A Divine Fairy Tale

A Divine Fairy Tale

Two persons in trouble.  Two anguished suppliants, miles apart, crying out to God for deliverance: a perfect setting for a classic fairy tale.  Every fairy tale has a prince and every fairy-tale-prince has to make a journey fraught with danger which he must face and overpower, saving and claiming his princess, thereby proving himself worthy of his ultimate coronation. 

Carl J. Jung, the renowned 20th century psychologist, has demonstrated brilliantly that Jesus Christ is the primal archetype: he is the Prince par excellence (Ps 110:3)  (Ezek 37:21-28) who sets the pattern not only for every fairy tale but for the life experience of every person who sets out on the difficult journey toward “individuation”: i.e.,  perfect self-actualization in the accomplishment of his mission.  Therefore we cannot be surprised to find many variations of his divine fairy tale written by the Holy Spirit himself, scattered throughout the Holy Scriptures.  But why has the Holy Spirit, through the inspired writers, chosen to give us these stories?  Certainly not merely for our entertainment, but rather for the confirmation, strengthening, and delight of our faith.

Once Upon a Time… 

The Book of Tobit was written long before the birth of Christ, but the Trinitarian and soteriological character of its imagery cannot but leave us profoundly astonished.  Tobiah (TOB-YAH = Good Yahweh) the Galilean, is the only son and perfect image (Tob 7:2; 9:6; Col 1:15) of his aged father, the Good One (TOB-IT), who has been blinded by the droppings of some perching birds, i.e., by the dung of creation (sin).  He has had to suffer much for four years now from taunts and many other hardships.  He has prayed for death and now deems it appropriate to send his son on a journey to Media to fetch an inheritance of money which he had previously deposited with relatives there, as well as to find a wife from among his own kin (4:12 ff; 20).  He is aware that the roads to Media are dangerous, for there are many foes to be found there (1:15), ready to kill. 

Does God our Father take risks?  We would like to think that he does not, since he is all-knowing and all-powerful.  Yet Jesus himself in the parable of the tenants has his Father saying – rather naively, we would say –  “Perhaps if I send them the Son whom I love, they will respect him” (Lk 20:13).  And so we have this Good One, Tobit, sending his beloved and only son on this perilous journey, though not without first ensuring that Tobiah be accompanied by the Spirit (Raphael) to guide and counsel him.

The two set out.  The presence of hostile foes, however, is only the first of the life-threatening hurdles to be met and overcome by our Prince.  Having walked till nightfall, they stop and make camp beside the Tigris River.  It must be noted here that the Tigris is one of the four branches of the river which rises up in the Garden of Eden (Gen 2:14), and so we are alerted to a second mortal danger: the possibility that the ancient serpent could be lurking, biding his time within its waters.  And indeed he is.  When our Prince goes down to wash his feet in the river, we are told that “a large fish suddenly leaped out of the water and tried to swallow his foot” (6:3).  The scene is marvelously dramatic, and we are taken back to the great prophecy of Genesis (3:15):  “He will strike at your head while you snatch at his heel”.  As the young Tobiah shouts out in alarm, the Spirit is there to direct him in what he is to do: slay the fish and make a meal for the evening, salting the remainder as food for the way, and preserving its inner tokens in a pouch for future use.

In a Nutshell

It is always the Spirit who reveals to us the mysteries of God and opens our minds to understanding.  Now at this point in our story (chapter 6), Raphael exposes and elucidates the entire mystery for Tobiah and for us.  If we are alert we shall see it all played out in the ensuing chapters.

Firstly then we learn that the large fish (IKTHUS) is none other than the tempter himself, the evil serpent of the Eden story.  But how can this be?  The earliest Christian art makes it abundantly clear that the followers of Jesus from the very beginning understood him to be IKTHUS, “Jesus Christ Son of God Savior”.  Jesus is the IKTHUS. Yes, it is the Blessed One (Ps 118:26; Lk 19:38) who becomes the curse for us (Gal 3:13), just as the Shepherd has become the Lamb of Sacrifice, the One who feeds us has become our food, and the great High Priest has become himself the victim sacrificed.  In the IKTHUS, the angel explains, will be found deliverance from demonic power, as well as healing for one afflicted with blinding cataracts. 

