Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Ivory Cubicle | Resurrection by Fire

As I was reading C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia recently, I was struck by a minor character, barely noticed, who appears only twice in the entire series – the phoenix. His first appearance is in The Magician's Nephew, perched in a garden at the creation of a new world. His second appearance is in The Last Battle, in the True Narnia, in the true garden, as the old Narnia turns itself inside out at the end of time.

I always found the phoenix to be a peculiar character in mythology. In the earliest legends, as the phoenix comes to the end of his 500-1000 year life, it builds itself a nest of twigs and lights itself on fire, a new phoenix rising from the ashes. In Narnia, the appearance of the phoenix at both the start and end of the story identifies the life and death of Narnia itself with story of the phoenix. Arriving in the True Narnia requires the destruction of the old Narnia. Narnia must be reborn. The world itself must die before it can truly be brought to life.

Coming To Life

Scripture is laden with the imagery of passing from death to life. Christ tells us that “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). The Apostle Paul nails the point home with even stronger language in his letter to the Corinthians, “what you sow does not come to life unless it dies” (1 Cor 15:36).

It seems, then, that life requires death. In order to experience the true, divine reality that we are intended for, we must first die, and that death is, like the phoenix, a death by fire (Zec 13:9, 1 Peter 1:7). It is a process of being melted down and then refashioned into beings capable of existing in the presence of a holy God. We sow in a corrupt body, we are raised in a glorified body (1 Cor 15:42-44).

It was at about this stage that it hit me. A dead man contains within himself a latent possibility of coming to life. To be dead is to be able to be alive. But we cannot do it without Christ. That's why Christ's resurrection is so important. The Resurrection is not an exception to the rule, it is the rule. Without his Resurrection, we are simply souls held captive by death. But by his Resurrection, Christ our victor has conquered death and holds the keys of death and hell (Rev 1:18) so that we can be freed from the law of sin and death (Rom 8:2).

So that the phoenix can rise from the ashes.

The choice that faces us, then, is, in the words of T.S. Eliot, a choice between fire and fire. We can choose the cleansing, purifying fire that puts to death the old man so that the new man can rise from the ashes, or we can choose a tormenting fire, one of eternal damnation.
The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre-
To be redeemed from fire by fire
-T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding
But wait! There's more! This story of life and death is also being told throughout all of history. This earth, with all its pain, suffering, evil and decay, is groaning and travailing in anguish, longing to be freed from bondage (Rom 8:19-22). It too will pass away in fire (2 Peter 3:10), and be reborn as a new heaven and a new earth (Rev 21:1).

So why is Christ's death and Resurrection significant? Because in addition to satisfying God's just demands, serving as a ransom for all, and conquering death and hell, it also contains within it the story of every single man who is saved and all of creation as a whole. All the rules of the universe, all the principles upon which the spiritual word is built, were written with one cataclysmic event in mind, an event that ripples throughout time and eternity – the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

“Christ is risen from the dead, trampling over death by death. Come awake, come awake, come and rise up from the dead.” -Matt Maher, "Christ is Risen"

by Nick Barden
Image: by Friedrich Justin Bertuch (1806)

1 comment:

  1. I really enjoyed this article, Mr. Barden. I have never investigated mythology, but I do remember the phoenix in "The Chronicles of Narnia." Your exposition of the symbolism of the phoenix alongside Christianity is quite profound.

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