The Christmas of Our Discontent

Posted on 2023-12-24
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This Christmas has a distinctive “Last Supper” vibe to it. Almost everyone I know believes we are at the very edge of starkly world-changing events in every aspect of society and culture. It is both striking and unsettling. I also believe it is right. We are like animals in the forest before a violent storm breaks: instinctively hunkering down.

I feel great empathy right now for people on every side of the divide in the Church. There are those who are terrified of any criticism of the Pope. There are others who think if the Pope fails in exercising or abuses his authority, he then forfeits all authority. As you know, I do not subscribe to either of these poles of thought. The truth, though, is that neither do most of the people involved in making these cases. What has happened is that we have developed certain shorthand formulas to express our belief in Christ. For some, the formula is to follow the Pope in all things, without reference to whether it is in his authority or is an abuse of his authority. The fear at the bottom of this is that, if he is ever wrong or abusive on anything, then the promises of Christ are not true. At the other end of the spectrum, some people think that if the Pope errs on anything, he is no longer Pope (or never was). The fear at the bottom of this is that, if error is allowed to stand for even a few weeks, the promises of Christ are not true.

The promises of Christ ARE true. It is our cozy little formulas to affirm them that are not. Much of the Christian world is in the same position as Job’s pious friends were. You remember? Those friends defended God against all complaints by Job that he did not deserve his misery, for he had done nothing wrong. In the end, God confirmed Job and was so angry at his pious friends’ formulaic piety that he would not accept those friends’ prayers – instructing them to go to Job and ask him to pray for them, for God would hear the prayers of that righteous, candid man.

I have said previously that I think the current controversies will lead to a much clearer definition of the extent of – and limitations on – any Pope and any Bishop’s authority. But part of that process will involve crushing all of our formulaic pieties – the many ways we try to force God into the formulas we, ourselves, have devised. Job’s pious friends insisted that God’s justice is always immediate rather than ultimate. God was wroth with their presumptuous delusion. As we struggle to find our way through these great crises, it will serve us well to avoid doubling down on our own seemingly pious delusions – that we might actually learn from our Master. God is always startling, fresh and new.

I know I will make some mistakes as I navigate these shoals: I have enough experience of the Lord rebuking me that I know it is how He teaches us. For some of you, God visibly smiting your delusions is going to come as a hard lesson. Fear not: it gets easier as time goes along.

For now, I will repeat a story I wrote on my pilgrimage, which is about another time of great strife and confusion – and how God completely confounded the expectations of both the world and the satan in setting things right anew:

The Pivot of Civilization

Satan was brooding.

Eons ago, when he seduced Adam and Eve, Satan had expected the Ancient to drop mankind as a failed experiment and put things back to normal. Instead, at the very moment of this first triumphant indictment of the worms, the Ancient set a grand, celestial dance into play. Though he could not divine its meaning, the devil was sure it boded him no good. Since then those fly-eaten curs the Ancient called His prophets had proclaimed that the stately dance of the stars heralded the coming of a Messiah, one who would redeem the Ancient’s people and nullify the consequences of the fall. Much as he loathed them, Satan assumed the prophets were right. They usually were. Oh, occasionally he had been able to manipulate their fears, their vanity, sometimes even their compassion to implant a false notion into their heads. But it was rarely long before they corrected themselves, so it was not nearly as effective in sowing confusion as he had hoped it would be.

No matter. Lucifer had recruited plenty of false prophets of his own – and they had sowed plenty of confusion. It was easy. The gullible fools the Ancient so doted on loved a fortune-teller – and loved a sensation even more. If anything, Satan was a master showman. He

Satan Brooding, Gusstave Dore
Satan Brooding, Gusstave Dore

filled his ‘prophets’ with much frothier pronouncements then the real things usually produced. He gave quick results, too. There was little waiting, wondering and contemplating required to understand what his men were getting at. Best of all, his ‘prophets’ were masters at telling the little fools what they wanted to believe. Even when he sent gloomy messages of doom (which he did quite often) it was not calculated to change men’s hearts, but to set them against each other. Oh, how quickly even the most pathetic of the creatures was willing to believe himself specially anointed and enlightened to seize power and ‘save’ his fellow creatures from themselves. But if the competing visions of the Ancient’s authentic prophets and Lucifer’s frothy frauds succeeded in clouding men’s minds, Satan was not deceived. He knew very well which were his servants and which, the Ancient’s.

