“The Gifts of the Christ Child” by George MacDonald is the third book of our Literary Lenten Book Club. In this process of exploring literature during Lent, we’ll ask ourselves first, how did the main character(s) encounter transcendence? and second, how did he respond?
To chasten, according to Merriam-Webster, means to discipline, to correct by punishment or suffering; to purify, to prune of excess, pretense, or falsity, to refine; and to cause to be more humble or restrained. In “The Gifts of the Christ Child” by George MacDonald, this word become an important foundation to the entire story. Sophy, who calls herself Phosy, and the purity of her love will be the mechanisms on which the action pivots.
In her childlike logic, she prayers that the Lord would chasten her, for whomever He loves, He chastens. MacDonald tells us right away her life has held suffering and lament, if she only knew how she had suffered.
MacDonald steps back to tell us the story.
Sophy is pure, innocent, and neglected. Her virtues and attributes go unseen. It is not she who will change in this story but those whose lives work around hers in the periphery. She is neglected and she sees them move in and out of view, but they never see her.
Her mother died, but her father did not grieve too terribly. He remarried an immature woman for the odd selfish end of forming her character to be as his , to make her in his own image. Augustus’ fall from an interesting man to a man who has given up on life is summed up thus,
“He had given up reading poetry.”
The man who once read poetry and stops has stopped living. The interest in business, the disbelief in an ideal, takes away his ability to be present and delight in the moment. This, of course, is exactly what we encounter in children. Good material and fortune, in the absence of delight, erodes the spiritual side of himself.
Then we have their servant, Alice, whose poetry is John, the man she loves. In the face of good fortune, she wholeheartedly embraces the pride of position and rejects John, who appears to us a good man, in all respects.
This is the story.
George MacDonald (10 December 1824 – 18 September 1905) was a Scottish author, poet and Christian minister. He was a pioneering figure in the field of modern fantasy literature and the mentor of fellow writer Lewis Carroll. In addition to his fairy tales, MacDonald wrote several works of Christian theology, including several collections of sermons. He influenced C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkein for his ability to make real both the physical world and the spiritual or phantasmic world.
In Surprised by Joy, Lewis wrote,
“I saw the bright shadow coming out of the book into the real world and resting there, transforming all common things and yet itself unchanged. Or, more accurately, I saw the common things drawn into the bright shadow.”
It is on this plane that Macdonald brings us the transcendent.
Rather than a goblin or a fairy, we enter into the imagination of a lonely child who longs for love.
Modern readers often shudder at reading stories that involve the death of an infant. They are indeed the most heartbreaking. I recognize that. It is a common theme for MacDonald. The infant is innocent, an undeveloped character in the story of life, and yet our complexities and stories swirl around the loss of life, our hopes and dreams, our past traumas, and for the mother, the most primitive, integral love she can offer is intimately bound up in that child. When a mother loses a baby, she loses part of herself. When a father loses a baby, he loses part of himself. And so there may be no clearer way to see who we are than to see ourselves as broken open as we are in the sight of an infant who has died.
Macdonald, who himself knew sorrow in fatherhood, explores the power of redemption not just through suffering, but grief. The utter purity of Sophy’s love is a revelation of the love of God. She is almost not a true character at all, but some incarnation of God to reveal himself to Augustus and Alice, according to Jessica W. H. Lim, who explores Sophy’s role in “Sacramental Grief: Embracing the dead infant in George MacDonald’s short stories.”
The reader is carried along Sophy’s steps and actions. We know who she resembles as her halo and mantle are identified. We gasp with horror, the sobbing, revelatory horror of death when she cries, “Jesus is dead!” And if we have allowed our hearts this far into the story, we feel the light shine into the heart of Augustus as he folds Sophy into his arms. The moment of transcendence is neither remote, nor obscure, it comes brazenly into the lonely and longing hearts, hearts dulled by a life that seems to never change nor promise the ideals we once had, and a life of humility that idolizes prestige.
Through this, on this vertical plane, God makes himself known.
God is Love. Through this incarnate image of himself, this image of love in Sophy’s tender care and her unspeakable grief to discover the child is not alive, God reveals his father’s love for us. With a violent love, it breaks into the hearts of Augustus and Alice. Suffering and pain already exist in the world. The Lord need not send those. But it is through love itself, through the sight of love, the through love that burns in their hearts, that they know Him.
The scales drop from their eyes. They are transformed, loving and repentant.
It is an act of God, a miracle; it is the answer to a prayer.
Do you agree? Disagree? Have another thought to add? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.
Check back next week for our discussion on “The Death of Ivan Illych” by Leo Tolstoy.
For more information about our Literary Lenten Book Club and the schedule of readings click here.
For explore reflections from the first and second week, clink the links below:
- “The Old Man and the Sea” by Ernest Hemingway
- “The Enduring Chill” by Flannery O’Connor