The Time Between

We’re now a little way into the forty days between Easter and Ascension, and so I turn to a question that has puzzled me for a while.

What happened in that time between? What was it like?

From the glimpses we’re given in the Scriptures, it seems rather different from the pre-Easter life. For a start, Jesus was here sometimes, then He’d be gone. His presence seems to be a series of Appearances, not an ongoing thing like before.

It’s difficult to imagine the post-Resurrection Jesus falling asleep in the bottom of Andrew’s fishing boat, or teaching in the Temple courts, or laughing at Peter’s jokes.

It’s difficult to imagine Peter making jokes. In the time between, things are a lot more serious and weighty.

But my questions boil down to two, really. Number 1: what was Jesus doing when He wasn’t appearing to His disciples? And number 2: what was Jesus doing when He was appearing to His disciples?

The first one is a lot more difficult to answer, but the second one we are given a few clues about.

The Scripture says that He appeared to them over a period of 40 days and “gave many convincing proofs that He was alive”. Including, no doubt, spending several days at a time with them, so that they would lie down to sleep with Jesus among them, and wake to find Him still there. Including eating with them, walking with them in the clear light of day, interacting with people outside the immediate group. Including actually using the door, even though He’d proven He no longer needed it.

But then He’d be gone for a bit, and appear somewhere else. Just like CS Lewis’ Narnian Christophany Aslan, He’s not a tame Lion. Not someone who comes and goes as you please.

Secondly, based on what He did with the two on the road to Emmaus, I imagine He was taking them through the Scriptures, opening their minds and eyes to see all the passages that were talking about Himself. Giving them understanding of who Messiah really is and what He is about.

Thirdly, He’s preparing them for when the Holy Spirit comes. Instructing them not to go off in their own strength to try and start inaugurating God’s Grand Master Plan that they suddenly, finally comprehend, but to wait for the One who was coming after Him, Who would give them power.

Which leads me to my first question. What is He doing in those times when He isn’t appearing to His disciples?

Perhaps He’s beginning to prepare them for the time when He won’t be with them bodily. He knows that time is coming soon; five short weeks and most of a sixth, then they will see Him no more. They are going to have to operate without His physical presence.

Or perhaps He’s showing them that the Crucifixion was not something they had imagined. If He were back permanently, I can imagine that after a week or so, you’d start to wonder if He’d really died, or if He’d just swooned. It’d be like His death was a sort of illness (“I’m better now”), rather than an enemy that He had gloriously conquered.

No, death is still death, but it’s not the end you thought it was. I’m not back like Lazarus was, only to die again. I’m back in a different way, victor over death rather than snatched from its grip. And so I won’t be here in quite the same way.

In short, another of the “convincing proofs” that He is alive.

I don’t know that this is so, of course. I’m speculating. But it seems reasonable speculation.

The Emmaus Road

Sometime later that same morning. Cleopas and another disciple are on the road, heading out the seven miles to Cleopas’ home in Emmaus. Fighting the crowds thronging in to Jerusalem for the rest of the Passover festival, the “wrong way” of their physical orientation a metaphor for the way their lives felt right now.

But someone is going the same way they are. Their muffled conversation is interrupted with a friendly question: “What are you talking about as you travel along?”

They stop, staring. “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem that doesn’t know what’s been going on?” Are you really that clueless?

Apparently so. “What? No, I haven’t heard. What’s been going on?”

“About Jesus, from Nazareth. He was a great prophet, He did all kinds of miraculous signs, He spoke like we’ve never heard before. But our feckless rulers and the chief priests handed Him over to the Romans, and they crucified Him.

That was three days ago.

“What’s more, this morning some of our women amazed us with a tale of having been at the tomb to find the stone rolled away!

“They told us an astounding story about having seen angels who told them He was alive! Some of our men went up to the tomb and found it as they had described it, but Him they did not see.

“And we had hoped that He was going to be the One to save us…”

Now it’s the Stranger’s turn to stare. “You foolish men! How slow you are to believe what was written in the Scriptures! Isn’t it written that the Messiah had to suffer?”

You think I’m clueless? You’re the clueless ones! It’s all written in the Scriptures; you ought to have expected this!

And the Stranger takes them through the whole Bible, Torah and Prophets, beginning with Genesis, explaining what had been written about the Promised One.

