Sunday, October 10, 2010

Back from the Depths

The year was 1916 and Tsar Nicholas II, ruler of all Russia had undertaken to acquire a large measure of wine from one of the world’s most esteemed regions. It was a simple plan, an elegant plan. Purchased in a picturesque French province, the wine was loaded onto a large vessel. From there it was to be ferried east across frigid boreal waters to the distant shores of the empire. Then, upon making landfall, it would be carried to the imperial palace and a waiting monarch.

It was a simple plan, an elegant plan. But, it was not to be. As with all good stories, there was a twist. And this one was a doozy. The great war we’ve come to call World War I was then underway, and a world at war is a perilous place. In the interest of brevity, let’s just say that during the journey one hostile German U-boat and a well placed torpedo conspired to send the craft and its contents sinking beneath the frosty waves of the Gulf of Finland.

One might fairly imagine this would mark the tragic end of the tale. But, not so. You see, after better than 80 years on the seafloor, the vessel and its cargo were rediscovered. While the last ruler of the Russian Empire would never taste a drop of his wine, were he alive today he would yet have his chance. And I suspect he’d be pleased to know that his wine has taken its place among the most costly in the world, with single bottles fetching six figures.

The story of Christ is much like this. It’s a story about something very valuable that was lost only to be regained. It’s a the tale of a restoration that took place when nothing seemed less likely, a stunning reversal that lends its own special glory. In the last post we spoke about the means of this restoration. We looked at the Hero’s Journey of Christ and saw that it culminated in the attaining of a supreme prize, one vital aspect of which is the power to bring you, and ultimately the entire world, back from the depths.

To feel the force of this, we have to take a step back. The picture scripture paints of you is not pretty. There is an unrelenting darkness holding sway over your life. In more lucid moments you know it, feeling yourself lying vanquished under a life-diminishing, soul-extinguishing power you are unable to fight. And the biting perversity lies in this: You are a willing slave to this thing, this cannibalizing force that brings you to destroy you.

As if this were not enough, you live in enmity with the very Power who created the world. Before him you stand justly condemned. Living out your days under his wrath and curse, you inhabit a world that is likewise cursed. And you are utterly devoid of any strength to climb out of this mire or do the least thing that is spiritually good. We could go on and on, but suffice it to say, it goes downhill from there.

At the heart of the Christian story is the idea that, on the basis of his great conquest, Christ is able to make all of this come untrue. That’s right. And one critical piece of this involves removing entirely the thing that has caused the breech between you and your Maker. The guilt of our sin, in its totality and awful power is destroyed, vanishing before a still greater power, the death of the eternal Son of God.

Some of you reading this will have heard for many years now that Christ secured forgiveness for all your sin. But somehow, tragically, it remains largely unreal. You don’t believe it, really believe it as you move through life. Very rarely do you savor the knowledge that your sins are not credited to you, that they no longer cling to you.

When you fall you still feel condemned, not realizing that it is precisely this that keeps you from standing firm. You don’t yet know as you must come to know, that in Christ, though God may discipline you as a son, there in no condemnation, no wrath, no curse. Ever. You don’t realize that you are so clean in him that it is as if you had never sinned. Never.

You don’t grasp that it is just as if another had committed all of your crimes and then paid the terrible price. You don’t really believe that in Christ you are subject to new laws of being, that you are no longer under the killing law, but living in the expansive liberty of a place called grace. You think that if you were really to believe this dangerous truth you would throw off all restraint, not knowing it’s the only thing that can free you to serve God from the heart.

But, dare to believe again, as if for the first time. Believe that you have been rescued from the depths unscathed, but your sins have not. Then go and learn the meaning of these words: “He will again have compassion on us; he will tread our iniquities underfoot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea.”

Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Ultimate Boon

It’s a very curious thing. Were it possible to eavesdrop on tales told beside Aztec hearths, you would find them echoed in stories whispered around campfires this very night. Sift through the fables of the far east, and you find yarns told on the Silk Road bear striking resemblance to Greek myths. Ponder the folktales of India and you’ll catch broken glimpses of epics recited under Arctic skies.

It's a concept as simple as it is profound. When we survey the legends of mankind there are certain key themes, certain fundamental features that appear time and again. Cut across the centuries, scour every corner of the globe, and in time you’ll discern a refrain. The instruments may change, but the songs are the same.

How can we account for this? To what unseen connectivity do we owe these uncanny parallels? Whatever the answer is, I more than suspect it has bearing on the matter we raised last time: What are you? What is a human? What were you, are you, might you be? Is it not possible that important clues are to be found in the stories we tell ourselves?

One of the most tantalizing ideas in comparative mythology is that there is a common core behind many of our tales. What's more, it has a particular shape. Indeed, the similarities both structural and thematic are so pervasive that some suggest many stories are simply permutations of a single fundamental tale. The best known incarnation of this idea is in the body of work produced by Joseph Campbell. In his seminal work, The Hero with A Thousand Faces, Campbell posits that there is a single proto-story, a “monomyth” lying behind a great many of our classic stories.

In this great archetypal tale, which Campbell calls the hero’s journey, the protagonist crosses a threshold into another realm, there to face great trials and accomplish certain tasks. The greatest of these involves undergoing a death-like experience he terms ‘the belly of the whale’ or ‘the abyss.’ Passing through this supreme ordeal, the hero effects a great atonement and returns to his former world with “the ultimate boon,” a great gift or gifts he may bestow upon his fellows.

If it occurs to you this sounds terrifically like the story of Christ, I think you’re on to something. But what are we to make of this? Is his story simply one in an endless parade of tales expressing this same basic plot? Or is something else, something far more wonderful, going on here? Is it just possible that in the man Jesus Christ, myth, as C.S. Lewis asserted, became fact? Might it not be that in him the substance of humanity’s folk-stories has become actual?

J.R.R. Tolkien held that the power of myth lies precisely in the fact that, though clothed in fictional garb, they are telling us something that is fundamentally true. Yet, in the case of Christ, we’re dealing with something of an entirely different order. The gospels, wrote Tolkien, contain “a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories.” And yet, astonishingly, it is a story that has “entered history and the primary world.” He goes on, “There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many skeptical men have accepted as true on its own merits....This story is supreme, and it is true. Art has been verified. God is the Lord of angels, and of men, and of elves. Legend and history have met and fused.”

It’s an electrifying idea. The stories we tell ourselves give expression to our deepest hopes. It might even be said that through them we intuit, if obscurely, what must take place to restore us as a race. Here we see that it has happened. One has has come, like the great Hero of the monomyth, and crossed the threshold into the realm that is our world. He journeys along a path replete with trials which culminate in the supreme ordeal of the cross and his going down into death itself.

The book of Hebrews beautifully unfolds what happens next. Passing through the rent veil of his own body, Christ dies, rises and enters the abode of the Most Holy, not a sacred space in a man made temple, but the true dwelling place of the infinite Spirit that is God. There, by virtue of his own supreme self-sacrifice, he obtains the Ultimate Boon, the Great Gift, what the writer of Hebrew calls “Eternal Redemption.”

What exactly did Christ lay hold of in his supreme hero’s journey? What are the great gifts and powers acquired by him for those who would follow? In coming posts I want to explore these things in some detail. Soon we will see that the spiritual life is made possible by Christ’s journey, indeed is a kind of participation in the journey of that great Pathbreaker who is rightly called the ‘Desire of all nations.’