Catholic Meditations

A Catholic-themed opinion blog about various topics, including theology, philosophy, politics and culture, from a Thomistic perspective.

Friday, January 1, 2021

Theotokos: A Defense of the Mother of God

 To celebrate this joyous feast of the Solemnity of the Mother of God on New Year’s Day, it can be fruitful to explore and hopefully gain a fuller understanding of one of the greatest Marian doctrines of the Catholic Church: that Mary is the Theotokos, the Mother of God. This is a claim that, despite going back to the earliest days of the Church and promulgated by official magisterial teaching, is often neglected or shied away from even by faithful Catholics. After the claims of some Protestant reformers that, by this doctrine, Catholics are idolizing Mary or giving her equality or even supremacy over Christ have been popularized throughout the West, we can find it difficult to witness our veneration of Mary as the Mother of God.

The identification of the mother of Jesus as the Mother of God has been met with controversy throughout the history of the Christian Church. To some, the title seems almost self-evident, since the mother of Jesus, whom Christianity professes to be God, the Second Person of the Trinity, would necessarily also be the Mother of God by her son’s own divine personhood. However, others have raised various objections to this claim, particularly Christian thinkers during and after the time of the Protestant Reformation, causing even many who hold to this historic doctrine to doubt its veracity or to show reluctance in openly proclaiming it. The ancient history of this teaching, which has been inseparably linked to the Incarnation of Christ since the time of the Church Fathers, as well as strong theological answers to the objections raised can help to encourage all Christians to profess Mary as the Mother of God without reservation. Through an exploration of the biblical, historical and theological evidence, the role of Mary as Mother of God can be demonstrated, and the objections answered conclusively.

The disputations of the claim that Mary should be considered the Mother of God have taken many forms throughout the centuries, depending on the specific theological lens of the objector. A question commonly raised in Fundamentalist circles concerns the proposition that the term “Mother of God” cannot be found in Scripture. If the Bible is the ultimate source and rule of Christian faith, how can we hold to a doctrine that it does not seem to contain? Further, even if the divine maternity of Mary can be inferred from Scripture, can we justifiably nominate this interpretation using words which, to all appearances, are not to be found in the Sacra pagina itself? “If this doctrine were as important as Roman Catholics claim,” they might ask, “would not at least one of the inspired writers have used it?”[1]

Another objection, from a more theological rather than textual perspective, is that titling Mary as Mother of God would cause her to be the source not only of Jesus’s human nature, but his divine nature as well, thus making Mary herself divine. Even in the biblical example often used by Catholics and other proponents of the divine maternity of Mary, namely the exclamation by Mary’s cousin Elizabeth at the Visitation, “And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Lk 1:43 DRA), the Greek word used for Lord, kyrios, can be used interchangeably to mean either God (as it is most often used in the Septuagint, or Greek Old Testament) or a human ruler. Thus, this passage can be interpreted to only identify Mary as the mother of Jesus’s humanity, not his divinity.

Along these lines, it can be problematic and even heretical not only to see Mary as the source of Jesus’s divine nature in her maternity, if she is called the Mother of God, but she could even be seen as the source of the Trinity itself. Since Jesus as the Son of God is the Second Person of the Trinity, and the persons of the Trinity, while distinct, are not separate but rather are a single Godhead, would not the divine maternity of Mary also make her the source of the Trinity and thus superior to it, becoming a kind of supreme goddess figure akin to many pagan deities? If her son is eternal, would not Mary as his mother be equally eternal as well as divine, thus forming a “Quadrinity” rather than a true Trinity?[2]

For other Christians who have raised doubts about Mary as the Mother of God, the above difficulties are ultimately unimportant precisely because of their understanding of what Mary’s maternity involved. For them, Mary was not a true “mother” in the fullest sense, as the term is applied to human and even animal mothers, but was only the vessel of the Incarnation, the medium or conduit through which the Word of God chose to take on a human nature. This, they argue, does not confer any kind of maternal relationship between Mary and Jesus, even if she is understood to have raised Jesus as her own child according to the norms of human family life; she is not the source of his nature or personhood, nor does she have any kind of authority over him, since as God no mere human could claim either role in relation to Jesus. It is even possible that, while Mary did incubate Jesus for nine months and gave birth to him, his human nature was created instantaneously by God at his conception and so they do not actually share a bodily relation, such as the same DNA or physical resemblance.[3]