Lucifer chuckled. He wondered if the Ancient really understood what valuable information he was able to glean from the authentic prophets. Since being evicted from eternity, he could no longer see the future or read men’s thoughts. It had not been as debilitating a handicap as it sounds. He was, after all, Satan, a master of inductive, deductive and yet six other forms of logic mankind had nary a clue of. Most of the fools were so transparent and slow-witted it was a trifle to know what they were going to think before they thought it; what they were going to do before they did it; even what they were going to eat for breakfast a month from today and what they would wear while eating it. That was usually enough to convince men of his power. If more was needed, that was almost as simple. Send a false prophet out to tell a man he will meet another eating a pomegranate while riding west on a camel at the crack of dawn tomorrow. Take another of the servants you possess, give him a pomegranate and set him riding west on a camel at the proper moment and voila! It was enough to deceive the devout for a time; it would invariably make disciples of the silly.

For every authentic prophet the Ancient sent, Lucifer sent a thousand frauds. It should have been enough to discredit prophecy altogether, yet somehow it didn’t. Men could not see the distinctive halos that surrounded the real prophets, so that couldn’t be it. Lucifer thought of a father calling out, “Son!” in a crowd of children. However many heads turned, the father’s actual son snapped to attention. The Ancient must have given them some similar rudimentary instinct that recognized His Voice.

But now, urgent business was at hand. The celestial dance was nearing its climactic moment. A Messiah was at hand – and Lucifer was determined to identify the family into which this redeemer would be born so he could strangle the brat in its cradle. He summoned the only demon with whom he regularly took counsel, Mordred, to consider the matter.

“What news, Mordred? Have any new candidates for mother of the redeemer popped up?” he asked.

“We think you are right, eminence. It will be Rebekah. The lineage is perfect and they are one of the foremost families in Jerusalem. I have personally confirmed that her husband, Josiah, is secretly a Maccabite who burns for the overthrow of the Roman overlords. They are the perfect family to produce a redeemer,” Mordred bowed, then continued. “I must tell you, however, that a particularly intense light has flared from the womb of Elizabeth. We have not seen its like since Elijah. It is an agony for any of us to get within a mile of her. Is it possible…”

“I know of it,” Satan interrupted. “It’s a good catch. But remember, the Ancient loves to mislead us into wasting time and effort chasing smoke. What you must do is learn to think as He does. He misleads us by putting emphasis on matters that cause us to misinterpret His intentions. But He never lies on matters not subject to interpretation. The Messiah must come from the line of David. Elizabeth’s kid will undoubtedly cause us a host of problems, but he is a Levite. He is not the one we seek. What about Rachel? You’re not ignoring her, are you? It would appeal to the Ancient’s warped sense of humor to have the redeemer proceed from the namesake of the weeping mother of the lost children of Israel. Never underestimate the Old One’s guile.”

Mordred considered. “We are watching her, master,” he assured Satan. “She is the most obvious alternate to Rebekah. But the light coming from her does not feel right. It has not the martial quality one would expect from one who would be king. That quality was quite pronounced in David, Moses…even Abraham. It just isn’t there with Rachel. We will keep watch on her, though, for any change. Wormtail has suggested there is another we should watch.”

“Who is it?” Lucifer asked. “Wormtail is a bit slow, but he has a real knack with these humans – perhaps for that very reason. I am interested in his thoughts.”

Mordred cleared his throat. “Well, he says we should keep an eye on Mary of Nazareth…”

Satan’s eyes widened in astonishment. “You mean the daughter of Joachim and Anne? She isn’t even married, much less pregnant. And the family is just a tattered remnant of the royal line.

“Yes, I know. But she has just been betrothed to Joseph, the carpenter. The Davidic lineage is solid,” Mordred replied.

Satan’s eyes remained wide. “The Davidic lineage is laughable,” he spat. “That branch of the family is the impoverished detritus of the royal line.”

“With deference, your eminence, that is true…’

“Can it with the deference,” Satan interrupted. “You know I rely on your candor to help me frame my thinking. Just don’t let the others get any ideas about assuming such liberties.”

