Re-learning mortality as gift

Last year, my father died on the day before Ash Wednesday. He was 85 years old, and he’d lived a wonderful, respectable Christian life, full of charity toward others, including prison ministry in his retirement. He’d enjoyed a fulfilling professional career, been a good friend to many, and was happily married for over 50 years to a wonderful woman with whom he’d raised a big, happy family. Letting go of this kind, funny, intelligent and loving man was hard and sad, but something about it also felt right. It was Dad’s time, and we’ll all have our time.

Ash Wednesday invites us all to reflect on “our time” – to remember that indeed our time approaches, even if still far off. We wear ashes on our foreheads to symbolize, as a recent NPR article put it, that we are all “dust-creatures”. There is an impermanence to our earthly lives that we must never forget, lest we fail to live lives of charity and love with every breath. Psalm 95 says, “If today you hear God’s voice/harden not your hearts,” for tomorrow, you may be gone. On Ash Wednesday we remember that we are dust, and to dust we shall return.

image source: University of Dayton

This isn’t meant to be a downer, or a macabre fixation on death. Admittedly, life is good, but you can have too much of a good thing. And then the good thing becomes less good. J.R.R. Tolkien, in his Middle-Earth mythology, portrayed the immortal Elves as distinctly sad in character, because their immortality dooms them to watch their numinous race “dwindle to a rustic folk of dell and cave, slowly to forget and to be forgotten.” (Fellowship of the Ring, 356) But “Men” (that is, humans) in Middle-Earth have been given a special gift by Illúvatar (the God of all in Tolkien’s mythology), which the Elves have not:

“It is one with this gift of freedom that the children of Men dwell only a short space in the world alive, and are not bound to it, and depart soon whither the Elves know not. Whereas the Elves remain until the end of days, and their love of the Earth and all the world is more single and more poignant therefore, and as the years lengthen ever more sorrowful. For the Elves die not till the world dies […] But the sons of Men die indeed, and leave the world; wherefore they are called the Guests, or the Strangers. Death is their fate, the gift of Illúvatar, which as Time wears even the Powers shall envy. But Melkor [Tolkien’s Satan figure] has cast his shadow upon it, and confounded it with darkness, and brought forth evil out of good, and fear out of hope.” (Tolkien, The Silmarillion, 42)

The above passage is a great example of an important aspect of fantasy literature: it helps us recover realities that grow distorted in our vision over time. Tolkien said stories help us “to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity – from possessiveness.” (“On Fairy-Stories,” 373) The Melkors of the world have cast their shadow upon the fact that we’re all going to die someday – have confounded “our time” of passing with darkness, causing us to fear it as something evil. But Tolkien’s mythology helps us re-learn our mortality as a gift from God, as a chance to live heroically in this life while we can, rather than linger indefinitely, watching ages come and go like the lugubrious Elves. Life, it reminds us, is a limited-time offer – a chance at which we must jump.

When one has lived in this way – jumping at every chance life gives to follow Christ – then we are able to make a good end, when it is our time. Another fantasy author, J.K. Rowling, presents three options for how we might face death in “The Tale of the Three Brothers” (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, chapter 21), recovering, in the example of the third brother, the notion of death as friend instead of as enemy. The oldest brother tries to “conquer” Death; his lust for power is his downfall, and Death takes him “for his own.” The second brother lives in unending longing for one he has lost to Death; his sorrow is his own undoing, and Death takes him as well. But the third brother wears a cloak which hides him from Death – not unlike that cloak of grace with which we are clothed in Christ. This cloak hides the third brother from death until he is old. When his time comes, he passes the cloak to his son, “And he greeted Death as an old friend, and went with him gladly.” (409)

image source: Carol’s Notebook

Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent by reminding us that one day, death with come for us. With this reminder comes an invitation to live, clothed in Christ, so that we may one day greet death like a friend.

Harry Potter and the Christ-Child

As Christians in the West celebrate the great feast of Christmas (and our Eastern friends make their preparations), let’s take a look at some ways in which the Harry Potter books draw upon Christmas traditions – and especially that of the Christ-Child –  to shape and inform their titular character: Harry Potter, The Boy Who Lived.

First we must examine young Harry’s name. While J.K. Rowling often claims she chose the name simply because she liked it, Harry is a nickname for Henry, which means “estate ruler,” and fittingly holds royal, even divine associations (there’s a reason Princess Diana and Prince Charles chose the name Henry for their son (aka Prince Harry), as opposed to, you know, Neville).

Of course, another divinely-associated title for “estate ruler” is “Lord.” Jesus’ name means “the Lord saves/helps”, and besides “Christ” or “Messiah”, “Lord” was one of the earliest titles associated with Jesus; the phrase “Jesus is Lord” was the most succinct of early Christian creedal affirmations, used to identify Christians from non-Christians in times of persecution. For as St. Paul says to the Romans, “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (10:9) Even aside from Harry’s surname “Potter” (a metaphor for the way God in which God shapes and molds our lives in Isaiah 64:8), Harry’s given name is our first pointer to the Messianic quality of his character in the story.

