Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Mary, Undoer of Knots - The Annunciation and the Destruction of the Ring

March 25th is a date which carries a particularly heavy load in terms of Christian tradition of scriptural events. Aside from being the supposed date of the Annunciation (9 months before Christmas day), it is also the date assigned to the Crucifixion, the creation of Adam, the fall of Lucifer, the passing of Israel through the Red Sea and the immolation of Isaac.

Clearly, these are best seen in a symbolic sense for the light which they cast upon each other, rather than getting caught up in overly literal questions about how we can possibly know when these events happened. But we should be wary of making the opposite error of thinking - that it doesn't matter what the date of the event is. 

In the Spirit of the Liturgy, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger reminds us that redemption happened within time and space, the great became the small, eternity intersected time, and thus many consequences flow from this. For instance, we talk about the orientation of buildings, which situates and locates them in space in relation to the four directions. But how often do we remember that the word 'orientation' literally means 'easting', which came from the way in which church buildings were built facing east towards the direction of the rising sun as a symbol of salvation. Just as important are the dates of the Church year around which the liturgy is built, and which tell a story of salvation in time.

So dates matter. Tolkien spent a great deal of time making his calendar for the events of the Lord of the Rings accurate, even working out what the phases of the moon would have been. It mattered to him to put the date of the destruction of the Ring as the date of the incarnation/crucifixion.

It matters that the undoing of the knot of sin created by Eve would be undone in time by the free choice of the New Eve just as the undoing of the evil created by Sauron would be effected by (the non-choice of) Frodo. 

Frodo couldn't accomplish the task alone – he needed Sam at times to carry him, but more than this he actively renounces it – he says “I do not choose to do this” – and the deed of destroying the ring is done by the final evil deed of Gollum who bites off the ring and falls into the pit. In Tolkien’s sub-created world situated before the incarnation Frodo is a kind of shadow of Mary.

 Mary's free choice to be the God-bearer undoes the evil created by the original disobedience, which contrasts with Frodo’s non-choice, a final inability to perform the act of destruction, perhaps because of the harm inflicted upon him by the wearing of the Ring. The lesson is clear - Frodo is not the God-man, and thus the power to undo such great evil is not within his ability. However, events themselves conspire to produce the intended result anyway, a clear signal of the way in which fate works in Tolkien. But in a masterful touch evil is destroyed by evil - the final evil grasping act of Gollum cancels out the greater evil of the Ring. 

To me, there seem to be clear echoes of one of the early versions of the doctrine of atonement here, where Christ acts as a kind of bait, taking upon himself evil, drawing evil to him in his powerlessness, and then destroying its power through his sacrifice. Evil is tricked through its own short-sightedness and inability to see beyond its own closed circle. In this way also, Gollum is so enslaved and blinded by his desire for the ring that he cannot see the pit into which he falls.

In the world of primary creation (our world) the knot of sin is undone through a gratuitous act of self-giving; grace freely given and freely accepted is what finally restores paradise.

In my next post I want to contrast this Christian path to redemption with ‘gnostic’ views within which knowledge frees humanity from the slavery of sin and ignorance.

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