“Well, my point is, look at the prophets. Almost every one has come from a broken, decrepit line. You said, yourself, how crafty the Ancient is. Our problem is we think too much along the lines men do…”

Mordred faltered. Satan was glaring at him with smoldering fury. “We do not think like they do. They think like we do – and getting them to do so was no little accomplishment,” Lucifer bellowed, then calmed himself. “I take your point, though. What you are missing is that, in this case, it works very much in our favor. The people will not follow a pauper.”

“But eminence, David the King was, himself, a poor shepherd boy,” Mordred rejoined.

“Irrelevant!” snapped Lucifer. “At the time the Hebrews were just a contentious rabble. The glories of Israel had not yet been established. They would have followed anyone who promised them a little order and a little glory. But now they are captives of the pride and vanity that glory brought. If David, himself, appeared now as a poor shepherd and claimed to be their king they would have him stoned to death. You might as well suggest Mary’s brat will be high priest.”

“But as you, yourself, noted, that actually is impossible,” Mordred protested. “They would have to be Levites…”

Again, Satan interrupted. “Precisely my point. We have co-opted most of the leadership, Mordred. Really, almost all are in bed with the Romans. More important, every one of the leaders would rather remain overseers of a captive people than mere citizens of a great nation. They will be savagely hostile to anything or anyone that threatens their position. I’m telling you, Mordred, it would be easier for a non-Levite to become high priest than for a pauper to become king of this bunch.”

Mordred bowed his head. “Very well, master, but there are some things about this Mary Wormtail thought you should know. We are both puzzled concerning her.”

Satan pondered his servant a moment, then nodded his consent for Mordred to continue.

“Well first (and even her own parents do not know this) it was she who approached Joseph and encouraged him to speak to her father,” Mordred began.

“Ho ho!” chortled Satan, “A bold wench, eh? Sounds like my kind of girl.”

“No, master, that is what is most strange. She is the very model of modesty. It was not lustiness that moved her to act, but…well…we’re not really sure what it was,” Mordred stammered. “I think it has something to do with the strange light that emanates from her. It is unlike anything we have ever encountered. It is soft, but incredibly intense – and forms a strange boundary around her we cannot cross. It has some of the characteristics of the light Adam and Eve originally had…”

“Why worry, then?” Lucifer asked. “Adam and Eve worked out quite nicely for us.”

“I said it has some of those qualities,” Mordred retorted, more tartly than he intended. “There is much more to it than that. It is not painful at all to us, but if we draw too near to her it’s like…well, it’s like we start to dissolve. Everything gets dark, and it’s so cold…oh, so cold. We are suddenly all alone. It feels that if we did not back away quickly we would dissolve into nothing.”

Mordred shuddered. Lucifer was not chuckling any more. The Dark Lord was finally gazing into the distance with real concern. He sat in silent contemplation, then shook himself and looked back up at Mordred.

“Okay. Keep an eye on her. She and any kid she has will be serious trouble for us. But the Messiah will not come from her – and that is where we need to keep our focus right now. I want you to stay on Rebekah and Rachel. Send Wormtail out to watch Mary. He has a knack with humans, particularly those that cannot ever be possessed,” Satan ordered.

“Is that the cause of the peculiar barrier around her? Doesn’t that make her even more likely to be the source of the Messiah, master?”

Satan sat in silent contemplation. Part of his punishment was to be confined to the normal flow of time. He could not ‘look ahead’ into human affairs anymore. Not that it made much difference. He was not supposed to ‘look ahead’ without leave of the Ancient even when he had been counted among the favored of the heavenly host. Doing so without leave was part of what got him cast down in the first place. But in his eagerness to identify the redeemer, the devil had tried mightily to slip the bonds of time and sneak a furtive peak. It had been a complete failure – and trying to enter eternity had been frighteningly like what his servant had just said it was like to approach Mary. This was bad. Very, very bad.

“I’m not sure what it means, Mordred,” Satan told his servant frankly. “This is something new. What it does not mean is that she will be mother of the Messiah. People do think as we have trained them now. I tell you, they would not accept a redeemer from that seedy branch of the family if the Ancient, Himself, came crawling out of her womb. She will certainly be a new and vexing sort of trouble for us, but we must identify the Messiah before worrying about her. If we don’t stop him all our plans could collapse. Send Wormtail to glean what he can. YOU stick to the plan.”

“As you command, eminence. Forgive me if I remind you that Wormtail prefers to be called Barnabas when on mission. He says it helps him blend in with them.”

