HOW MADELEINE L’ENGLE HELPED ME APPRECIATE CHRISTMAS
By DARRYL TIPPENS
The week before Christmas in 1999 Madeleine L’Engle, the author of the classic novel A Wrinkle in Time, lost her son, Bion. This was not the first, nor would it be the last, of the great sorrows endured by this gifted author. I caught a glimpse of her challenges when I met her a few months before Bion’s death. We met at Laity Lodge, the retreat center in the Texas Hill Country, where we had been invited to direct a weekend retreat together. What a memorable weekend it was for me.
It was obvious from the beginning that Madeleine, who was 80 at the time and suffering from osteoporosis, moved about with difficulty. Yet despite her physical challenges, she conveyed a radiant energy and joyous spirit. I was in awe of this towering literary hero, not only the author of A Wrinkle in Time, with 16 million copies in print in 30 different languages, but also the genius behind sixty other books of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Whatever pride she may have felt in her literary achievements was hidden by her warmth and graciousness. It was only later that I came to see a mysterious connection between her deep spiritual wisdom and her life-long challenges.
A familiar theme in L’Engle’s works is the surprising proximity of darkness and light, of suffering and joy. Her father, returning from World War I, was emotionally remote. As a young girl, her parents left her abruptly at a boarding school in Switzerland, without a goodbye: “I shook hands with the matron, and they vanished,” she said. Yet out of deep feelings of abandonment, in time her creative spirit blossomed, leading her to become one of the most imaginative writers of the 20th century. “I think that my characters came to me because I didn’t have any family, and I wanted to have a family, and it was the only way I could get it,” she confessed in an interview.
Disappointment appeared in other ways when she tried to get published. While the world now celebrates A Wrinkle in Time as a masterpiece, the editors she approached disliked it. “There isn’t quite enough story value,” said one. “It’s too damn long,” said another. After 26 rejections, finally a publisher took the risk, but warned her to expect a cool reception. Happily, the publisher was wrong; but success came at a cost. Her works provoked strong criticism. A Wrinkle was too religious! No, it was not religious enough! Particularly painful was the rejection by many Christians. She received hate mail, and Christian bookstores refused to sell her books. To this day, A Wrinkle in Time remains one of the most frequently banned books in the U.S.
L’Engle came to interpret her disappointment through the lens of faith. Her understanding that divine love can heal life’s sorrows is apparent in her understanding of Advent and Christmas. In the tradition of the biblical prophets and the birth narratives of Jesus, L’Engle recognized a double-edged, bittersweet quality in Advent and Christmas. Sorrow and joy are not opposite, but related threads in the story. Christmas joy is best understood against the backdrop of Israel’s sorrow and longing. After all, glad tidings are brought to people in need, not to the complacent and self-satisfied.
Some of the finest carols make the point that the Christ Child arrives at a particularly dark time: “In the bleak mid-winter, frosty wind made moan, earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone” (Christina Rossetti). Joseph and Mary’s homeland, we recall, was occupied by a brutal empire. Danger lurked. There is no room in the inn. The Christmas manger gives way to the holy family fleeing like refugees to escape a murderous tyrant.
God acts when things are bad, not just when they’re rosy. In her poem “First Coming,” Madeleine L’Engle weaves together the paradoxical threads of Advent and Nativity.
He did not wait till the world was ready,
till men and nations were at peace.
He came when Heavens were unsteady,
and prisoners cried out for release.
He did not wait for the perfect time.
He came down when the need was deep and great.
He dined with sinners in all their grime,
turned water into wine. He did not wait
till hearts were pure. In joy he came
to a tarnished world of sin and doubt.
To a world like ours, of anguished shame
he came, and his Light would not go out.
He came to a world which did not mesh,
to heal its tangles, shield its scorn.
In the mystery of the Word made Flesh
the Maker of the stars was born.
We cannot wait till the world is sane
to raise our songs with joyful voice,
for to share our grief, to touch our pain,
He came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!
L’Engle is on point. The world doesn’t “mesh.” Good news comes when “the need [is] deep and great.” As I see it, “Jingle Bells” is just fine, but we should leave room for Elvis’s “Blue Christmas” too (“And when those blue snowflakes start fallin’/ That’s when those blue memories start callin’ ….)
L’Engle expresses the paradoxical quality of the season in another fine poem, “The Risk of Birth, Christmas, 1973”:
This is no time for a child to be born,
With the earth betrayed by war and hate
And a comet slashing the sky to warn
That time runs out and the sun burns late.
That was no time for a child to be born,
In a land in the crushing grip of Rome;
Honor and truth were trampled by scorn—
Yet here did the Savior make his home.
When is the time for love to be born?
The inn is full on the planet earth,
And by a comet the sky is torn—
Yet Love still takes the risk of birth.
If 1973 was a year when the earth was “betrayed by war and hate,” if “honor and truth were trampled by scorn” back then, what would L’Engle say about our times? She provides an answer when she declares: “Yet here did the Savior make his home.” The message of hope rings joyously true today, especially in broken times, just as it rang true 2,000 years ago, and just as it did in the late 20th century when L’Engle was composing her novels, essays, and poems.
Madeleine L’Engle learned the paradoxical truth that light shines brightest in the darkness from her study of Scripture and from her own experiences—in the emotional abandonment of her father, in the rejection by numerous publishers, in the rude treatment of fellow believers, in her chronic illnesses, and in the deaths of her son and husband. Even so, in the coming of the Christ Child, God’s love ultimately wins: “Yet here did the Savior make his home …. Yet Love still takes the risk of birth.” “He came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!
Darryl Tippens is retired University Distinguished Scholar at Abilene Christian University.