Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree
and ran away to where
there were no rootless Christmas trees
hung with candycanes and breakable stars.
Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree
and softly stole away into
some anonymous Mary’s womb again
where in the darkest night
of everybody’s anonymous soul
He awaits again
the very craziest
of Second Comings.
Those are the first and last stanzas of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s poem, “Christ Climbed Down.”1 The poet’s understanding of a particular (and peculiar) dogma may have been off — the “Immaculate Conception” doctrine refers to the conception of Mary, not to that of Jesus Christ — but that’s not the worst of his heterodoxies, at least from broadly accepted Christian perspectives. For many Christians, the implication that the more important birth of Christ is that which he awaits “in the darkest night of everybody’s anonymous soul” is something one might expect to hear from an incorrigible heretic — from, say, a Quaker.
Our Quaker tradition reads stories in scripture as pointers to inward events. In a Quaker reading of the annunciation narrative,2 each of us is an anonymous Mary in whose dark heart-womb the seed Christ abides. Christ, the seed promised to Abraham3 and the image — Gk. eikōn — of God-who-is-love,4 is the promise, or “principle,” of divine life, waiting within to re-animate us with its own life and thus to be born into the world. But, as Isaac Penington has warned us, that living seed is easily missed or rejected.
For though this principle be all life, yet it is at first but as a seed, and the appearance of the Lord in it is but as in a seed; very little, low, weak, hard to be discerned, easy to be overlooked and despised, and some greater and more undeniable appearance expected.5
We don’t recognize the seed because we don’t expect to find the most powerful truth of our lives in something small and frail, almost invisible, apparently worthless or even undesirable. Our expectation is that a divine epiphany will be awe-inspiring and self-validating. But a tiny, seemingly powerless seed of sacrificial love? Not what we’re looking for.
Yet that despised seed, covered by our inner darkness, is the “secret virtue [i.e., hidden power for good] and stirring of the life in [the] heart.”6 And when at last we feel that seed; and when, understanding its nature and offer, we respond with our “fiat,”7 allowing it to grow to fullness in us: then is the birth of God in human flesh — in our flesh. Then is the coming of Christ in power,8 “the very craziest of Second Comings.”
It is the seed of God, and it is the very nature of God; and [a person] in whom it springs, and who is gathered into it, born of it, and one with it, partakes of the divine nature. Peter speaks of the great and precious promises, whereby the saints are made partakers of the divine nature. All the promises are to the seed of promise, to Christ the Son of God, to the seed of God, to the heirs of life and salvation in Christ; and they are all fulfilled to them, and enjoyed by them, who are ingrafted into, and one with Christ, the seed; which cannot be, but by the grace, by the truth, by the light, life, Spirit, and power, which he sows in the heart; which are not many things, but all contained and comprehended in the one seed.9
Earlier generations of Quakers, perhaps more attuned than we are to that living inward promise, refused to erect “rootless Christmas trees,” symbols of spiritual rootlessness resulting from our ignoring or despising the life of kenotic love glimmering in the depths of our hearts. And of course they refused to erect crosses and crèches, which divert our gaze from the living icon of love, the inner Christ, to physical and conceptual idols.10 As Jean-Luc Marion tells us, the idol stops our gaze at itself, occluding the horizon, and then, mirror-like, returns our gaze to us in a spiritual narcissism; but the icon inverts that process: in the icon, the invisible “opens in a face that gazes at our gazes in order to summon them to its depth.”11 Christ, the seed of love in the heart, is “the eikōn of the invisible God.” Through that divine image, the invisible power and nature of God engages us and changes us into that which we behold,12 so that we may become the eikōn of love for others.
Therefore we direct our attention not to an idol-symbol but to the living icon, the seed of God, the small stirring of love in our hearts. Sensing and consenting to the seed’s quickening in our spiritual wombs, we become Theotokoi, God-bearers — truly an “Immaculate Reconception.”13 May our Advent, the season in which we can only acknowledge our longing for the saving birth of love in and through us, come swiftly to its end: may Christ take flesh in us today. May this be the Christmas day on which we say,
Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree.
(This is a revision of a post originally published on December 24, 2009.)
1. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, A Coney Island of the Mind (New Directions, 1958), 69-70.
2. Luke 1:26-38.
3. Galatians 3:16.
4. Colossians 1:15 (“Hos estin eikōn tou theo tou aoratou”: “[He] who is the image of the invisible God”). For God as love, see 1 John.
5. Isaac Penington, “Concerning God’s Seeking Out His Israel” (1663).
6. Isaac Penington, “To All Such That Complain That They Want Power” (1661).
7. In the Latin (Vulgate) translation of Luke 1:38, Mary responds to the angel’s announcement by saying, “Fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum,” “Be it done to me according to your word.”
8. See, for example, Matthew 24:27.
9. Isaac Penington, “The Seed of God and of His Kingdom” (undated). The “very nature of God” is love: see Penington’s “Concerning Love.”]
10. “Idol”: “A form or appearance visible but without substance” — Merriam-Webster Online.
11. Jean-Luc Marion, God Without Being (University of Chicago Press, 1995), p. 19. See also p. 26. Here, from page 21, is Marion’s translation of “an astonishing sequence from Saint Paul,” 2 Corinthians 3:18: “We all, with face unveiled and revealed, serving as optical mirror to reflect the glory of the Lord, we are transformed in and according to his icon [eikona], passing from glory to glory, according to the spirit of the Lord.”
12. “The invisible power and nature of God”: see Romans 1:20. “Change us into that which we behold”: see 2 Cor. 3:18 (translated by Marion in Note 11, above).
13. In a Quaker context context, the phrase “immaculate reconception” can refer not only to the human heart’s rebirth in the Christ-spirit but also to the reconception of Christianity, as in William Penn’s phrase “primitive Christianity revived,” in terms of what Friends believed was its original faith and practice.