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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1395

First published: London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1892

Genre(s): Nonfiction

Subgenre(s): Biblical studies; exegesis; meditation and contemplation

Core issue(s): Contemplation; faith; humility; prayer; revelation

Overview

In The Face of the Deep , Christina Rossetti proceeds carefully through the book of Revelation, verse by verse, examining Saint John’s text, not...

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First published: London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1892

Genre(s): Nonfiction

Subgenre(s): Biblical studies; exegesis; meditation and contemplation

Core issue(s): Contemplation; faith; humility; prayer; revelation

Overview

In The Face of the Deep, Christina Rossetti proceeds carefully through the book of Revelation, verse by verse, examining Saint John’s text, not so much for a map or timeline of the Apocalypse as for gems of wisdom and encouragement for Christians hoping to redeem the time until Christ’s return. She notes that other exegetes have connected the text to historical events, but she does not presume to do so authoritatively. Though she occasionally hazards such a reading, she maintains a characteristically Tractarian reserve. She warns against idle curiosity and encourages adoration of Christ as the final goal of Revelation.

In chapter 1, she notes that Christ reveals to us the things we need to know—and these things reveal Christ to us. To know Christ and to become like him is much more important than to see into mysteries and make prognostications. Our response to the revelations is twofold: We obey any commandments and receive the mysteries thoughtfully, as the Blessed Virgin pondered the angel’s announcement.

Throughout the book, Rossetti intersperses poems and prayers composed in response to the text she is evaluating. Typically, didactic prose does not resonate deeply enough to express her thoughts. Her doctrinal emphasis is evident in frequent reference to the prayers and creeds of the Book of Common Prayer (1549). In addition, her expansive knowledge of Scripture is seen in the almost constant connections she makes between the verses of Revelation and texts throughout the Old and New Testaments.

Regarding the angels of the seven churches (in chapters 2 and 3), Rossetti comments briefly on the text, then develops a variety of devotional meditations, including one on “Some Biblical Tens”: the ten commandments, ten strings on David’s instrument, ten lamps for the wise virgins, and so on. Her connections are often surprising and insightful. She notes that each of the churches has a unique enemy and reward, but the common way to achieve victory is to overcome. She provides an outline of the goals and necessary actions for each church, relating this to Christian living.

Chapter 4 describes John’s vision of God enthroned in heaven; Rossetti’s exegesis is painterly in its description of the symbolic significance of elements in the vision. In chapter 5 she directs our thoughts to the fact that Christ alone is worthy to open the Book of Life; he has earned the right through his incarnation and humanity, as Son of man.

In light of the terrifying images of the apocalyptic horsemen and dreadful punishments depicted throughout Revelation, she notes that in the face of danger, faith is unafraid, for the wrath of the Lamb is reserved for those who reject God’s righteousness and truth. Angels, even fallen angels, are messengers of God proclaiming his will, and the terrors work his will. Still he is merciful, for each punishment allows some time for repentance.

In discussing lengths of time, such as 42 months or 1,260 days, she does not suggest a timeline but urges Christians to live immediately, as though the period has begun or is about to begin. She calls readers to participate in good works with all believers, using wisely whatever time is left before the final judgment. In relation to numbers, such as the number of the beast and 144,000, she suggests that the qualifier, “he that hath understanding,” disqualifies most readers. Wisdom, she says, is a “practical grace” and can be found through meditation on Scripture as it points us to the characteristics of God and Christ and his redemptive work.

Rossetti reminds us that while the desolation brought about by the pouring out of God’s wrath will be completely devastating, historically we have had “foretastes” of such things and ought to repent. She personalizes this by including a prayer for England’s deliverance from luxury and injustice.

Chapter 19 describes the marriage feast of the lamb; Rossetti compares this union to those of the patriarchs and their brides. She notes that all that is masculine is a type of Christ as Bridegroom, while all that is feminine is a type of the Church as Bride, and for these examples she turns to “holy maids and matrons” of the Old Testament and “their sister saints” of the New Testament. In a meditation on the figure of Christ on a white horse, she creates a list of Christ’s attributes as prompts for worship.

In the descriptions of final punishment in chapters 19 and 20, Rossetti sees the triumph of the saints who have persevered. The dragon, Satan, in chains is cause for a meditation on prayer. She urges Christians to pray for themselves, for one another, for the world, and for the lost. She praises the saints, especially the martyrs, but she emphasizes that, while Christians in modern times may not be called to a martyr’s death, still they may be a “martyr in will,” firm in faith, receiving a crown of glory.

Our earth is temporary, yet our actions have eternal consequences and rewards. In the new heaven and earth, Rossetti notes the fulfillment of the Beatitudes. In the new Jerusalem, she sees the lesson of “present abasement, future exaltation,” encouraging those, like herself, who have experienced “tears, death, sorrow, crying, pain” to look forward to their end in the presence of Christ enthroned in this new city, where all promises shall be fulfilled. Until then, we are left with the benediction of Saint John, the “grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Christian Themes

One of the themes of this devotional commentary, according to Rossetti herself, is patience. This is the lesson she hopes to find in her study of the Apocalypse. She finds that to resist Satan and overcome temptation, we must have desire and action but also patience and endurance: “Patience,” she says, [is] “a tedious, indomitable grace.” Patience is necessary for the “Church Militant” in this world; it “goes with sorrow, not with joy”; tribulation develops patience, experience, and hope. In the end, it ushers the “Church Triumphant” into the joys of Heaven. She sees Saint John, as well as the souls of the martyrs under the heavenly altar, as examples of “patient obedience.” She reminds Christians to not be weary in well doing; tribulation should be viewed as a privilege through which patience yields perfection.

Prayer is another theme. Not only does Rossetti include numerous original prayers corresponding to the verses she examines, but also she repeatedly encourages Christians to pray for insights from the Holy Spirit, for strength against temptations, for the strengthening of others, for increased zeal among Christians, and for the repentance of the lost.

She recognizes that we are each responsible for our influence on those around us, “children, servants, less educated persons”; all of our actions influence for either preservation or destruction. The Christian is edified and sustained by the graces of the Church, “The purifying grace of Baptism, the maturing grace of Confirmation, the sustaining grace of Holy Communion.” Enlivened with these graces, Christians are able to persevere in holy living and will exert a positive influence on others.

Sources for Further Study

  • Kent, David A., ed. The Achievement of Christina Rossetti. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1987. Fifteen scholarly essays on Rossetti’s poetry and prose; several on her devotional works and theology, including the influence of Tractarianism on her work.
  • Marsh, Jan. Christina Rossetti. New York: Viking, 1995. Thoroughly researched biography, incorporating letters, poems, fiction, and devotional prose to shed light on Rossetti’s life and remarkable literary career.
  • Melnyk, Julie, ed. Women’s Theology in Nineteenth-Century Britain: Transfiguring the Faith of Their Fathers. Garland Reference Library of the Humanities. New York: Garland, 1998. Essays on women’s writing on the Apocalypse and on Rossetti’s devotional prose; also deals with the impact of theology on women’s novels of the period.
  • Rossetti, Christina. Prose Works of Christina Rossetti. 4 vols. London: Thoemmes Continuum, 2003. Reprint of Called to Be Saints (1881), Letter and Spirit (1883), Time Flies (1885), and The Face of the Deep, with scholarly introductions by Maria Keaton.
  • Wheeler, Michael. Heaven, Hell, and the Victorians. Abridged edition. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2005. A broad look at the Victorian view of death and the theology of Heaven and Hell. Illustrated with Victorian images of death and the afterlife.
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