Satan’s somber face was suddenly re-animated with rakish mirth. “Oh yes…helps him blend, does it? Oh my goodness, he is almost as foolish and vain as the worms he infiltrates. What he thinks is that it lends him dignity and stature. Well, Barnabas it is, then. We need his very best work on this.”

 

Gabriel paced restlessly. He thrummed with nervous energy.

“Why are you so worried, Gabriel?” Chloe asked him. “You have been sent to speak to men countless times before. You are the Father’s most trusted messenger. Who else did you think He would entrust with the most important message in human history? And why would it make you nervous?”

“That’s why I needed to see you,” Gabriel explained. “I am the chief messenger, but when I am sent it is always as Grand, High, Exalted, Mystic Delegate of the Mighty God. I puff myself up to my most intimidating stature, call up my most commanding, imperious voice, toss off a few “Thou shalts…” and “Thou shalt nots…” and am on my way. But this time I am to announce, to soothe, even to try to persuade if necessary – and with the woman who would be the mother of the Son, no less! You have been guardian to so many noble souls. How do you talk to them…I mean…like in normal conversation?”

“Why, like you talk to me, Gabriel,” Chloe replied. “How else would you go about it?”

“Now don’t have fun with me, Chloe. I know they will be greater than us after passing Guardian Angelthrough the cocoon of mortality, but we both know they are very slow-witted at this stage. How do you get through to them without scaring them?”

Chloe considered. “Well, yes, the best of them must contemplate the simplest concepts for years before they even begin to understand. They are easily distracted and really don’t listen very well. I often have to whisper the same thing over a thousand times to get them to hear me once. And that is the really good ones. So be patient and persistent, but very gentle. If you proceed in this manner, you will be startled at how much they can grow, even in that state. Trust me, if you keep at it, you will find yourself falling in love with them. I know I fell in love with the race long ago.”

“But how?” Gabriel asked. “It has to be maddening to cover the same ground over and over with them and still see them crawling off in the wrong direction. I have seen that too many times myself. I deliver a clear, compelling directive from the Father. They listen with awe, then go muddling off on some random tangent completely unrelated to God’s directive, while boasting bombastically that this is what God commanded them. How do you get through to them?”

Chloe considered, then smiled. “Tell me, Gabriel, have you ever closely watched a litter of puppies?”

“Why, yes, they’re adorable creatures. So brave and eager.”

“Ever tried to reason with them?” she pressed.

Gabriel opened his mouth to speak, then closed it again. Finally he grinned. “I take your meaning. But the thing is, people reason almost as poorly. They are forever crowing with triumph over some insight they have had today that will obviously bring disaster tomorrow, but they can’t see it until they’re surrounded with ashes.”

Chloe started to respond, but Gabriel pressed on. “I know, I know. They are formed in the Divine Image. He has even made them participants with Him in creation. He allowed me to see what some of them will be when they are here. They are breath-takingly magnificent. Chloe, I was never, not even for a moment, swayed by Lucifer’s resentment that creatures who are so feeble there should become so glorious here. But they are feeble there. They routinely butcher each other; and for what? Their sojourn there is as transient as an anthill before an oncoming tornado, yet they value nothing so much as being lord, for a moment, of the anthill. All their most elaborate schemes only further enfeeble them. Even our old companion, Lucifer, has a purpose in mind with his war on men: to preserve our race’s pre-eminence in heaven and restore himself to favored status. It is a bafflingly foolish purpose, given the abundance we enjoy. It is as silly as if you were to resent me for being a messenger or I, you, for being a guardian. But at least it is a purpose. Men on earth, though, march mindlessly and relentlessly to their own destruction. How many times would they have succeeded already without the Father’s intervention? And they cheer…they cheer the most mindless destructors while celebrating the most ignorant, blind bullies among them as models of wisdom and enlightenment.”

“Are you finished?” Chloe asked, an affectionate twinkle lighting her eyes.

The wounded wonder melted from Gabriel’s face. He twinkled right back at her and broke into a toothy grin. “I do like to talk out loud, don’t I?”

“To the delight of all of us, the Almighty included,” Chloe smiled.

“Yeah, I know. I’ve noticed the mirth behind his eyes when I start emoting. I do love how quickly I can make Him smile,” Gabriel observed brightly. “But my questions…I really need to know.”

