Friday, April 2, 2010

Reflections on a Good Death

Today marks what Christians call “Good Friday.” The occasion is the death of the Christian God incarnate, the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Christians of different traditions all over the world hold solemn services commemorating the event that they believe reconciled humanity once and for all with God the Father. This is claimed to have been accomplished by an innocent victim upon one of the worst torture devices ever conceived of by human minds, the cross. It might seem to some (as it does to myself) to be perverse on some level to call such a day “good,” even if it means the salvation of a race otherwise destined to eternal separation from all that is good in itself. Even though I am a member of that particular race, if I truly love my Savior, to relish or perpetually reenact such a horrible day in history seems somehow amiss. Were my wife, brother, dear friend, or daughter (God forbid it) to be executed in such a torturous fashion, I would likely spend the rest of my life running away from any memory of it, assuming my sanity were left intact to a meaningful measure. But surely Christ could be included on this list of intimates, for those of us who experience his living presence in our daily lives, so how is it that we return to the crucifixion every single year? For my own tradition, it is the culmination of the liturgical calendar. It is called “good” by virtually all Christians the world over. Why do we return to such horror and grief on an annual basis?

These questions reminded me of a story. Philomythus once wrote the following verse to his dear friend Misomythus:

Blessed are the men of Noah's race that build their little arks, though frail and poorly filled, and steer through winds contrary towards a wraith, a rumour of a harbour guessed by faith.

      Misomythus had remarked that “myths were lies and therefore worthless, even if breathed through silver,” to which Philomythus (being a self-respecting lover of myths) responded with the poem Mythopoeia. Philomythus was JRR Tolkien, and Misomythus was CS Lewis. The conversation had taken place on Addison’s Walk at Magdalen College, the Oxford college where Lewis tutored for most of his academic career. Tolkein, Lewis, and Dyson had gone on a late Sunday-evening stroll on September 19/20 of 1931 and the old myth of the dying god had come up in conversation. Lewis was dismissing the myths as balderdash, even though he loved them himself, but Tolkien and Dyson wouldn’t let him off so easily.

            In a letter to Arthur Greeves dated 18 October 1931 (page 28 in Yours, Jack, the excellent letters-of-Lewis compilation assembled by the great Paul Ford), Lewis explains what transpired in his own words:

Now what Dyson and Tolkien showed me was this: That if I met the idea of sacrifice in a Pagan story I didn’t mind it at all: again, if I met the idea of a god sacrificing himself to himself… I liked it very much and was mysteriously moved by it: again, that the idea of the dying and reviving god (Balder, Adonis, Bacchus) similarly moved me provided I met it anywhere except in the Gospels. The reason was that in Pagan stories I was prepared to feel the myth as profound and suggestive of meanings beyond my grasp even though I could not say in cold prose ‘what it meant.’

Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened: and one must be content to accept it in the same way, remembering that it is God’s myth where the others are men’s myths: i.e., the Pagan stories are God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there, while Christianity is God expressing Himself through what we call ‘real things.’ Therefore it is true, not in the sense of being a ‘description’ of God (that no finite mind could take in) but in the sense of being the way in which God chooses to (or can) appear to our faculties. The ‘doctrines’ we get out of the true myth are of course less true: they are translations into our concepts and ideas of that which God has already expressed in a language more adequate, namely the actual incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection. Does this amount to a belief in Christianity? At any rate I am now certain (a) That this Christian story is to be approached, in a sense, as I approach the other myths. (b) That it is the most important and full of meaning. I am also nearly certain that it really happened.

     Tolkien and Dyson have put forward the question, What if the myth of the dying god were historically true at some point? What if the dying god showed up in the facts of the course of human events? In Surprised by Joy, Lewis comments on how he arrived at a belief in the historicity of the Christian account of Christ as the dying God:

I was by now too experienced in literary criticism to regard the Gospels as myths [Literary criticism was his profession, which apparently he was very good at, teaching at both Oxford and Cambridge before his death]. They had not the mythical taste. And yet the very matter which they set down in their artless, historical fashion— those narrow, unattractive Jews, too blind to the mythical wealth of the Pagan world around them— was precisely the matter of great myths. If ever a myth had become fact, had been incarnated, it would be just like this. Myths were like it in on way. Histories were like it in another. But nothing was simply like it. And no person was like the Person it depicted; as real, as recognizable, through all that depth of time, as Plato’s Socrates or Boswell’s Johnson (ten times more so that Eckermann’s Goethe or Lockhart’s Scott), yet also numinous, lit by light from beyond the world, a god. But if a god— we are no longer polytheists— then not a god, but God. Here and here only in all time the myth must have become fact; the Word, flesh; God, man. This is not “a religion,” nor a “philosophy.” It is the summing up and actuality of them all.

     The words above from Tolkien’s poem ring loudly here, like a silver bell portending some celebration. The “rumour” is the myth of the dying god, become fact in the death of Christ. My friend and God suffered a horrific death 2000 years ago, and it was necessary for any hope on my behalf. But the rumour is good. There is a harbour, a shelter. A shelter from what? Tolkien says “Blessed are the men of Noah's race that build their little arks, though frail and poorly filled, and steer through winds contrary towards a wraith, a rumour of a harbour guessed by faith.” What wraith do we sail towards? The wraith is death. All would sail away, but people “of Noah’s race” have faith. On Good Friday, the wraith was made a shadow. Death has lost its power. The Dying God has come to claim his own.

            Lewis captures the beauty of the Easter Triduum in a poem he wrote, which now adorns a plaque near the bridge that traverses the river next to Addison’s Walk:

What the Bird Said Early in the Year
 I heard in Addison’s Walk a bird sing clear:
 This year the summer will come true. This year. This year.
 Winds will not strip the blossom from the apple trees
 This year nor want of rain destroy the peas.
 This year time’s nature will no more defeat you,
 Nor all the promised moments in their passing cheat you.
 This time they will not lead you round back
 To Autumn, one year older by the well worn track.
 This year, this year, as all these flowers foretell,
 We shall escape the circle and undo the spell.
 Often deceived, yet open once again your heart,
 Quick, quick, quick, quick!— The gates are drawn apart.

The gates are drawn apart today by a good death. May you find Christ, this year!