Finally, even if someone were to accept that Mary is the Mother of God, the titles employed in this designation can become misleading. The ancient and biblically-based name Theotokos, or God-bearer, is only meant to honor Jesus, not Mary, it can be argued; Mary is merely the means through which God is ‘borne’ into the world purely through the divine will, irrespective of Mary’s cooperation or human maternity, and so the Incarnation honors God alone. Taking this argument further, even the common title ‘Mother of God’ can lead to a superstitious worship of Mary as a divine figure or at least to a misunderstanding of what her divine maternity entails, and so it is best to simply disuse the term, ignore Mary’s role in the Incarnation, and focus entirely on Jesus without distraction. As Protestant reformer John Calvin explained, “To call the Virgin Mary the Mother of God can only serve to confirm the ignorant in their superstitions”, or as Protestant apologist Matt Slick wrote, “The term ‘mother of God’ runs the risk of suggesting that Mary is somehow divine and part of the Godhead.”[4]

Before answering these objections, in order to avoid unnecessary confusion and the many errors it can lead to, a correct definition of the title “Mother of God” for the Blessed Virgin is needed. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “[T]he One whom [Mary] conceived as man by the Holy Spirit, who truly became her Son according to the flesh, was none other than the Father's eternal Son, the second person of the Holy Trinity. Hence the Church confesses that Mary is truly ‘Mother of God’ (Theotokos).”[5] The Catechism’s commentary on the words of Elizabeth at the Visitation succinctly describes the doctrine of Mary as the Mother of God. There are two fundamental points to this definition which are essential for refuting the arguments against giving Mary this title: for one, that the Son became Mary’s own child “according to the flesh,” after the manner of human maternity; and for two, that Jesus can only be considered a singular divine person, the Son of God, even in the hypostatic union of his divine and human natures. All errors about this doctrine derive from a misunderstanding of one or both of these points.

A study of the writings of the Church Fathers can quickly dispel the concern that this doctrine is in any way a new invention of the Church. From the earliest days of the Church up to the present, Mary has been called the Mother of God. The Fathers recognized, especially in response to the proliferation of errors regarding the natures and personhood of Christ, that the divine maternity of Mary is inextricable from Jesus’s hypostatic union as fully God and fully man. While the assignation of the title Theotokos to Mary was officially promulgated through the magisterial teaching of the Council of Ephesus in 431,[6] as early as 189 AD, St. Irenaeus of Lyons wrote, “The Virgin Mary, being obedient to his word, received from an angel the glad tidings that she would bear God.”[7] The description that the Blessed Virgin would “bear God” demonstrates that from the earliest days of the Church, Mary was considered not the bearer of Jesus’s human nature alone, but the bearer of God. Later, in 365 AD, St. Athanasius of Alexandrea would provide an even fuller explanation: “The Word begotten of the Father from on high, inexpressibly, inexplicably, incomprehensibly, and eternally, is he that is born in time here below of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God.”[8] Since patristic times, the doctrine of the Theotokos was connected to the Incarnation; if Mary is not the Mother of God, then God was not truly incarnate as one divine person who is fully God and fully man. The Council of Ephesus corrected the heresies of the time that made this error, and the significance of this teaching can be seen in the words of St. Gregory of Nazianzen in the previous century when he wrote, “If anyone does not admit that holy Mary is Mother of God (Theotokos), he is cut off from the Godhead.”[9]

One way to understand the divine maternity of Mary is to see her as the “New Eve,” the New Covenant typological fulfillment of Eve, “the mother of all the living.” (Gn 3:20) Like all fulfillments of Old Testament types in the New, Mary is not merely a copy of Eve but is far superior to her. The Wedding at Cana is the clearest sign of the identification of Mary as the New Eve. St. John in his Gospel includes Jesus’s naming of her as “Woman.” Rather than being a sign of disrespect, this title echoes that used for Eve eleven times in Genesis. As Raymond Brown explains, “John thinks of Mary against the background of Genesis 3… Mary is the New Eve.”[10] Again, at the Crucifixion, when the Blessed Virgin and St. John stood at the foot of the Cross, Jesus repeats this title: “When Jesus therefore had seen his mother and the disciple standing whom he loved, he saith to his mother: Woman, behold thy son.” (Jn 19:26)