“You’re always so transparently and urgently earnest, Gabe. What a lovely gift it is! Let’s go back to the image of the puppies for a moment. They start off blind and feeble. As they grow a little, they love to fight and scrabble. At that stage they are usually lumbering and clumsy. It is their eagerness that charms. Throw a stick and the clumsiest will fall all over itself to get it and bring it back to its master in exchange for a pat on the head. Their joy, eagerness and transparent need to have their affection returned melt all but the hardest hearts.

“Yes, people are slow and clumsy. They are capable of the most savage cruelty. But they are also capable of the most sublime love. Consider it: they are so blind even the best of them struggle to see beyond their little existence there. The fear that death is their end, that there is nothing else lurks like a snake in their hearts, ever ready to strike. Even so, all but the meanest of them will sacrifice himself to save one he loves. Think about that. It takes your breath away, given their infirmities. The best give their lives for others they have never even met. As plodding as they are, I suspect the Almighty has given them a capacity for love greater than our own – even in that plane of existence. And we both know that love is the fundamental essence of the Trinity.”

Color rose in Chloe’s cheeks as she continued. “I wonder if your grief over the rebellion of your old friend, Lucifer, isn’t obscuring your own vision a bit. His work is much more destructive to his own stated ends then you think. Forget, for a moment, his colossal presumption in seeking to correct what he believes to be God’s error in creating humanity. Every savage cruelty they visit on each other is inspired by him – every single one. He exploits every element of their frailty; their fear, their vanity, their greed. Sometimes he even exploits their love – and that is one of the meanest forms of blasphemy. He doesn’t understand love, Gabriel. Anyone capable of doing to poor humanity what he has done is not fit to be called angel, much less named Bringer of Light. It is himself he destroys in his war against them – and we are well rid of him.

“The Divine Image is imprinted in each man, but they can choose to embrace the satanic image. Some embrace Satan so eagerly it obscures all evidence of the divine imprint in them. But their cruelty, their savagery, can only be a pale reflection of the master they have chosen. When you see brutality what you really see is the true face of Lucifer – a face he went to great pains to slyly hide from you here. How piteously sorrowful it is to see men seduced into abandoning their birthright. It has taught me about hate. I loathe Lucifer and would not want him re-instated to the heavenly host if he abandoned his savagery right now.”

Chloe was shaking with emotion, her face entirely flushed. Gabriel was shocked. She was usually the most generous and gentle of the angelic host. After a few moments, she calmed and continued.

“The main thing that prepares me in working with people, Gabriel, is to keep firmly in mind both what they are and what they may be. Most of all, I keep my duty to them firmly in mind. Do not indulge their weakness when they need correction. Neither let their weakness frustrate you to the point of disgust. Your duty is to help them become the saints they are called to be.

“The ones who are in most danger fancy themselves giants among their fellows. It is hard to reach them. But take care; some who know their weakness puff themselves up in an effort to hide it. With patient resolve you can reach them. The true ones figure out early how little they are, but their love makes them tenacious. They grab hold of sanctity like a bulldog with a rag – and Satan’s most vicious efforts can’t tear it from them.

“You will fall in love with those who are true, Gabriel. They start with such handicaps and such enormous obstacles, but nothing stops them. They stumble, they fall, they go charging up random blind alleys. But they keep getting up and starting over again. They only stop to minister to others along their way – and they do that even when they have stumbled themselves. Somehow, they get outside of themselves and their frailties and have eyes only for God. They actually learn to see Him through their fellows. In some of these you will see tantalizing contours on earth of the glorious beings they will be in the Father’s house. I have learned so much about how powerful love really is from them. You will, too, Gabriel.”

The great archangel gazed at Chloe in fascinated wonder. He was dazzled by her earnest conviction. He thought carefully before he spoke.

“Well, it is but to Mary that I am sent,” he began. “If she says yes, she will be mother of the Son. She will become Queen of Heaven, itself, in the fullness of time. Oh, Chloe, this is the pivot of civilization, the critical moment of salvation history. How do I speak to her?”

“Why, Gabriel, use your personality,” Chloe said. “You know how you rally us here. Your bubbly enthusiasm, your little pranks; we have all seen the Almighty, Himself, laughing with delight at you. And your sensitive, delicate compassion. When you had me laughing myself to tears with your silly little stories after I lost Aminadab to Satan, did you think I didn’t know what you were doing? But it worked. I went on to my next assignment with joy in my heart. Let her see you, Gabriel. Yes, she is subject to the infirmities of her state, but remember – she is exempted from original sin. She is immaculate. If any of them could appreciate you as we do, it is Mary – if you let her see you, fully.”

