G. K. Chesterton on the Mystery of the Nativity

Everyone knows Chesterton was the most celebrated convert of his time. Few know he was also a Marian poet who challenges Christians to restore the Blessed Lady to her rightful place in devotion. (CREDIT: HULTON ARCHIVE / GETTY IMAGES)
Everyone knows Chesterton was the most celebrated convert of his time. Few know he was also a Marian poet who challenges Christians to restore the Blessed Lady to her rightful place in devotion. (CREDIT: HULTON ARCHIVE / GETTY IMAGES)

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 Nativity

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,
Unangered, unworn,
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 worl. 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.

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SOURCE: Religion and Ethics
Ralph C. Wood

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