From this analysis of Mary as the New Eve, the question naturally arises, “If Mary is the New Eve while Jesus is the New Adam (1 Cor 15:22), how can she also be his Mother?” To answer this question, it is necessary to turn to the Book of the Apocalypse (Revelation) of St. John. Here, in a vision, Mary is seen to be not only the Mother of God but also the New Ark of the Covenant, as well as the Mother of the Church. Like the old Ark, Mary bore within herself the bread from Heaven, the Word of God, and the High Priest - like the manna, the Ten Commandments and the rod of Aaron of the first Ark.[11] The image of Mary as the New Ark is previewed in the Visitation, when Elizabeth, in her exclamation “And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Lk 1:43),

 

was referencing, almost verbatim, a text from 2 Samuel 6 in which we discover the Ark of the Covenant being brought into the newly conquered city of Jerusalem in triumphant procession… Kind David exclaimed, ‘How can the ark of the Lord come to me?’ (2 Samuel 6:9).[12]

 

This preview is made clear in the Apocalypse. Mary, who like the old Ark was “overshadowed” by the Holy Spirit at the Annunciation (Ex 40:35, Lk 1:35), is described in St. John’s vision accordingly:

 

And the temple of God was opened in heaven: and the ark of his testament was seen in his temple… And a great sign appeared in heaven: A woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars… And being with child… she brought forth a man child, who was to rule all nations with an iron rod: and her son was taken up to God, and to his throne. (Rev 11:19; 12:1-2, 5)

 

While these verses are taken from separate chapters in modern Bibles, their repetition of the phrases “seen/appeared” connects them as a single vision.[13] From this vision, in which the “woman” can be clearly recognized as Mary, whose relation to “her son” who was “taken up to God, and to his throne” evidences her divine maternity, one can also identify her as the Mother of the Church from a succeeding verse: “And the dragon was angry against the woman: and went to make war with the rest of her seed, who keep the commandments of God, and have the testimony of Jesus Christ.” (Rev 12:17) Here, the offspring of the woman, of whom the divine Son is the firstborn, are those who “have the testimony of Jesus Christ.” Thus, all Christians are also her children, and she is their mother, just as Christ gave her to be their mother from the Cross (Jn 19:27); in this way, she is also the New Eve, the mother of all those who live in the new life of Christ.

As corroborating evidence outside Scripture and Tradition for the doctrine of Mary as the Mother of God, it should be remembered that the early Protestant reformers, particularly Martin Luther and John Calvin, clearly shared this belief themselves. Luther gave one of the clearest declarations of belief in the Mother of God amongst the reformers when he wrote:

 

[S]he became the Mother of God, in which work so many and such great good things are bestowed on her as pass man's understanding. For on this there follows all honor, all blessedness, and her unique place in the whole of mankind, among which she has no equal, namely, that she had a child by the Father in heaven, and such a Child.... Hence men have crowded all her glory into a single word, calling her the Mother of God.[14]

Luther’s teaching remains the official and predominant view of Lutherans today; because Protestantism itself and most of its denominations descend from Luther, his words should carry great weight for Protestants who are wary of this doctrine. Despite Calvin’s warnings quoted above against the “superstitious” use of the term itself, which he applied particularly to Catholic Marian devotion, he also believed in the truth of this doctrine. In his commentary on the Visitation, in Luke 1:43, Calvin wrote:

 

[Elizabeth] calls Mary the mother of her Lord. This denotes a unity of person in the two natures of Christ; as if she had said, that he who was begotten a mortal man in the womb of Mary is, at the same time, the eternal God.... This name Lord strictly belongs to the Son of God 'manifested in the flesh,' (1 Timothy 3:16,) who has received from the Father all power, and has been appointed the highest ruler of heaven and earth, that by his agency God may govern all things.[15]

Thus, even with his reservations about the potentially superstitious or idolatrous nature of Marian devotion, John Calvin – the originator of many Protestant branches which were not founded by Luther – also believed that Mary is the Mother of God. The perspectives of these reformers help to solidify the historic nature of this doctrine and show that it is not necessarily contrary to a Protestant worldview.

