I just finished teaching Susanna Clarke’s marvelous Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, and probably my favorite scene in that book comes in the third volume, at a moment when magic, after several hundred years of absence, is rapidly returning to England. Many think this portends the return of the greatest magician and greatest King in the history of Northern England, John Uskglass, the Raven King, who in the Middle Ages reigned for three hundred years before suddenly disappearing — and, it seems, taking the strength of English magic with him. As Mr. Norrell, his cynical companion Lascelles, and his manservant Childermass make their way from London to Yorkshire — the county of which Norrell and Childermass are natives, and to which Lascelles is a stranger — Lascelles declares that it might be time to launch a renewed attack, in a periodical for which he writes, on the Raven King, a new declaration of his pernicious influence. Then:
“If I were you, Mr Lascelles,” said Childermass, softly, “I would speak more guardedly. You are in the north now. In John Uskglass’s own country. Our towns and cities and abbeys were built by him. Our laws were made by him. He is in our minds and hearts and speech. Were it summer you would see a carpet of tiny flowers beneath every hedgerow, of a bluish-white colour. We call them John’s Farthings. When the weather is contrary and we have warm weather in winter or it rains in summer the country people say that John Uskglass is in love again and neglects his business. And when we are sure of something we say it is as safe as a pebble in John Uskglass’s pocket.”
Lascelles laughed. “Far be it from me, Mr Childermass, to disparage your quaint country sayings. But surely it is one thing to pay lip-service to one’s history and quite another to talk of bringing back a King who numbered Lucifer himself among his allies and overlords? No one wants that, do they? I mean apart from a few Johannites and madmen?”
“I am a North Englishman, Mr Lascelles,” said Childermass. “Nothing would please me better than that my King should come home. It is what I have wished for all my life.”
Among the most neglected biblical images — neglected in comparison to its importance — is that of the Return of the King. When your King has gone on progress, or for some other reason has left the kingdom or left the capital city, then you patiently but attentively await his return. You look for his appearance on the horizon and while you are waiting, you prepare the way of the Lord. You make a highway for him in the wilderness; you make the crooked places straight and the rough places plain; and then when you see him in the distance, you come out to meet him and escort him home. That’s how it’s done.
A failure to understand this essential practice is the primary cause of the wholly mistaken idea of the Rapture. Paul tells the Thessalonian church: “Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.” The assumption of Rapture theology is that when believers go up to meet the Lord in the air, he immediately does a 180 and heads back to heaven, taking them with him. But that’s not what the text says, because it wouldn’t make any sense. Why would he come halfway between heaven and earth only in order to turn around? He could just summon them to heaven if that’s where they’re meant to be going. But the faithful, patient believers are not meeting the Lord in the air so that they can then go to heaven with Him. They’re meeting the Lord in the air so they can escort him into his Kingdom, what will become the New Earth, with its capital the New Jerusalem, where he shall reign for ever and ever.
It’s in response to this story that N. T. Wright wrote a delightful little essay, “Jesus Is Coming – Plant a Tree!” You plant a tree because every tree that you plant is a token of faith in the New Creation, and a means of preparing for the New Earth. Christians don’t often think that way because they assume that the idea of the New Creation means that everything that currently exists will simply be destroyed and then God will start all over from scratch. But that can’t be the case, because the first fruit of the New Creation is the resurrected Lord Himself, and His resurrected body bears upon it the marks of his crucifixion. Therefore his resurrection body is a glorified body, yes, but continuous with the body that was born into this world, and that left this world by means of crucifixion. Indeed, a different body might be glorious, but not glorified.
When you look at matters in that light, then, if you are a Christian, you have a very specific reason to practice repair. Every act of repair is a means of preparing the way of the Lord. Every act of repair is a preparation for and a contribution to the New Creation. Every act of repair is a step towards the renewal of this broken world. And that’s what God intends to do — make all things new, not simply erase them, not simply delete them and start over ab initio. Make them new.
P.S. If you understand this practice of greeting the returning King, then you will grasp what may be the most important element in the story of the Prodigal Son: the fact that when the disconsolate, dissolute, and broken young man decides to come home and beg to be no more than a slave in his father’s house, his father sees him a long way off – and comes running to greet him, to escort him home. The son thinks that his sins make him worthy to be no more than a slave, and that may be, in the world’s accounting, a sound judgment. But that’s not how the Kingdom of Heaven works. In the upside-down logic of the Kingdom of Heaven, a righteous father sees his self-ruined son – sees him from a long way off — and runs as a slave might run to greet his Lord, seeing the young man not as a debauched sinner to be judged and found wanting, but as a cherished and beloved one in whose honor a great feast must be held.
P.P.S. Only after posting this did I remember that, three years ago, I wrote about the same passage from Clarke, but in the context of what Jung might have called the Shadow — tragic or farcical, it’s hard to say which — of this longing for the King.