“Maybe I should make myself small when I first appear so I don’t frighten her,” Gabriel suggested.

“No!” Chloe exclaimed. “You go to her in all the glorious majesty with which God has cloaked you. Hide nothing. I tell you; she will appreciate you as we do. She is full of grace.”

Gabriel went and was true.

The coppery taste of fear filled Mordred’s mouth. Now it sat cold and heavy, like a rock, in the pit of his stomach – and was just as indigestible.

Lucifer eyed his lieutenant with wary impatience. “Are you going to tell me what disaster has befallen us or just stand there gobbing air,” he asked.

Mordred stiffened. “Permission to speak candidly, master,” he said formally.

“Blazing infernos, you know that is what I demand of you. Ask again and you’ll earn a trip to the pits,” Satan replied furiously.

“Eminence, I think you should consider appearing at court to end this. Ask Yahweh’s pardon, I mean,” Mordred said, still stiff and formal despite his trembling.

“What?!!! You dare speak the Name here?” Satan roared. “I should send you to the pits to gather your wits before you address me again.”

Mordred remained stiffly at attention. Lucifer considered. Something must have terrified his lieutenant beyond reason for him to speak in this manner. Satan shifted uncomfortably. Truth is, he had not been invited to appear at court again since the business with Job. The Ancient had seemed rather put off with the intense, gleeful relish he had taken in afflicting the man. But what had He expected? If the Ancient had wanted him to make just a token effort, He shouldn’t have agreed to the wager in the first place. Besides, the Ancient had won the bet in a convincing and unexpected fashion, so what was the harm?

“What has gotten you into such a state?” Satan demanded. His tone was by no means kindly, but made clear that a trip to the pits was no longer among the possible consequences Mordred might face for candor.

Relaxing, Mordred explained. “I was so curious about the peculiar effect that the light emanating from Mary causes that I set myself in her path as she went to draw water from the village well. I figured if I was completely disabled when she came near enough, the effect would eventually pass as she drew away from me.”

Lucifer’s eyes glistened with malevolent curiosity. “What happened?”

“It was horrific, eminence. I melted into nothing. It was so dark and so cold…but that was not the worst of it. If I had just ceased to be, as many of these humans fear happens with death, that would have been bad, but bearable. I remained fully conscious, though. And all there was to be aware of was darkness and cold and despair and hopelessness. Thank God it lifted as she passed away from me.”

Satan glared balefully at that last comment.

“Sorry, master, you know what I mean,” Mordred continued. “I wondered, what if this is the logical end of our rebellion? What if all we accomplish is to consign ourselves to the same cold, despairing darkness we are trying to consign them to?”

“It is the logical end,” Satan responded, “…for them. Look, I was the Ancient’s favorite. All we are doing is demonstrating that these new pets of His are not worthy of Him – and certainly don’t deserve to rank higher than us in eternity. You know, yourself, that the Ancient, Himself, invited me to prove my point with Job.”

Mordred did not look at all mollified, but stood in silence.

“Out with it,” Satan commanded wearily. “Let’s put this completely to rest.”

Mordred stared at his own feet for a moment, then gathering himself, lifted his head and Saint-Georgesaid, “Begging your pardon, your grace, but the Ancient won the wager concerning Job. And you handled it yourself. You threw our very best stuff at him and lost. And in the process, four of his friends we had duped into thinking they were serving the Ancient while they were actually serving us were lost to us.”

Mordred waited for the blast he knew must come, but when Satan spoke it was almost gentle.

“That’s not the point. Yes, these humans sometimes show more reserves of strength and resiliency than I expect.” Satan waved his hand in the air and wiggled his fingers dismissively as he added, “The truth is, the matter with Job could have gone either way. The point is that the Ancient gave me leave to tempt and afflict him. What we do we do with the Ancient’s approval.”

“But what if the Ancient expected us to concede after that loss?” Mordred asked. “We keep getting deeper. Our temptations and afflictions keep getting more subtle and intense. What if we pass a point of no return? I don’t want to be alone in cold, darkness for all eternity. When was the last time you appeared at court?”