But we must also look to Harry’s mother’s name: Lily, a flower bearing strong associations with Mary, as it symbolizes purity. (See Beatrice Groves’ writings at The Leaky Cauldron for more on plant lore in Harry Potter.) For this reason, in many depictions of the Annunciation, the angel Gabriel is often shown, as in this John William Waterhouse painting, handing Mary a lily as he greets her: “Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you.” Just as Mary bears the looked-for “Lord”, or leader who will save Israel from sin and death, so Lily Evans Potter bears Harry, who will save his people from death at the hands of the wizarding world’s great enemy, Voldemort.

But Harry’s Christ-Child similarities don’t stop there. Just as Jesus’ birth was surrounded by prophecies, oracles and angelic pronouncements, Harry’s birth was also foretold in prophetic fashion. In the Gospel of Luke, after Jesus is born, some “wise men” (also called “magi” – that is, ancient magicians and astrologers) “came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’” (2: 1b-2) This frightened King Herod, who saw the infant Jesus as a threat to his power and sought to destroy him. Like the wise men’s pronouncement, the prophecy about Harry (“Born to those who have thrice defied him, born as the seventh month dies…” (OOTP, 841)) proved a threat to Voldemort, who then attempted to murder the child to prevent his rise to power. Consequently, the prophecies surrounding their children put both Jesus’ and Harry’s parents on the run from the enemy.

But maybe it’s a coincidence. After all, Joseph Campbell and others have pointed out that prophecies and oracles surrounding a hero’s birth, making him a “despised child” who has enemies from his start, are common features of various heroes in many of the world’s folkoric tales.

But Harry’s story bears another striking resemblance to that of the Christ-Child, this one more subtle, in the narrative presence of Neville Longbottom. Trelawney’s first prophecy, as it happens, could have pertained to two children, both born “as the seventh month dies”: Harry or Neville. For reasons that are not clear, Voldemort decides to go after Harry, but Neville plays a key role as one who both mirrors Harry’s life and prompts and supports Harry’s life-long mission against evil: from losing his Remembrall (which Harry must heroically retrieve from Malfoy) in Book 1 to his role in Book 7 as “substitute Harry,” leading Dumbledore’s Army in Harry’s absence from Hogwarts, to killing Nagini at Harry’s request while Harry is presumed dead. The Christ-Child also has a “twin,” as it were, in his cousin, John the Baptist, the only Biblical figure besides Jesus and Mary with his own solemnity in the Church’s liturgical calendar. John’s birth six months prior to Jesus’ acts as an important forerunner to the coming of the Christ. Thus it is significant that Neville’s birth also precedes Harry’s, even if by only one day. And like Neville, John is never the focus of the story, but hovers on the margins of the narrative, pointing with great faithfulness to the one who will save his people.

(And if you’re really interested in Neville, check out this piece I wrote for Hogwarts Professor on other Biblical ways of interpreting his character and actions.)

But our pay off, in terms of Harry’s Christ-Child connections, comes when Harry is a no longer a baby. At age 11, he steps into Mr. Ollivander’s wand shop to select and purchase his first wand, which as we all know, actually “chooses” him. Interestingly, Mr. Ollivander doesn’t say much about the type of wood – holly – out of which Harry’s new wand is made, only that the Phoenix feather inside it connects Harry to Voldemort. He also reveals that Voldemort’s wand is made of yew, and this sets up a symbolic foil. While Harry’s wand is made of wood from the holly tree, a plant long associated with Christmas, Voldemort’s wand casing is of yew, another tree with red berries. Unlike holly, yew trees are extremely long-lived and toxic, giving them a folkloric association with death.

photo via West Fargo Pioneer

The symbolic key becomes the divergent wand woods, which symbolize the different approaches Harry and his nemesis take to the problem of mortality. Voldemort’s approach to the problem of mortality, symbolized by his yew wand, is toxicity to others – killing and controlling in the hopes of extending his own life. But Harry’s holly wand, with its Christmas associations, points to the Incarnation, in which God comes down to us. In the Christ-Child, God takes our own fragility onto himself, identifying with us in our every human experience (except sin), showing us through his self-sacrificing love what it really means to be human: not to strive for physical immortality, but to live well in this world so as to live forever, through God’s grace, in the next.

Pottermore, J.K. Rowling’s catch-all website for Potter backstory and lore, says “holly wands often choose owners who are engaged in some dangerous and often spiritual quest.” Both are true for Harry Potter, who is what Campbell calls one of those “universal heroes” like Jesus, who bring a message for all the world. At Christmas, that message is peace.

A very Happy Christmas to you and yours!