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Jekyll and Jesus: Thoughts About Lent

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is one of those stories with a dramatic twist that most people already know before reading it. I hope that the original readers of the story were shocked by it, but very few people have been since. Probably a lot of people could give their opinion on Robert Louis Stevenson’s characterization of human nature without reading the story. I could have.

Regardless, the story still has a gothic horror quality. You might know how it will end, but the creepiness remains. Jekyll believes he’s found a way to separate his good impulses from his evil ones. With this ability, his real self will not be corrupted by the evil impulses that sometimes trouble him. Of course, he tragically fails.

Jekyll’s intentions are good to some extent–he wants to truly be the fine, upstanding person everyone thinks he is. But if I were to name a tragic flaw for Jekyll, it might almost be “impatience.” Jekyll wants to be good–now. So he takes what he thinks is the easy way out. And he destroys himself.

Why bother observing forty days of Lent? Well, maybe because we’re all a bit like Dr. Jekyll. We  believe we have a sin problem. We even want to do something about it. The problem is–we want it now.

Fortunately, none of us are capable of splitting our personalities. We are, however, capable of becoming impatient with ourselves, or, worse, with God. Why, we groan, can’t we just make a commitment or something and end the struggle?

The Lent season is about our struggle with sin. It is also about the life and death of Jesus Christ. And if there is one thing that we can learn from the life of Jesus Christ, it is that he was in for the long haul. No quick trip to earth, quick death, and quick resurrection. No. He spent about thirty years living in a particularly narrow-minded hometown, and the three years after that were hardly pleasant. His death may have been “quick” for a crucifixion, but crucifixions were never quick. And he didn’t rise again until three days later.

The author of Hebrews writes that Jesus can serve as our high priest precisely because he understands our struggles. His temptation in the wilderness was a particularly intense struggle, but it was not his only struggle. He was human. When death drew near, his instinct was to run away. Unlike us, he never sinned. But his temptations were more severe than most of ours. I expect he longed for them to be over with. So do we.

Jesus did not try to split his personality so that only one side could suffer temptation. Instead, he persevered. Dr. Jekyll wanted a way to avoid the battle within himself. Jesus faced his temptations head on.

To some extent, Lent is about patience. Easter seems a long way off (especially if you’re giving up something). Lent is also about courage–the courage to fight a battle with sin, although that battle seems unending. Yet there will be an end.

We await the Resurrection.

 
 

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The Life of the World

When I was in early elementary school, I liked dandelions—or at least I thought my mother did. In our backyard—the same yard where the grass stubbornly refused to grow, the yard where a new crop of rocks appeared every spring, no matter how many we collected and threw into the gravel part of the driveway—dandelions grew by dozens. Or perhaps hundreds. In any case, there were too many for me to bother counting. I picked them, though—two or three big dandelion flowers at a time. I would take them inside and give them to my mother, who inevitably put them in little glass cups by the kitchen sink, where they wilted and died. She always said thank you.

As I grew older, I slowly learned that dandelions are considered weeds. When you’re being forced to dig dandelions out of garden beds (those roots! uggh), you’re less likely to view them kindly. I also have certain grim memories of a boring and slightly distasteful children’s book with the main character—a lion—was named Dandy Lion. Ha. Ha.

A few days ago I finished reading The Chestnut King, the conclusion to the 100 Cupboards trilogy by N.D. Wilson. I read the first two books in the series last January (I’ve re-read them several times since then), but I wasn’t able to get the third book from the library until this summer. As I read it, I thought about dandelions. And I  realized, oddly, that I will never see them in the same way again. That’s not what I would typically carry away from a fantasy series.

Wilson tells the story of Henry York, born in another world and transported to Kansas by accident as a baby. Adopted by a pair of smothering but distant parents, Henry is protected from real life until his parents are kidnapped while traveling in South America. He returns to Kansas to stay with his Uncle Frank and Aunt Dotty. Henry doesn’t know his true background. But he does know that he likes Uncle Frank’s house better than his usual boarding schools and nannies. And in that house is something special—cupboards in the attic, portals to other worlds.

Henry does not know it, but he is a seventh son, destined to understand the world’s inner life and to merge its green strength with his own. And when he sees the inside of a dandelion burning with life, his own life will never be the same. He will find his first home and his true family. And he will also find an old evil, deathless—unless Henry, through the life that is in him, can become its death.

Why dandelions? Wilson argues that people tend to ignore the ordinary magic of our own world. Dandelions multiply, and no one tends to pay a great deal of attention (except a few people chagrined about the state of their gardens).  Dandelions are alive, and life is inherently magic. It comes directly from God, beyond our control or even our understanding.

Dandelions intruded into my prayers the other night. I was tired, emotionally and spiritually, and I told God that I needed some of Henry’s dandelion life. There’s some part of me that thinks it’s artistically bad to pray using metaphors from children’s fantasy novels, but I doubt that God (or Wilson, who is Reformed) minded. In any case, my mind turned from life in dandelions to life in something else—the Resurrection.

