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"Deeper Magic Before The Dawn of Time"

For Sunday March 31, 2013
Easter Sunday

Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year C)

Acts 10:34–43 or Isaiah 65:17–25

Psalm 118:1–2, 14–24

1 Corinthians 15:19–26 or Acts 10:34–43

John 20:1–18 or Luke 24:1–12

           Forty days ago we began Lent with the imposition of ashes and the recitation of Genesis 3:19: "remember that you are but dust, and to dust you shall return."

           In Latin, memento mori, "remember that you will die."

Women at the tomb by Marysia Kowalchyk, fabric applique, 2003.
Women at the tomb by Marysia Kowalchyk, fabric applique, 2003.

           This isn't just pious claptrap; it's some of our culture's best wisdom. Consider these two examples.

           At my church's Lenten film series, we watched Ingmar Bergman's classic movie The Seventh Seal (1957). From start to finish this movie's a disquisition on mortality. A medieval knight named Antonius Block struggles with a double dose of death. He's returned from the barbaric crusades, only to find his Swedish homeland ravaged by the plague. Sensing the futility of life and the specter of death, Block tries to recover his faith and perform what he calls "one meaningful act" before he dies.

           In poetry, there's "Aubade" by Philip Larkin (1922–1985). Larkin began working on his poem in 1974; it was first published in the Times Literary Supplement on December 23, 1977. The critic A.N. Wilson called it a poem of "unquestionable greatness." It's about "a special way of being afraid" of "the sure extinction we travel to."

I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what's really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.
The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
— The good not done, the love not given, time
Torn off unused — nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast, moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear — no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anasthetic from which none come round.

And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
A small, unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision.
Most things may never happen: this one will,
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.

Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
Have always known, know that we can't escape,
Yet can't accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

           This "great death-poem," says the atheist Julian Barnes, isn't a nihilist rant or the product of Larkin's morbid melancholy. Rather, his fear is a "rational and clear-eyed" consequence of remembering death. And the atheist Chris Hitchens, on his veritable death bed, described "Aubade" as a "reproof to Hume and Lucretius for their stoicism. Fair enough in one way: atheists ought not to be offering consolation either."

           The earliest believers interpreted the life and death of Jesus in different ways — as substitute and sacrifice, ransom and reconciliation, adoption and example. But pride of place goes to what's called "Christus Victor," another ancient view that was reinvigorated by the modern Swedish theologian Gustav Aulén (d. 1977) — that in his life, death and resurrection Jesus conquered the powers of sin, death, and evil that enslave us.

Women Arriving at the Tomb by He Qi.
Women Arriving at the Tomb by He Qi.

           The apostle Paul says as much. Jesus "destroyed death" (2 Timothy 1:10), our "last enemy" (1 Corinthians 15:26). He "disarmed the powers and authorities, and made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross" (Colossians 2:15). Jesus "tasted death for every one," and "through death he rendered powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil" (Hebrews 2:9,14). And so the paradox, that by death Jesus conquered death.

           C.S. Lewis called this the "deeper magic before the dawn of time." This deeper magic, says Mark Heim, "comes into this [Narnia] story as an unexpected development, something about which the evil powers knew nothing. And when Aslan rises, the ancient stone altar on which the sacrifice was offered cracks and crumbles in pieces, never to be used again. The gospel, then, is not ultimately about the exchange of victims, but about ending the bloodshed."

           Whereas Lewis appealed to allegory, Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, turns to science. At Easter, he says, "we are really standing in the middle of a second 'Big Bang,' a tumultuous surge of divine energy as fiery and intense as the very beginning of the universe."

Women at the tomb by Anne C. Brink.
Women at the tomb by Anne C. Brink.

           And so every Sunday, and especially Easter Sunday, we confess the Apostles' Creed: "Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate, he was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into hell. The third day he rose again from the dead." The harrowing of hell on Holy Saturday, after Friday's crucifixion and before Sunday's resurrection, is the most important day in salvation history that we rarely mention.

           This isn't Plato's immortality of an immaterial soul; it's the resurrection of your body.

           Nor is this some private benefit. Isaiah 65 imagines a new heaven and new earth. Paul says that God in Christ will "reconcile to himself all things, having made peace through the blood of his cross, whether things on earth or things in heaven" (Colossians 1:20). He will "sum up" or "bring together" "all things in heaven and on earth" (Ephesians 1:10).

           With the end of Lent we can "breathe Easter now," for Easter promises that "God shall strengthen all the feeble knees."

           For further reflection

"Easter Communion" by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Pure fasted faces draw unto this feast:
God comes all sweetness to your Lenten lips.
You striped in secret with breath-taking whips,
Those crooked rough-scored chequers may be pieced
To crosses meant for Jesu's; you whom the East
With draught of thin and pursuant cold so nips
Breathe Easter now; you serged fellowships,
You vigil-keepers with low flames decreased,

God shall o'er-brim the measures you have spent
With oil of gladness, for sackcloth and frieze
And the ever-fretting shirt of punishment
Give myrrhy-threaded golden folds of ease.
Your scarce-sheathed bones are weary of being bent:
Lo, God shall strengthen all the feeble knees.

Image credits: (1) The Sacred Images of Marysia Kowalchyk; (2) Pastor John Keller, Redeemer Lutheran Church (Woodbury, MN, USA); and (3) Women's Illustrated Bible Gallery.

Copyright © 2001–2024 by Daniel B. Clendenin. All Rights Reserved.
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