Essay / Literature

When He Became a Child, the Affection Came

Francis Spufford wrote not long ago of “why, despite everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense.” The great paradoxes of the faith–incarnation and crucifixion–would seem to resist any attempt to “make sense” of them. But, if one best enters these mysteries bowed low in humility and wide-eyed in wonder, one might yet discern something of their inner logic, might even make some sense of them.

Witness Roger Lundin’s remarks in the closing pages of his most recent book, Beginning with the Word: Modern Literature and the Question of Belief:

As we grow up, is it not the case that one of the most awkward, almost unimaginable things we can think of is the fact of our parents having bodily lives? As we become aware of our own bodies and learn to manage their functions, and as we grow into our sexual maturity and find ourselves driven by gusts of wonder, shame, longing, and confusion, we don’t really know what to make of the corresponding fullness of our parents’ lives. To parents, of course, the fact of a child’s bodily life and needs becomes readily apparent in the first minutes of their infants’ life. But how is it possible that our parents, in the fullest sense, have bodies that function and flail like our own? Or how could God ever have a body?

I have a deep love for Shakespeare’s King Lear, in good measure because of the great blend of tenderness and honesty the play shows in its treatment of parents and children. As a consequence of their own helplessness, both the Earl of Gloucester and King Lear become, in effect, their children’s children. And that is what both of my parents became to me at the end of their lives. As the sole-surviving child of their marriage, I felt a special sense of responsibility toward my mother and father. When my mother died in 1978, my father was largely incapacitated, and during his own final illness nine years later, I was the only remaining family member. So, in both cases, although I did not give regular physical care to my parents, I did serve as the primary spiritual guide and emotional touchstone for them.

Those extended experiences were filled with moments of unspeakable sadness and sweetness alike. Just as my mother and father had welcomed me into the world in a hospital room decades before, so was I now saying good-bye to them in a similar place. Just as I had been a helpless bundle of needs when I first saw the light, so too were they–once so strong and powerful–now utterly dependent on the care and mercy of others as they entered the darkness. I had always loved my parents and had tried, in my fallen and fitful ways, to honor them and make them proud. But I had never before known the feelings of brokenhearted affection and cherishing care that swept over me as I watched them slip away from me, and from the world, at last.

Several years later, I came across a letter that Emily Dickinson had written to a friend a few weeks after Emily’s mother had died. Emily and her sister Vinnie had shared the duties of caring for Mrs. Dickinson, whose body had been ravaged by a stroke. They had fed her, bathed her, and talked with her from morning to night for seven years. And now that she was dead, Emily offered both a confession and a revelation: “We were never intimate Mother and Children while she was our Mother–but Mines in the same Ground meet by tunneling and when she became our Child, the Affection came.”

That is another way of saying that when the “high supernal power” (in the words of Melville) of the nineteenth-century God comes to us in that “lowest form of love” that twentieth-century Christology celebrated, our intimacy with God may be restored, and our affection for him may return.

Lord knows (really, he does!) why so many of us fail to sympathize with our parents, finding in them foes and foils rather than friends. Lord knows (really, he does!) why so many of us discern in the face of God all that we dread, certain that God Almighty is ready to pounce. For this reason (and for a thousand other reasons, and for no reason at all), the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, that we might see the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, and that the affection might come.

May the humility of the Word become flesh provoke love for the Father this Christmas, in the coldest places of our hearts.

Glory to the newborn King!

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