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What Advent, God’s Love, and Edward Norton Have in Common


Haley Stewart - published on 12/18/14

A reflection on the power of patient waiting and forgiveness

Every year during Advent I listen to the choral masterpiece of Handel’s Messiah and every year I hear something new in it. This time I’ve been struck by God’s love for his people—His Bride, the Church—and how His love is like Edward Norton’s love.

Well, maybe not Edward Norton the man, but a character he once played. 

A favorite film of mine is, The Painted Veil, adapted from the book of the same name by M. Somerset Maugham (which differs significantly from the film). It’s about marriage, selfishness overcome, and how virtue is the foundation for true love. It presents a beautiful picture of love’s ability to heal brokenness and betrayal, making forgiveness possible. 

This kind of forgiveness struck me recently when I listened to the tenor’s voice sing the words of the prophet Isaiah to Handel’s music–words of tenderness: 

Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.

Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned.

The words describe the people of God in feminine terms. A woman who has betrayed her lover—God. But He is not condemning her; instead He tells her that “her iniquity is pardoned;” her sin is washed away. She is forgiven. 

We hear this kind of language so much in Scripture that sometimes I think we forget what it means that God forgives us. Despite her failings, the Church is the bride of Christ and God continues to redeem her, sacrifice Himself for her, and forgive her again and again and again. Which brings me to a scene in The Painted Veil:

Edward Norton plays Dr. Walter Fane, who is married to a pretty, shallow girl named Kitty. When he discovers that she’s been having an affair, he moves them to rural China to help with a cholera epidemic. On some level, it’s a suicide mission and he’s taking revenge on his unfaithful wife who has no choice but to follow him. But despite their marital turmoil, Walter and Kitty each begin to thrive in their new community as they serve the local people. Kitty volunteers at a school run by a religious order and begins to think of others, not just herself. And as she watches the selfless and dedicated care Walter offers his patients, she surprises herself by falling in love with him. They get to know each other all over again and a redemptive corner is turned when Kitty discovers she’s pregnant.

This is the poignant scene of forgiveness. She tells Walter and he’s overjoyed at the news until he notices that she looks distraught. He quietly asks whether the child is his and Kitty admits miserably that she doesn’t know. Walter grabs her hands, looks into her eyes, and says lovingly, “Well. It doesn’t matter now, does it?” In that sentence, he says everything. His love has conquered the devastation her betrayal brought to their marriage. He’s not angry or bitter. Her past actions no longer bear weight on their life together. This will be their baby. She is forgiven. His love for her is bigger than her betrayal.

The scene is weighty. To be able to forgive such a wrong, to offer undeserved love, compassion, and commitment. It’s so beautiful; love wins.

When I place myself in Kitty’s place and God in Ed Norton’s place, I see the depth of God’s love with new eyes. Except I haven’t betrayed Him once; I’ve betrayed Him over and over again in a thousand ways. And He doesn’t hesitate to offer words of comfort to my undeserving heart. He gently says, “Your iniquity is pardoned.” Because He Himself has paid for my sin. He came to earth so that we could know Him and He could save us. Let us prepare our hearts this Advent for Him to come again.

Haley Stewart is a writer, speaker, Catholic convert, and mother of three. She’s a homeschooling, bacon-eating, coffee-drinking southern girl with a flair for liturgical feasts and a penchant for bright red lipstick. Haley muses about faith, motherhood, and books at her blog Carrots for Michaelmas. She is also the author of Feast! Real Food, Reflections, and Simple Living for the Christian Year, and podcasts at Fountains of Carrots.

AdventPracticing Mercy

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