The Passion of Harry Potter, according to Saint John the Evangelist

Much has been said about the Christian themes, symbolism and allusions in Harry Potter, and indeed much remains to be said. In a previous essay, I explained what Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows has to do with Holy Week: the time when Christians commemorate the passion (suffering), death and resurrection of Christ. Here I’d like to add a small but (I think) significant observation to my articulation of the striking parallels between Harry’s self-offering and Christ’s.

In John’s Gospel and in none of the others, Jesus takes a moment, almost immediately before surrendering his spirit to God the Father, to “give” his mother Mary to the disciple whom he loved:

When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” Then he said to the disciple, “here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home. (John 19: 26-27)

The text implies that with this act, Jesus completes his mission on earth: “After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished…” (19:28a) Indeed, after acknowledging his thirst to fulfill what had been written in Psalm 69, “he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.” (19:30b) 

As Harry walks to his death in the Forbidden Forest in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, an arrestingly similar scene plays out.

“Neville.”

“Blimey, Harry, you nearly gave me heart failure!”

Harry pulled off the Cloak: The idea had come to him out of nowhere, born out of a desire to make absolutely sure.

[…]

“You know Voldemort’s snake, Neville? He’s got a huge snake. … Calls it Nagini…”

“I’ve heard, yeah. … What about it?”

“It’s got to be killed. Ron and Hermione know that, but just in case they—”

The awfulness of that possibility smothered him for a moment, made it impossible to keep talking. But he pulled himself together again: This was crucial, he must be like Dumbledore, keep a cool head, make sure there were backups, others to carry on. Dumbledore had died knowing that three people still knew about the Horcruxes; now Neville would take Harry’s place: There would still be three in the secret.

“Just in case they’re – busy – and you get the chance—”

“Kill the snake?”

“Kill the snake,” Harry repeated.

(Rowling, Hallows, 695-696)

From this moment, Harry marches on to his willing self-sacrifice, only pausing to fulfill what had been written on the Golden Snitch: “I open at the close.” After releasing the Resurrection Stone hidden in the Snitch and relishing the comforting presence of those who had gone before him, Harry gives himself up to death.

I’ve never liked the simplicity of tit-for-tat analogies, and I am not proposing an allegorical reading here, however nicely the elements of both Harry’s and Christ’s Via Dolorosas line up. After all, in such a reading, the Beloved Disciple (whom ancient scholars identified as the Evangelist himself) could be said to receive a brand new mother (one surpassing all others, no less!), while Neville receives quite the dirty, dangerous job. Not a fruitful comparison, on the surface.

But what else might it mean? We must look deeper. John’s Gospel is replete with signs; they are, in his account, a preeminent way in which Jesus reveals himself as the Eternal Word of God and his Kingdom of salvation as all around us, present now.[1] Famous exegetes have found great significance in this particular moment; Raymond Brown “sees the tableau evoking the themes of ‘Lady Zion’s giving birth to a new people in the new messianic age, and of Eve and her offspring.’”[2] Vawter agrees, saying Christ’s giving of Mary and the disciple to one another is “a ‘sign’ of the spiritual motherhood of Mary, the new Eve, the mother of the faithful.”[3]

That both commentators refer to Jesus’ mother Mary with reference to Eve from the book of Genesis is essential to understanding the allusion in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. If Mary is the “new Eve,” then she is the one who does not fall victim to the temptation of the serpent in Genesis. Mary, in her “fiat” (her decree of acquiescence to God’s will), chose obedience to God over the false “godliness” which the serpent promises. This understanding plays out in so much religious art, where Mary is depicted as stepping on or crushing the head of the serpent, signifying her symbolic leadership of God’s people in the new life of grace which has been made possible for us by the atoning sacrifice of her son, Jesus Christ. The idea to pass the task of killing Nagini to Neville may have come to Harry “out of nowhere,” as the text supposes, but it likely came to the author by way of allusion to the passion of Christ according to John, for in both texts, the hero asks a last-minute favor of his disciple that ensures the protection and persistence of his mission of saving the world from the Evil One.

On a surface level, the task which Harry passes to Neville, the Other Chosen One, is quite different from the mutual adoption which Christ arranges between his Mother and the Beloved Disciple in the Gospel of John. However, at a deeper level of significance, Harry’s passing the task of the snake Horcrux’s destruction to Neville points plainly to Mary, whose triumph over the serpent of old affords the world’s redemption.

[1] Dennis C. Duling and Norman Perrin, The New Testament: Proclamation and Parenesis, Myth and History (Forth Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace, 1994), 425.

[2] Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John II p. 926 as quoted in Helen C. Orchard, Courting Betrayal: Jesus as Victim in the Gospel of John (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998), 217.

[3] Bruce Vawter, C.M., “The Gospel According to John,” in The Jerome Biblical Commentary, ed. Raymond E. Brown, S.S., Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J. and Roland E. Murphy, O. Carm. (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1968), II.462.

Comments

  1. waynestauffer says:

    Brilliant flash of insight!! Well done!

  2. Brian Basore says:

    Gee thanks, Emily.
    Your writing on this tacit subject made me see that I was wrong to think John Wesley was being shallow in the following quote:
    I learned more about Christianity from my mother than from all the theologians in England.

  3. Emily Strand says:

    Thanks, Wayne! It was definitely a forehead-smacker, in a good way…

  4. I love that quote, Brian – that is a pithy endorsement for the “Church of home” as I like to call it. Thanks for reading.

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