Based on these arguments for titling Mary as the Mother of God, the objections against doing so can be answered. As mentioned above, the objections to this title are founded on two misconceptions: on the nature of Mary’s maternity, and on Jesus’s singular personhood within the hypostatic union. By explaining these two points, the objections can be answered. First, the divine maternity of Mary does not make her the source of Jesus’s divinity, nor does it make her his Creator or “goddess.” Further, in authority, she has no more over Jesus than do any human mothers. Her motherhood, while certainly nobler and more universal than that of a normal human mother, due to the supreme nobility and universality of her Son, is still that of a human mother. As St. Thomas Aquinas explains, 

 

The Blessed Virgin is said to have merited to bear the Lord of all, not because she merited God to be incarnate, but because she merited, from the grace given to her, that grade of purity and holiness, which suited her to be the Mother of God.[16]

In the disputation of Elizabeth’s use of the term “mother of my Lord” at the Visitation, described above, the specific meaning of the word kyrios in this instance is not the most important point; rather, it is that Elizabeth considered Mary to be the mother of the one to whom she was referring, namely Jesus. Thus, Mary is truly the mother of Jesus. Accordingly, the term Theotokos is proper and fitting to Mary because, since Jesus is God and she is his mother, she is truly the “God-bearer,” and this phrase is essentially synonymous with the title “Mother of God.” The roots of the title Theotokos go even deeper, however; it is ultimately rooted in an explicit biblical use of the compounded term. As Catholic Bible scholar Brant Pitre explains,

 

Theotokos is a compound word that comes straight from the Bible… The Greek word for ‘God’ is theos, and the word “bearer” (Greek tokos) comes from the verb “to bear” (Greek tiktō). With this in mind, look closely again at the Gospel of Matthew: ‘A virgin shall conceive and bear (Greek tiktō) a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel,’ which means, God (Greek theos) with us. (Matthew 1:23)[17]

The compounding of these terms, drawn from the prophecy of Isaiah quoted by St. Matthew, was the basis of the official authorization of the title “Mother of God” for the Blessed Virgin by the Council of Ephesus in 431. St. Athanasius made this connection himself when he wrote:

 

Now the scope and character of Holy Scripture, as we have often said, is this — it contains a double account of the Saviour; that He was ever God, and is the Son, being the Father's Word and Radiance and Wisdom ; and that afterwards for us He took flesh of a Virgin, Mary Bearer of God , and was made man… but in fullness of the ages, He sent Him into the world, not that He might judge the world, but that the world by Him might be saved, and how it is written 'Behold, the Virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a Son, and they shall call his Name Emmanuel, which, being interpreted, is God with us Matthew 1:23.'[18]

From this evidence, it can be understood that, as the Mother of God, Mary was the “God-bearer,” bearing the person of Jesus just as a human mother bears her child – not as the source, creator or ultimate authority over them, but as their mother. The presumption that calling Mary the Mother of God will imply that she is the source of his divinity is equivalent to the early Mormon error and Islamic accusation that the conception of Jesus involved physical sexual relations between God and Mary, based on the use of Jesus’s title “Son of God.”[19] While the exact term Theotokos, like the term Trinity and like the biblical canon itself, cannot be found explicitly in Scripture, the roots of the title and its meaning certainly can.

