Sunday, December 31, 2006

Out of Egypt

It has become common for Christians of a sort to say that family is not the meaning of the Christmas season; but of course, in at least some sense, it is: as today's feast bears witness. It's the Feast of the Holy Family. It's not one of the great solemnities of the universal Church, but it is an important celebration nonetheless. The entire human race is to some extent a family, however attenuated the ties may be; and the Word did not merely take on human form, he took on us, all of us, as his family. When we are born, we are not just born but familialized -- to use a horrible but needed neologism. We burst out into the world not merely as ourselves but as son or daughter, brother or sister, cousin or uncle or aunt. What is more, we burst out not merely as examples of our species but as members of the society of our species, and this is not a small part of being human. Christ did this with us, and the Holy Family is one of the most exquisite symbols of the Incarnation. When we say that God became man, or even that the Word became flesh, it's easy to lose ourselves in the apparent abstractness of it. We sometimes need to remind ourselves that part of the meaning of these phrases is that He became our distant cousin, by blood through Mary and by marriage through Joseph. That is solidarity in the strongest sense: that He threw in His lot with us as family.

While stuck at the airport yesterday, I read Anne Rice's Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt, and found it to be quite enjoyable. It's also a good book to review on the Feast of the Holy Family, because in great measure, this is a book about Christ as a member of the Holy Family, and all the complications that involved. I think it has a very good chance of taking its place with other fictional classics about the life of Christ, like Ben-Hur, The Robe, or The Silver Chalice. It is readable, engaging, and thoughtfully done.

An ongoing theme throughout the work is hiddenness. Christ is hidden from Herod in Egypt; His family works to hide his true nature from the world; and, perhaps more importantly, He is to some extent hidden from himself. As Rice puts it in her Author's Note:

I am certainly trying to be true to Paul when he said that Our Lord emptied himself for us, in that my character has emptied himself of his Divine awareness in order to suffer as a human being.

Thus the Christology of Christ the Lord is kenotic; however, as Rice insists, it is also thoroughly Chalcedonian. It's clear from the beginning that Jesus has what we might call, for lack of a better term, some vague inkling in the back of His mind of who He is, so it's not that He doesn't have His divine awareness in an absolute sense; Rice is very clear that He is God and Man from the start. Rather, the difficulty He struggles with is thinking this through given that He is human. At the beginning of the novel He has never thought it through (being only seven years old), and, when here and there He tries, He finds that He lacks the means of formulating it properly even to Himself. It's only as He interacts with His family and, bit by bit, uncovers the secrets of His past, which has been as much hidden from Him as it has been from the world. Because of this, the novel is in one sense perhaps even more about the Holy Family than it is about Christ; it is in one sense a story of the Holy Family from the perspective of Christ. Joseph, in particular, is well done, and this contributes greatly to the strength of the story, since Joseph plays a key role in Jesus's understanding of his place in the world; there is an impress of Joseph on Jesus's humanity, and it is artfully shown in some of the foreshadowing of later events in Christ's life.

There are some points about which one might quibble -- things one might have done differently; but I don't think any of them are important enough to bring to the fore. One of the interesting things about this work is that it is the expression of a sort of struggle, as all of Anne Rice's books have been. The Vampire books were all the expression of a struggle with being lost. This work is the beginning of her struggle with being found. The first is the struggle of a wanderer lost in a savage garden; the latter is the struggle of an athlete striving to run the good race. She is not wrong in saying that her life has led to this book; and if one's life is to lead to a book, this is a good one for it to be.

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