warmed by the Sun of true pastoral care. The urbane wise men, with their minds dimmed by their sin-limited art and thought, personify all the thinkers and artists who shall now receive true enlightenment.
Most especially will these piercing rays strike the tyrant whose visage is now as livid as his soul is shadowed. Whereas Mary’s hair was torn by her gracious consent, Herod’s countenance is involuntarily ripped, as if to anticipate the veil that will be torn in the Temple on Good Friday. Like the Christ-child in Chesterton’s parish church, chipped away by philistines who feared the Virgin holding him, so will this helpless infant-king become God’s curious weapon against all despots of both body and soul. This defenceless infant ruling the universe from a bed of straw will pierce the world’s will-to-power with the terrible lance of love.
Hence the poem’s rightful return, in the final two stanzas, to the Marian moment in the Nativity. Though still weary with the pangs of parturition, her delight remains so strong that Chesterton must convert a noun into a verb. Nothing less than the Marian act of “joying” can describe the Annunciation that came to her in a voice that, though proffering the seemingly impossible, was even less coercive than the lightest brush of angelic wings. What cannot possibly happen has indeed happened: the infant whose umbilical is still drying must already be accorded the munus triplex first formulated by Eusebius, the trifold office of Christ’s ministry: the Priest who sacramentally makes God with us in the flesh, the Prophet who pronounces God’s judgment in mercy, and the King whose sovereignty breaks down the gates of hell and sets its subjects free – all because “a child is born.”
Then comes the extraordinary surprise of the final stanza, where the poetic speaker anonymously addresses the Infant himself. The babe is no longer “mewling and puking” (to use candid Shakespearean language) but sleeping, whether in his wicker basket or else in his mother’s arms, having only a sunray for his diadem. “You who are human like us,” the questioner twice interrogates the divine Babe, “What is your origin and aim? Are you perhaps John the Baptizer risen from the dead to serve as the new rabbi of wise example, or the new prophet announcing the wrath to come?”
Such supposals constitute a serious misprision of the Christ-child’s mission. Gabriel did not announce that Our Lady would bear another rabbi, not even once so great as Gamaliel. Thus do we hear a second voice making a sudden and perhaps impatient interruption.
It is the Holy Mother, I believe, who halts these clamorous queries, lest the sleeping babe be rudely roused, and lest we too miss the staggering Mystery of eternity shut within the span of a man’s hand. Surely it is time not to question but to be questioned; indeed, to bow in silence, for “a child is born.”
During the final years of his life, when Chesterton began to have long thoughts about everlasting things, he returned again to the Blessed Virgin. In one of his last and best books, The Well and the Shallows, Chesterton made what I regard as his deepest Marian confession:
“Now I can scarcely remember a time when the image of Our Lady did not stand up in my mind quite definitely, at the mention of the thought of all these things … But whether the figure was distant, or was dark and mysterious, or was a scandal to my contemporaries, or was a challenge to myself – I never doubted that this figure was the figure of the Faith. The instant I remembered the Catholic Church, I remembered her. When I tried to forget about the Catholic Church I had to forget her! When I finally saw what was nobler than my fate, the freest and the hardest of all my acts of freedom, it was in front of a gilded and very gaudy little image of her in the port of Brindisi that I promised the thing that I would do, if I returned to my own land.”
Chesterton refers to a tour of Italy that he and his wife Frances had taken in 1920. He had been made a confessing rather than a nominal Christian by the witness of this devoutly Anglican woman. Yet he was reluctant to become a Catholic without her joining him. Not until 1922, at age 48, would he be received into the Roman Catholic Church. In 1926 she would follow him.
Almost everyone knows that G.K. Chesterton was the most celebrated convert of his time. Few know, however, that he was also a Marian poet who challenges Christians of all sorts to restore the Blessed Lady to her rightful place in Christian belief and devotion.