The second misconception, concerning the singular divine personhood of Christ within the hypostatic union of divine and human natures, gives rise to the error that, as the Mother of God, Mary would necessarily be the mother of the whole Trinity, or that she could have been only the mother of his human or bodily nature. At the Council of Chalcedon, in 451 AD, the Church definitively declared, in correction of errors prevalent at the time, that Jesus is only one divine person – the Son of God – not a human person and a divine person at once, and in his person he has two natures which are both complete and in perfect union, namely a divine nature and a human nature. According to this definition, then, Mary cannot be the mother of a human person, nor can she be the mother of only a human or divine nature; rather, Jesus, as a singular divine person with two natures, is her Son. From this, it can also be concluded that Mary is not the mother of the Trinity as a whole, since Jesus is the Son of God who, while fully God in the Triune Godhead, is distinct from the Father and the Holy Spirit; Mary is the mother of only one person, Jesus the Son of God. The divine maternity of Mary so defined is the source of the historic veneration of Mary by the vast majority of Christians from apostolic times to the present; as the royal greeting of the archangel Gabriel at the Annunciation (Lk 1:28), as well as Mary’s promise in her Magnificat prayer that “from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed” (Lk 1:48), demonstrate, she, because of her Son, should be duly honored.

The biblical, historical and theological arguments for the divine maternity of Mary are sufficient to answer the most common objections to the use of the title “Mother of God,” as well as any other obstacles that may be brought up against it. While this title has been misunderstood at various times throughout history, its fundamental truth and importance must deter us from disregarding it or being afraid to cause scandal by openly proclaiming it. God chose to honor the faith of the Blessed Virgin by making her his mother, and so we as Christians should not disregard God’s providential plan. Like the other Marian doctrines, such as the Co-Redemptrix and Mediatrix, we must work to defend the doctrine of Mary as Mater Dei all the more rather than denying or ignoring these teachings to avoid facing the challenges of those for whom the teachings have not been properly explained.



[1] Tim Staples, “How can Mary be God’s Mother? Answering the top three objections to Mary as ‘Mother of God’,” at Catholic Answers (1 May 2008), at www.catholic.com.

[2] Staples, “How can Mary.”

[3] Trent Horn, “Why ‘Mother of God’ Matters,” at Catholic Answers (1 January 2018), at www.catholic.com.

[4] Horn, “Why ‘Mother of God’.”

[5] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 495, at St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church, www.scborromeo.org.

[6] Council of Ephesus, Epistle of Cyril to Nestorius Intelligo quosdam meæ (431), at New Advent, www.newadvent.org.

[7] Irenaeus of Lyons, Adversus haereses, 5, 19, 1, trans. Alexander Roberts and William Rambaut, Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, vol. 1, Irenaeus: Against Heresies (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature, 1885), at New Advent, www.newadvent.org, quoted in Jimmy Akin, The Fathers Know Best (El Cajon, CA: Catholic Answers Press, 2010), chap. 50, Mary, Mother of God, Kindle.

[8] Athanasius of Alexandria, Incarnation of the Word, The Faith of the Early Fathers, 3 volumes, ed. William Jurgens (Collegeville, Minn.: The Liturgical Press, 1970–1979), quoted in Jimmy Akin, The Fathers Know Best (El Cajon, CA: Catholic Answers Press, 2010), chap. 50, Mary, Mother of God, Kindle.

[9] Gregory of Nazianzen, Letter 101, trans. Luigi Gambro, Mary and the Fathers of the Church (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1999), 162.

[10] Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel according to John, 2 vols. (New York: Doubleday, 1965, 1970), 1:109, quoted in Brant Pitre, Jesus and the Jewish Roots of Mary (New York: Image, 2018), 28.

[11] Tim Staples, Behold Your Mother (El Cajon, CA: Catholic Answers Press, 2014), 23.

[12] Staples, Behold, 22.

[13] Brant Pitre, Jesus and the Jewish Roots of Mary (New York: Image, 2018), 62.

[14] Martin Luther, Luther's Works (Concordia Publishing House, 1968), 21:326.

[15] John Calvin, "Commentary on Luke 1:43", Harmony of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, at Christian Classics Ethereal Library, www.ccel.org.

[16] Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, III, q. 2, a. 11, ad. 3.

[17] Pitre, Jesus, 92.

[18] Athanasius of Alexandria, Against the Arians, trans. John Henry Newman and Archibald Robertson, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: Second Series, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, revised by Kevin Knight, vol. 4, Four Discourses Against the Arians (Athanasius) (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature, 1892), at New Advent, www.newadvent.org.

[19] Trent Horn, “Why ‘Mother of God’.”