Lucifer was pleased that his visage showed no hint of how badly the last question stung. What he said was, “If we can destroy or seduce the Messiah or, even better, get mankind to reject him, then surely the Ancient will see that the whole business with humanity was a mistake. Then things will be put back to what they were. I assure you, Mordred, once I am restored to my rightful place as first in the Ancient’s favor, you will be first in my favor.”

Mordred pondered that. “Yes, eminence, but will you promise that if we fail this time, you will appear at court and ask pardon?”

Satan nodded. But what he thought was, “I will never take second place at table to these worms.”

 

Gabriel was overflowing with excitement. Joy bubbled out of him like water from a spring.

“Oh, Chloe, you cannot believe how magnificent some of these creatures can be!”

“Gabriel, I’m a guardian. It’s what I do. I have been working with them since the dawn of creation. I told you they would capture your heart.”

“But Mary of Nazareth…she was praying in a garden when I went to give her the message. I had thought and re-thought how to greet her and ended up just saying, ‘Hail, full of grace.’ She was startled as she looked up at me. I immediately wished I had come up with something more elegant. But after her initial surprise, I could feel what she was thinking. You won’t believe it. Take a guess,” Gabriel gushed.

Chloe suppressed the knowing smirk rising out of her and simply told the Messenger, “I can scarcely imagine…”

“She could sense I was nervous and wanted to make me comfortable…me, God’s chief messenger!” Gabriel exuded in wonder. “I fell for her right then and there. I explained everything to her. I was really eager to answer the barrage of questions I knew she would have. But you know what? She only asked one: how it would come about since she Gabriel and trumpethad taken a vow of perpetual virginity. I explained that to her and waited. All she said was, ‘I am the handmaiden of the Lord. Let it be done to me according to His word.’ That’s it. She didn’t ask how she was supposed to explain it to Joseph; she didn’t ask how she was supposed to avoid being stoned as an adulteress; she didn’t ask how to spare her family the shame of what it would appear to be. She just said, ‘Let it be done to me according to His word.’ I have spoken to white-bearded patriarchs who asked me dozens of questions and still didn’t get it right. But Mary of Nazareth…’Let it be done to me according to His word…” Gabriel mused in delighted wonder. “I just wish I had come up with a greeting that was more poetic, more worthy of her.”

“Why, Gabriel, you did better than you think,” Chloe replied. “Yes, ‘Hail, full of grace,’ is a bit stilted, but simply add her name and it takes on a lovely rhythm and describes her perfectly. It would not surprise me if, ‘Hail, Mary, full of grace,’ becomes the opening line of a beautiful prayer of thanksgiving that sounds throughout the ages.”

Gabriel was delighted. “That really does have a marvelous rhythm to it, doesn’t it?”

Chloe smiled. “And it is your greeting.”

“Oh, let me tell you about Joseph,” Gabriel said. “The Father had me stay near the family until all was accomplished. I figured I would have a hard time with Joseph. Sure enough, when Mary gave him the news he was shattered. I thought it would take weeks for him to get through the shock, hurt and self-pity enough so he would be able to hear me. But that very night, instead of wallowing in self-pity, he cried out, ‘O God, my God, what do You intend for me in this terrible situation?’ Can you believe it? I was able to speak to him right off in a dream. He understood, believed and rejoiced. How well the Father chose the people to whom He would entrust the Son, once He took on their humanity. I knew that Mary was Immaculate, but silent Joseph is nearly as wise as she. Though they are not as knowledgeable, I think these two may already be wiser than we are.”

“But the Son is not yet born,” Chloe objected. “I thought you were supposed to stay with them until all was accomplished.”

“Oh yes,” Gabriel answered brightly. “Once they set off on the road to Bethlehem all was accomplished until the time of the Nativity. A cohort of angels travels with them now. I will lead a band to announce the Son’s birth to some shepherds and others, then there are several things I will have to speak to Joseph and Mary about after the King is born. But I have a little break now to prepare. I’ve got to tell you what Mary did after she and Joseph were all settled about their Divine Charge…”

As with most of the heavenly host, Chloe had watched all that had happened, but she loved listening to Gabriel tell her how it had moved him.