And the bride: we are told that she is “sensible, courageous, and very beautiful”.  Moreover, we might add, she is so innocent, so wounded, so suffering (almost to the point of suicide), so longing for her true Prince, but so coveted by the vicious demon that he has actually slain every one of the seven would-be husbands who had been given to her.  But it is only love, sacrificial love, that saves.  Therefore it is your love, O Prince, that will rescue her from the cruel Demon of Wrath.  For you must know that she has been named your Princess (Aramaic SARAH) since before the world was made.  You must indeed go down into this dark place of death for her, but you shall live.  Be not afraid!  And we are told by the sacred writer that at the Spirit’s word the heart of the Prince became set upon her; he fell so deeply in love with her that he could no longer call his heart his own (6:18). 

A Liturgy of Smoke

The story of our Fairy-Tale-Prince has brought us to the “second bedroom”.  He has found his Princess, and the Liturgy is about to begin in the presence of the praying community.  Under the direction of the Spirit he ascends the altar of incense, bearing in his hands the tokens of his sacrifice: the liver and heart of the IKTHUS.  As he activates the fire beneath the offering, the smoke escapes and fills the room, sending the evil demon in flight far into the desert.   There he is bound by the Spirit, never to return.  Our Catholic sensibilities must stop here while we catch our breath, and with utmost reverence see the newly-weds, put to bed, so to speak, by the community, as it withdraws to leave them in the intimacy of solitude.  What more perfect image could be found to portray the relationship between our Liturgy of the Eucharist celebrated within the Assembly of the Faithful, and the ensuing private prayer?  Prayer:  it is prayer, humble prayer of supplication and of gratitude.  The two arise to pray together, and it is here that the Prince discovers himself as the New Adam (Rom:5:14), receiving from the Almighty the gift of his bride, the New Eve.  We leave them there till morning, when a servant stealthily peeks in and finds them fast asleep – and the skeptics hurry out to the graveyard to cover up the evidence of their unbelief.

Kaserin

Every good fairy tale calls its reader into itself to find his or her place of identity.  The fairy tale which is the Book of Tobit is so replete with brilliant gems of Christic imagery, that one can scarcely help identifying with the Church, the holy bride of Jesus Christ, harassed by “the destroyer” and saved by the sacrifice of the IKTHUS.  The earthly nuptials have taken place, and now we find Tobiah taking his bride, Sarah, and journeying back to his home in Nineveh, always under the guidance of the angel Raphael.  As they approach Kaserin, a small settlement outside the gates of the city, he leaves her there in the care of the servants. Can we not hear the familiar words of our Prince echoing deeply within our own souls: “I am indeed going to prepare a place for you, and then I shall come back to take you with me, that where I am you also may be” (11:3; Jn 14:1-3)?  Our Kaserin experience may seem very long, although Saint Peter assures us that it is not so.   (2  Peter 3:8 ff)  We yearn for the return of our Bridegroom and our final union with him in our eternal Home.

Waiting at the gates of Nineveh –
How long this “little while”!
behind in motley file,
beasts grown restive with the long delay.

“To prepare a place for you I go
but I shall come again.”
(He did not tell me when.)
“Wait for me a little while below”.

Winged Breath – O Spirit-led was he,
with IKTHUS-gall in hand
(I did not understand -- )
Father’s eyes to open up for me.

Waiting at the gates of Nineveh,
How long this “little while”!
behind in motley file
beasts grown restive with the long delay.

‘Gainst my demon, he so strong and brave
with smoke of IKTHUS-heart
did force it to depart:
futile, vain, the open empty grave

Now I wait before the gate and sigh:
The glad impatience of
my deep and grateful love
makes an age the just a bye-and-bye.