Monday, December 28, 2020

Christmas with Tolkien

J.R.R. Tolkien is one of the most acclaimed writers of the 20th century. His works have sold millions of copies and been made into award-winning films which introduced many people living decades after Tolkien’s death, myself included, to his wonderful world. Those who are more familiar with his personal life, and particularly with his letters, will also know that not only was he an exceptional artist and brilliant scholar, but he was also a devout and even mystical Catholic. Along with experiencing an epiphanous vision of the Eucharist,[1] he also delivered one of the most beautiful explications of the Eucharist in history:

 

Out of the darkness of my life, so much frustrated, I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament. There you will find romance, glory, honour, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves upon earth.[2]

 

However, the connection between Tolkien and Christmas would not be an automatic connection even for many fans of Tolkien. Besides his Letters from Father Christmas, beautiful and thoughtful letters he wrote to his children, Christmas is not mentioned in any of his other works – or is it? In fact, there is a rather explicit and fascinating reference to the Birth of Our Lord in Tolkien’s famous essay, ‘On Fairy-Stories’. In this essay, which in itself includes some of Tolkien’s deepest theological insights and should also be required reading for all aspiring artists, particularly writers of fantasy fiction, Tolkien explains his original concept of eucatastrophe. Derived from Greek, Tolkien’s construction essentially means what he calls the “sudden joyous ‘turn’”,[3] that climactic moment in stories (most of all in fairy-stories, the “Consolation of the Happy Ending… its highest function”)[4] throughout history when all appears to be lost, when the good seems defeated and evil triumphant, but suddenly an unexpected “turn” occurs when the good achieves victory from a surprising source. As Tolkien explains, the eucatastrophe is deeply satisfying precisely because it points to the ultimate hope of “final victory”[5] – when Jesus’s enemies will be made His footstool (Mt 22:44 DRA), when death will be defeated at last and the world will be brought to justice and eternal joy by the promised salvation of God, the “Joy beyond the walls of the world” - the Evangelium.[6]

 

The connection with Christmas comes in during Tolkien’s discussion of this concept. Specifically, Tolkien states that “The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy.”[7] Using Tolkien’s definition for his coined term, this would mean that Christmas, the Birth of Christ, is the “sudden joyous turn” in the story of the human history – with victory coming from the “surprising source” of Christ Himself, the Son of God. Those familiar with the Gospel accounts of the Annunciation and the subsequent events of Jesus’s life during the pregnancy of the Blessed Virgin will see how Tolkien could make this statement. Jesus’s unborn life, like that of many children in our own time, was filled with many difficulties, as well as joys, from the sheer mystery and power of the Annunciation itself, when Mary “kept all these words, pondering them in her heart” (Lk 2:19), to the dilemma of St. Joseph, who thought “to put her away privately” (Mt 1:19) before the angel revealed to him the truth of Mary’s pregnancy, then to the joy of the Visitation when Mary’s cousin Elizabeth and her unborn child, St. John the Baptist, recognized the royalty of Mary and the divinity of Christ even before His birth, and finally in the ultimate climax of the arduous journey to Bethlehem, during which any number of dangers could have been met by the Holy Family, and then discovering that the time of Jesus’s birth was at hand, being forced to deliver Him in a cave used to keep animals and resting Him in a feeding trough. Yet, even through all this, the story which could have ended in tragedy instead revealed the fulfillment of the desires of all humanity for God to draw near to us, to wage war against the evils of the world through His divine and omnipotent love.

 

Tolkien, however, did not say only that the Nativity of Christ was the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation begun at the Annunciation – though that is true as well. Rather, he said that Christmas is the eucatastrophe of human history as a whole. Tolkien understood, like the Magi at Epiphany, that the coming of Christ meant not only the arrival of the prophesied Hebrew Messiah but the advent of Emmanuel, God With Us. This abridgement of the severance between God and humanity caused by sin was the longing not only of ancient Judaism, but of all world religions and of the deepest desires of the human heart. Enslaved to our passions and trapped within the inevitability of death and the loss of all that we treasure, humanity has known even before it became civilized that God alone can rescue us, that through reunion with Him “God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes: and death shall be no more, nor mourning, nor crying, nor sorrow shall be any more, for the former things are passed away.” (Rev 21:4)