I’ve read, in passing, that the early church placed a greater emphasis on the Resurrection than the modern church does. And I typically do not think of it very often, aside from at Easter. I know what Christ’s suffering and death mean for me—how they affect my daily life. I participate in His death every time I take Communion. But the Resurrection is hardly mentioned between Easters, and I forget it. I have hardly thought about what it means.

Christ lives. He is the Life of the World. And I live, truly live, by drawing on that life. Henry becomes strong by relying on the strength of others, and particularly the life he sees blazing in one Kansas dandelion. But it is Christ’s life that is enlivening the world even now—his life that made dandelions, and his resurrected life that promises to resurrect dandelions, and the rest of creation. He is the Creator, the Sustainer, and the Renewer. That is the promise of the Resurrection.

There’s a song I’ve seen in hymnbooks, but have never sung—“Jesus Lives, and So Shall I.” It’s true enough, but incomplete. A better title might be “Jesus Lives, and So Do I.” Christ lives—now. His life turned death on its head. I don’t have the life of dandelions to draw on, but I do have the life of Christ, which pulses through the world—and through me.

 
 

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The Greatest of Good Catastrophes

Although Aristotle criticized its use, Horace was the first to coin a term for this somewhat unfortunate dramatic device–the deus ex machina (“god out of the machine”). Even without the Latin term, however, Aristotle made his opinion quite clear. Apparently he had gotten tired of Euripedes’ plots (Euripedes, the Greek dramatist, used the deus ex machina to resolve over half of his plays). Aristotle, while granting Euripedes some grace for his skillfulness in using this dramatic device, disagreed that it was appropriate in tragic drama. He held that the solution to a drama’s conflict should come from plot elements already at work, not elements introduced when all other hopes have failed. “There should be nothing improbable,” Aristotle argued, “in the incidents; otherwise it should be outside the tragedy.”

Last spring I was able to witness a first-hand example of what Aristotle meant when I attended a performance of Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale. When the statue of the (supposedly dead) Hermione came to life–I left the play rather bewildered. I enjoy Shakespeare, but such an abruptly happy ending was more than a little disconcerting.

“Disconcerted” would be one way to describe Christ’s followers on the morning of the Resurrection. (I prefer the more descriptive, if less sophisticated, term “running around like chickens with their heads cut off.” Read all four gospel accounts of the Resurrection in the same sitting, and you’ll see what I mean.) If I did not believe the truth of the gospel narratives, I would be inclined to consider the Resurrection as yet another deus ex machina. Coming back from the dead? Really?

J.R.R. Tolkien would have strongly disagreed with labeling the Resurrection as a deus ex machina, however. He had a different term for it, which he introduces in his essay “On Fairy-Stories”eucatastrophe (from the Greek, meaning “good catastrophe”). He described it this way:

“It is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”

For Tolkien, all of the higher fairy stories include eucatastrophic moments–moments when a likely doom is averted, not by a “god” being swung onstage by a crane (as in Greek drama), but by elements already at work in the story. Perhaps the most familiar example of eucatastrophe in Tolkien’s own writing is the moment in The Lord of the Rings when Gollum bites off Frodo’s finger and falls into Mount Doom. Gollum has been mentioned in the story nearly since the beginning; he has betrayed Frodo before, and we expect him to return for Frodo again. What we don’t necessarily expect is that he will provide the solution to Frodo’s collapsed willpower on Mount Doom. Gollum is no deus ex machina, but his actions on Mount Doom are certainly a eucatastrophe–an unexpected turning of the story for the good of all (excluding Sauron and friends) involved.

Tolkien considered the Incarnation to be a moment when myth became fact in the person of Jesus Christ. The stories many peoples had told of a god who came to earth, lived, and died suddenly became real. Being real, our accounts of the Incarnation don’t read like myth, as C.S. Lewis noted in Mere Christianity. They are “true myth,” as Tolkien and Lewis both conceived of it: and they have a eucatastrophic moment all their own, when hints of what might be suddenly became real in the Resurrection.

Christ’s Resurrection is hinted at as far back as Genesis. “He shall bruise your head,” God told the serpent, “and you shall bruise his heel” (ESV). The promised “offspring of the woman” would fatally crush the serpent, while the serpent’s attack on him, while painful, would not be fatal. David prophesied further of the Resurrection: “For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption” (ESV). Jesus repeatedly told His disciples, among others, that He would be killed, but would rise again after three days. No one, it seems, took Him seriously, even though they saw the power He had over death, particularly in the raising of Lazarus.

Christ’s Resurrection was no deus ex machina. Prophesied long beforehand, it should have been obvious to anyone paying attention to His statements and Old Testament writings that His death and Resurrection had been intended from the beginning. Christ’s response to the depression of Cleopas and his companion on the road to Emmaus indicates His frustration with their lack of understanding: “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” (ESV).

Christ’s Resurrection should not have been unexpected; yet it was. In any case, Christ’s Resurrection was certainly a turn of story that almost never happens–a eucatastrophe of the best kind. It ensured our salvation. “And if Christ has not been raised,” Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “your faith is futile and you are still in your sins…. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead…. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive” (ESV).

Thank God for the Resurrection, the greatest of all good catastrophes.

 
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Posted by on April 8, 2012 in Devotional, Holy Days

 

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