They reach Emmaus, but the Stranger acts like He’s going further. Bye, guys.

But according to the custom they press Him to stay. Hospitality is a big deal, but you’re supposed to refuse a couple of times to let them show how much they really want you to stay by inviting you over and over. And the Stranger allows Himself to be pressed into staying.

The host would normally break the bread, but the Stranger reaches out His hands and takes the bread to break it.

And all of a sudden their eyes are opened and they recognise the Stranger for who He is: Jesus. And then He’s gone. Vanished. But they know the truth.

Christ is risen…

Peter and John

The women hurry back, filled with joy and bewilderment, and report to the disciples what the angel had said.

The disciples… act like men of their culture. Women, eh? Unreliable. One step from crazy, all of them.

Remember, most Jewish men daily thanked God that they were not born a woman. It would have required a massive leap of imagination for rural fishermen to step outside of their cultural norms like that.

So they don’t believe them. In this particular it’s easy to get smug. We Know Better. But we have our own blind spots.

But Peter (impetuous Peter!) and John decide that someone should at least go and have a look. Peter was probably still stricken with remorse over his denial. John, who kows what was in his mind and heart.

With two burly fishermen involved, of course it becomes a race. John runs faster than Peter, gets to the tomb first. But he doesn’t enter in. Any contact with a dead body, even accidentally, would make him ritually unclean. It’s engrained in him from childhood: you don’t ever go into a tomb.

He peers inside, sees a glimpse of grave-wrappings.

Then Peter barrels up, pushing right past John into the tomb itself, heedless of the ritual consequences. Where was the Master? Was it true? Would he truly have a chance to somehow make up for having denied?

Inside are the grave garments: long strips of linen that were wound around the body, typically with spices to help mitigate the smell of decomposition.

But there’s something strange here. The grave clothes aren’t scattered around, as if someone were hastily unwrapping the corpse. They’re folded neatly: stacked to one side, with the head shroud separately.

What sort of weird grave-robber takes time to take off and fold the grave clothes in the tomb itself? Especially with a squad of Romans posted outside lest anyone try any funny business.

Could it be true? Was the women’s incredible story actually real?

Christ is risen…

The Women

Early predawn on the first day of the week. Some women are hurrying through the night.

It’s dark; a physical darkness matching the spiritual despair. Jesus, the great prophet from Nazareth, whom they had believed was God’s Chosen One, the promised Messiah who would deliver them from their enemies and bring about the reign of God on earth, was dead.

In those last shocking days, one of His twelve specially-selected Apostles had betrayed Him, handing Him over to the chief priests, who in collusion with the Roman imperial government had put Him to death on trumped-up charges. Even the crowd had turned on Him, stirred up by the chief priests who hated Jesus’ popularity and feared Him as a threat.

He’d been hastily taken down from the cross in the last rays of Friday so as not to desecrate the holy Passover Sabbath, hurriedly wrapped in grave-clothes and placed in the tomb a rich sympathiser had had dug for himself. They had seen the several-ton boulder rolled over the entrance. But maybe they hadn’t seen Pilate’s Roman seal placed over it, or heard about the stationing of guards. They have come to do what no-one had time for: to prepare Jesus’ body properly for burial with the sweet spices that were customary.

They are mostly quiet, but when they do talk, it’s questions. Chiefly, “how are we going to get into the tomb?”

They have no answer, but they press on regardless. They have to try.

They pass by a squad of Roman soldiers in an apparent catatonic state. Fear and bewilderment take hold: what was happening?

When they reach the tomb, an even more terrifying sight meets their eyes. There is the stone, rolled away from the entrance like it’s a chickpea being shunted around a plate, and a large man in white clothes sitting on it. This is in a day before Persil and its ilk, mind you; a day when true white was one of the most challenging colours to make and preserve. He’s shining; they describe him as “like lightning”.

The man’s very presence is terrifying. Almost every time an angel shows up on earth, the first thing they have to say is “fear not”.

The man speaks.

“Do not be afraid,” he says. “I know that you are seeking Jesus,” he says. “He is not here! He has risen, just as He said! Why are you looking for the living among the dead?”

Christ is risen…

The Stone Table

The Stone Table

Having a rain day yesterday, and thus no work, I decided to get out my paint and brushes and see if I could set down on canvas one of the images in my head.