 

Even beyond this connection, and leading from it, there is another and perhaps even more profound link between ‘On Fairy-Stories’ and Christmas. In Tolkien’s essay, he also introduces another largely original concept, namely sub-creation. Tolkien explains that all human art, the goal of which is to create something truly new and to do so out of love for the sake of the thing made – and of the things used to make, for “a good craftsman loves his materials”[8] - is an imitation of and participation in the divine creativity of God. As Tolkien explained, “we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.”[9] Because humans are made in the image of God, with a rational nature, we have the power to rearrange the materials of God’s Creation out of “delight[] with the work of [our] hands”,[10] just as God created ex nihilo and “saw that it was good” (Gn 1:10), and to do so in both a self-expressive and fundamentally gratuitous way, making purely out of love for the thing made and not for our own benefit. This is Art; however, Tolkien gives to it a new name, “sub-creation”, and by this he means that while our artistry is imitative of God’s creativity, we make only in a derivative way, using materials we did not make ourselves, whereas God’s Creation was wholly original and unprecedented, nor was any personal need or utility involved in God’s act of Creation and so it was even more so a work of pure love.

 

Using the perspective of subcreation, the connection with Christmas comes in when we see that God is analogous to an artist and Creation to a work of art. From Tolkien’s literary perspective, God can also be seen as the Divine Author of the great Story of Creation. A great difference exists, however, in the power of God to give to His world the capacity for secondary causality, for creatures to be truly autonomous and to act according to their own individualities and natures while still operating within God’s Providence, the overarching plot of the Story. This is even more clearly seen in humans, to whom God gave free will and a rational nature in image of His own nature as pure intellectual spirit (Jn 4:24). Because of this freedom, humans also have the power to reject God in preference for temporal goods and our own wills, and so the Fall took place in the Garden of Eden, when humanity closed itself to the love of God.

 

The true magnitude of the Fall has yet to be fully explored even through millennia of Judeo-Christian religion, but from the standpoint of sub-creation, we can see that, because humans are characters within the created story of history, what is essentially God’s “sub-created” world (meaning a Creation distinct from and beneath the reality of His own Being, just as our art is inferior to ourselves as artists), it is impossible for us to ever cross the divide between ourselves and God through our own power. After the Fall, when the ladder dropped by God’s grace from Heaven into His world was burned down by our sin, we as characters can no longer reach our Author by ourselves. Because of this, it was necessary for us that God as Author should enter His own story in order to fulfill our deepest longings and to accomplish his providential plan for us: to know our place in the Story, to know that we are made intentionally and lovingly by a personal Author, and to be raised up to union with Him. In Tolkien’s immortal words,

 

 There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation. To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath.[11]

 

In the light of Tolkien’s concepts of eucatastrophe and sub-creation, we can see Christmas from a new angle. Not only was Christmas the answer to all the prophetic hopes of the Hebrew people, as well as the spiritual longings for a Savior to rescue us from death, sin and the prospect of a potentially meaningless existence felt by all human persons, Christmas was and is still the accomplishment of an impossible miracle: the meeting between characters in a story and their own Author. No longer need we fear that the stories of our lives are simply disconnected series of coincidences resulting from a cosmic accident and the random confluence of human actions driven entirely by animalistic impulses. Now we can live in the certain hope that what we have all known to be true throughout history – that we are actors in a divine play, agents whose spirits reach beyond this world and can only be made whole by union with that which is greater than ourselves or anything we experience, the signs that express the One from whom all things come – is proclaimed to all the world.  



[1] J.R.R. Tolkien; Humphrey Carpenter and Christopher Tolkien (eds), The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2000), Letter 89.

[2] Tolkien, Letters, Letter 43.

[3] J.R.R. Tolkien, "On Fairy-Stories," in The Tolkien Reader (Great Britain: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1964), 86.

[4] Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” 85.

[5] Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” 86.

[6] Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” 86.

[7] Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” 88-89.

[8] 78.

[9] 75.

[10] 83.

[11] Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” 89.