Ms. Rice has produced yet another magnificent meditation on the Life of Christ. This book deals with the period just prior to the beginning of the public Ministry. As such, many of the incidents of the book are fictional recreations--meditations as it were on the Life of Christ in novel form.
While I really enjoyed, in fact, loved the first book, I greatly admire the skill and beauty of this second in the series. What Ms. Rice does with such aplomb is to give us a vision of the "second" side of Christ's sacrifice for us. In fact, she kind of opens our eyes to it. Christ not only did things for us, there were things He DID NOT do, all for us as well. And Ms. Rice deftly demonstrates the cost. For example, we have all read the word, "The foxes have their holes and the birds of the air have their nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head." What could this mean? Do we think He couldn't go to His mother's house and have a place to stay? Surely not. Then what are we to make of it? Anne Rice tells us--Jesus, though fully human and subject to all human desires, needs, and temptations, never takes a wife. This is NOT because He is not interested, but rather because it cannot be for reasons The DaVinci Code makes perfectly clear.
The book starts with a particularly ugly crowd incident in which two young boys are stoned to death because other boys accused them of homosexual involvement. Anne uses this to help us reflect on the fact that Jesus is a 30 year old man in a society that expects no bachelor uncles or unmarried men. This is a society that takes very seriously the Lord's injunction to "be fruitful and multiply and fill the Earth." And here is a man who will have nothing of it. What are we to make of Him? James, his step-brother makes it quite clear when he compares Jesus to these young boys.
Throughout the story, we see Jesus, now older and subject to the expectations and anticipations of the society in which He lives, defying that society in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. He isn't married. He doesn't join the young men in their march on Caesarea. He has an awful lot of female friends, etc.
As the story progresses, we approach events we all know and understand from the Gospels. Here Ms. Rice makes some choices the some may take exception to in the ordering of the miracles He performs, for example. She choses the Gospel of Matthew as the "spine" of her story and presents the chronology there with additions from John, etc. And for those who didn't care for "speculation" in the first book, they may still find something to object to here--but that goes with the realm of fiction.
But we should be very careful. While Anne Rice is not writing a biography of Jesus, she has written something more than a piece of fiction. This work is like an extended lectio, a writerly meditation on the Life of Christ which she shares with the whole world As such, it seeks an understanding of Jesus and of His interior life that is only possible through deep reading and reflection on what we already know and through prayer. In a sense, the book is a kind of prayer, and extended and extensive meditation on Jesus and coming to and understanding of who He is and just what His life means. As such, Ms. Rice has done more than a thousand scholarly dissertations can do for some of us. I have read countless faithful and faith-filled biographies of Jesus and have not encountered some of the insights that I derived from this book. For that, I owe deepest thanks and appreciation to Ms. Rice. She opened my eyes to a dimension I never really gave much thought to--the Life of Christ as ongoing and willing sacrifice to bring the world to God. In giving up the woman He has come to love because it does not fit into the scheme of what He must do, He shows the ideal man bringing His passions into alignment with God's will. Jesus lives not so much for Himself, but for every person He encounters (all of us).
Add to all of these features supple and controlled prose that occasionally approaches the poetic, and you have a superb novel. I marked out three passages as examples of simplicity and power:
(I don't think there are any spoilers/surprises here, but read at your own risk.)
from Christ the Lord: The Road to Cana
I held up my hands.
"We're made in His image, you and I," I said. "This is flesh, is it not? Am I not a man? Baptize me as you've done everyone else; do this, in the name of righteousness."
I went down into the water. I felt his hand on my left shoulder. I belt his fingers close on my neck. I saw nothing and felt nothing and heard nothing but the cool flooding water, and then slowly I came up out of it, and stood, shocked by the flood of sunlight.
The clouds above had shifted. The sound of beating wings filled my ears. I stared forward and saw across John's face the shadow of a dove moving upwards--and then I saw the bird itself rising into a great opening of deep blue sky and I heard a whisper against my ears, a whisper that penetrated the sound of the wings, as though a pair of lips had touched both ears at the same time, and as faint as it was, soft and secretive as it was, it seemed the edge of an immense echo.
This is my Son, this is my beloved.
All the riverbank had gone quiet.
Then noise. The old familiar noise. (pp. 176-177)
"Since you seem at best to be a sometime prophet," he went on in the same calm voice, my voice, "let me give you the picture. It was in a toll collector's tent that he breathed his last, and in a toll collector's arms, can you imagine, though his son sat nearby and your mother wept. And do you know how he spent his last few hours? Recounting to the toll collector and anyone else who happened to hear all he could remember of your birth--oh, you know the old song about the angel coming to your poor terrified mother, and the long trek to Bethlehem so that you might come howling into the world in the midst of the worst weather, and then the visit of the angels on high to shepherds, of all people, and those men. The Magi. He told the toll colleftor about their coming as well. And then he died, raving, you might say, only softly so. (p. 187)
I heard the flapping, the fluttering, the muffled beating of wings. All over me came the soft touch as if of hands, countless gentle hands, the even softer brush of lips--lips against my cheeks, my forehead, my parched eyelids. It seemed I was lost in a lovely weightless drift of song that had replaced the wind without true sound. And it carried me gently downwards; it embraced me; it ministered to me.
"No," I said. "No."
It became weeping now, this singing. It was pure and sad, yet irresistibly sweet. It had the immensity of joy. And there came more urgently these tender fingers, brushing my face and my burnt arms.
"No," I said, "I will do this. Leave me now. I will do it, as I've said."
I slipped away from them, or they spread out as soundlessly as they'd come, and rose and moved away in all directions, releasing me.
Alone again. [p. 200]
I've chosen three passages from near the end of the novel, and yet, I could have chosen any number of others. Ms. Rice has such fine-tuned control and such masterly rhythm and pattern that this could almost be poetry.
I've said before that we owe it to ourselves, to our Church, and to the world to support writers who support the faith. But more than that, we owe it to ourselves to support such works of fiction if we desire to see publishers print more such in the future. We owe it to ourselves to lavish the gift of such writing on the world (and incidentally ourselves) over and over again. Get this book from the library and read it. Better, go out and buy it and share it with others.
The two books of this saga will be for a long time on my list of favored gifts for those who know and love the Lord and for those who are beginning an acquaintance and do not yet really know who He is. Ms. Rice serves as a fine guide for those who dare not attempt the Gospels themselves. If these books could cause one-tenth the excitement, one-tenth the uproar of DVC, then they serve well the purposes of those about Whom they are written.