“Mary heard that her cousin, Elizabeth, was pregnant,” Gabriel continued. “Knowing that Elizabeth was older (and how difficult a late in life pregnancy can be) Mary set off across the hill country to help her cousin through it. Astounding, isn’t it? In her own Annunciation she knows to leave the terrifying details to God. Then, hearing of Elizabeth, she knew to be an instrument through whom God would accomplish His purpose – all without being told. Are any of us in the heavenly host that full of grace?

“And, of course, it is the new Elijah, John the Baptist, that Elizabeth is pregnant with. So the first encounter between the Son and John was while both were still in the womb. John started kicking with joy the moment Mary entered the house, and God gave Elizabeth wisdom to know what this was. Then Mary began the most beautiful prayer I have ever heard with the words, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord…’ Oh, Chloe, that one sentence describes the unmistakable mark of all the varieties of authentic saints. Their souls do magnify the Lord, drawing the furious malice of those who are attached to the world or seduced by Lucifer; while giving hope to the broken, comfort to the afflicted, and new heart to the weary believers. She captured such profound truth in her opening words. You and I both know how terribly hard it is to capture even small profundities when constrained by language – and that is practically the only tool they have to communicate with each other.”

Gabriel was basking in the memory of it all and Chloe, in the contented glow radiating from Gabriel.

After a while Gabriel asked, “Do you think the Father will let me continue to visit with His servants rather than just carry commands? They are so delightful – and now I have seen the regal imprint of divinity that is in them, even in this state, when they bear it. Lucifer has gotten it all wrong. They are worthy heirs of the kingdom we are servants in. I want to help them and be their friend as they struggle to gain their inheritance.”

Chloe answered immediately. “Gabriel, you are a natural. I am sure the Father will send you to help many of His servants as He fulfills the Old Covenant and enters into the New. Just remember that they can abjure their inheritance, too, and go chasing after the paper and paste they think are riches in that world. When they scorn the precious gems and pearls that proceed from the Father in order to horde the worthless trinkets they think are riches, it will break your heart.”

“I know, Chloe, I have visited many such men over the millennia,” Gabriel responded sadly, “But now that I have seen up close what they can be, I want to help and know as many as the Father will send me to.

“You know, the only thing I will miss while the Son is there are the stories. The Father tells such wonderful stories, but He only tells them through the Son.”

“Why, Gabriel, your excitement has gotten the better of your wit,” Chloe exclaimed. “That is exactly what the Father is doing right now. This has got to be the greatest story ever told – and you are its opening act.”

Gabriel gaped at Chloe in astonished wonder. “It is, and I am, aren’t I? How abundantly the Lord has blessed His servant!”

Just then, an event in time caught the angels’ attention. A gentle plume of brilliant light bloomed in Bethlehem and grew to fill all the earth. The birds and beasts cooed and mooed in joy. The trees swayed in adoration. The winds sighed through the mountains in glad relief.

Gabriel looked from Bethlehem to Chloe and said, in hushed awe, “He is with them.”

“You better get moving, Gabriel. I believe you have some announcements to make,” Chloe smiled.

Nine months earlier, hell had gone on red alert.

Wormtail, who had been trailing Mary of Nazareth, had been badly hurt when it happened. The light was so powerful that both Mordred and Lucifer came rushing as near as they dared. It could only be an archangel. Lucifer recognized the glow at once as that of his former friend, Gabriel. Still, even Lucifer could not draw near an archangel without leave of the Ancient. To do so was to suffer unbearable agony – agony that lasted long after the encounter had ended.

“What does it mean, Eminence?” Mordred asked. “Is Mary to be mother of the Messiah, after all?”

“I don’t know,” Satan responded. “It could be a distraction to focus all our forces around Mary and miss our main chance. On the other hand, the Ancient never sends Gabriel unless He means business. Send five more demons to watch Mary until Wormtail recovers, but keep those that are on Rebekah and Rachel with them. Whatever this means, the time is at hand and I want at least three tails on every serious suspect.”

It was just a few more days before Satan knew exactly what Gabriel’s visit meant.

“Aiieeee!” he screamed as the Savior took root in Mary’s womb. “Is there no end to the Ancient’s trickery? He has come, Himself, in the person of the Son. We cannot touch Him.”

Sunrise in space

If communication goes out for any length of time, meet outside your local Church at 9 a.m. on Saturday mornings. Tell friends at Church now in case you can’t then. CORAC teams will be out looking for people to gather in and work with.

Find me on Twitter at @JohnstonPilgrim

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