Waiting at the gates of Nineveh –
How long this “little while”!
Behind in motley file
beasts grown restive with the long delay.  

. . . Happily Ever After 

We know the story.  Accompanied and instructed by his Angel, our Fairy-Tale-Prince goes on ahead, bearing in his hand the pouch which yet holds the IKTHUS-gall, token of his sacrifice.  With a little imagination we can almost hear the cries of exultation, the clapping of hands, the trumpet blasts (Psalm 47) as he mounts the skies!  But Tobiah loses no time.  As his aged and blind father stumbles out through the courtyard to welcome him, he quickly takes the gall-medicine and applies it to his father’s eyes, blowing into them and peeling off the cataracts.  Immediately those eyes, which had been closed to us, are opened and, leaving the servants to prepare the rooms, Tobit the Father, with Tobiah the Son and Raphael the Spirit go with alacrity to welcome the Bride. 

But the story does not end there.  Rather it ends, as we might have expected, eschatologically (14:13 ) when, on the Last Day, our Prince returns to earth (Ecbatana in Media) “with all his saints with him” (Zec 14:5;  I Thes 3:13):  i.e., his Princess and the “seven sons” (14:3) whom she has borne him.  Here the royal couple will claim the fullness of their inheritance and be crowned King and Queen to reign for ever and ever.

An important detail must be noted here, and it concerns that faithful fairy-tale dog.  The Genesis account (2:18-24) tells us that the First Adam had exhausted all of earth’s possibilities in seeking his true bride.  In fact, he went through all the lower creatures, giving a name to each one.  And when at last she was given to him, they were not miffed nor jealous.  On the contrary, as St. Paul says so beautifully to the Romans (8:18-23), all of creation waits eagerly to share the joy of the marriage feast.  And so we see our fairy-tale dog there, wagging his tail in happy anticipation of the revelation of the sons of God!

As We Were Saying . . . 

The title of the Book would indicate that its main protagonist is the aged father, Tobit.  Indeed, the Book begins with Tobit’s account of his own life.  But any reader can be forgiven for yielding to the fascination of its beautiful Christic fairy tale, mounted as it is against the pure gold and gem-studded setting of the life of Tobit.  Each of these gems is in itself an enticement to wander off on a tangent all its own.  But our attention must return to the person of Tobit, the Good One, whose name from of old is God-is-Good and God-is-Merciful.  From the outset we meet him as exiled, hunted, ridiculed, yet superlatively blameless, with heart set unflinchingly upon Jerusalem and its Temple.  His faithful love and prophetic eye will ultimately enable him to descry the future death, resurrection and transformation of that Temple, its extension to all parts of the world: the fulfillment of all prophecy, the punishment of the wicked and the vindication of the just (chpt 14).

Tobit’s exhortations to his son, reflecting as they do the all-pure image of his own perfection, are a compendium of all righteousness.  His canticles too, so cherished within the Church’s Liturgy of the Hours, are shot through with the light of prophetic vision and the joy of divine praise.  What more can we say in the face of such beauty?

But another gem which catches our eye is the person of Anna (the “Favoured one”), wife of Tobit and mother of Tobiah.  She is mysterious, somewhat of a “shadow figure” in the story, we might say.  She does not share the eternal identity which is attributed to Tobit and his son Tobiah, but she is definitely a part of the narrative.  We might find her presence a bit troubling for she is saliently feminine, intuitive and all heart.  As such she can put us in mind of that enigmatic line in the story of Creation where we are told that God our Maker has fashioned man in his own image and created them male and female (1:27); or of John’s apocalyptic vision of the Woman who gives birth to the male-child (Rev 12:1-5).  We know, of course, that only God is eternal, but perhaps we can conceive of him as holding in his bosom eternally a creation, a bride, who is not eternal, holding divinely a creation, a bride, who is not divine.  And so in the context of our story we simply respect Anna in the mystery of her presence and rejoice with her as she dries her tears. 

The Book of Tobit ends with the demise of a generation, but a generation which issues in a glory which endures forever.