It’s not something I’ve done a lot of late, because it takes some planning to get the materials out from under my son Ethan’s bed while he’s not taking his nap, and he’s only stopped taking afternoon naps fairly recently. Also, my wife has a tendency to use my off days as a time to bustle around doing all the things she needs to do that are so much more complicated with children in tow. I don’t normally mind – with my work schedule I don’t see nearly enough of my children – but it does rather put a damper on painting.

So yesterday I decided, “you know what? I want to paint something”, and actually did it. Procrastinators of the world unite, some time tomorrow.

The result was “The Stone Table” here:

The Stone Table

I’ve been thinking about the Chronicles of Narnia quite a lot recently, and with Easter just passed it was perhaps inevitable that I should settle on the Narnian equivalent of the Easter story as my subject matter, but there’s more going on in my internal world than just an Easter picture.

In the Narnian world of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the Stone Table is a sort of megalithic monument, described as a great table of stone engraved with ancient writing. It’s the initial rendezvous point for Aslan’s company and the children, where the great Lion is encamped in his royal pavilion. More importantly, it’s where the Witch kills Aslan, the Narnian Christ-figure, and where he comes back to life in resurrected power.

It’s described as an ancient place even in the days of the coming of Aslan and the breaking of the Witch’s hundred-year winter, connected with the powerful and mysterious Deep Magic from the dawn of time:

“Have you forgotten the Deep Magic?”

“Let us suppose I have forgotten it,” replied Aslan. “Tell us of this Deep Magic.”

“Tell you?” the Witch shrieked. “Tell you what is written on this very Stone Table? Tell you what is carved in letters as deep as a spear is long on the fire stones of the secret hill? Tell you what is engraved on the sceptre of the Emperor-over-Sea?”

As I’ve grown older, the Stone Table has become associated not only with the Crucifixion but with the Law of Moses. Linguistically, it’s practically no distance at all from the tablets of stone that the Law was written on to a table of stone that the Deep Magic is written on.

Is the Deep Magic a Narnian incarnation of the Law, then?

Well, partly, perhaps. Certainly it looks symbolic of the “written code with its regulations that was against us and that stood opposed to us” (Colossians 2:14). The Law as our enemy, the cold power of legalism, the “letter” that “kills” as opposed to the “Spirit” that “gives life”.

Even, or more probably especially, as a follower of Christ, it’s dead easy to fall into legalism. Pun intended. Legalism is, after all, the essence of the religious spirit: the Rules we live by that tell us what God want from us and what we have to do to be a Good Christian. All of the “as a Chistian you shouldn’t…” things we add to the simple obedience of faith. Listen to that sort of music. Watch that sort of TV programme. Support that sort of political agenda.

In Colossians, St. Paul refers to these sorts of rules (“Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!” Col2:20-21) as “the basic principles of this world”, the same word he uses in Galatians 4:9 to describe the “weak and miserable principles” which the Galatian church were in danger of turning back to. As I understand it, the Greek words translated “basic principles” are also translateable as “elemental spirits”, and this connection may reveal a second layer of symbolism in the Deep Magic and the Stone Table.

In the ancient world of Greek philosophy there were four elements: Earth, Air, Fire and Water. Everything that existed was thought to be a combination of these four substances, which were presided over by guiding spiritual forces – the “powers of nature” if you will. In the Stone Table we have Earth, obviously. The “fire stones of the secret hill” are connected with Fire. The very name of the Emperor-over-Sea reveals a connection with Water. That’s three out of four.

I have no idea whether this symbology is deliberate choice on Lewis’ part or simply me reading into it. On the face of it, this speech of the Witch’s is just ornamental detail, but it’s suggestive ornamental detail. And CS Lewis may have had more going on in his Narnia books than meets the eye, as Michael Ward persuasively argues in Planet Narnia. A connection between the Deep Magic and the elemental spirits of this world is not out of the question, and certainly the way St. Paul uses the word in Galatians and Colossians is more to do with legalistic rules of “righteousness” than with the ancient elements. The Law, both as it is written and as it is applied.

But the Deep Magic, like the Law of Moses, is not bad in itself. It is, as Aslan points out, the Emperor’s Magic. It’s written on the Emperor’s sceptre; impregnated into the very fabric of the Narnian creation at the dawn of time itself. As St. Paul said, “the Law is holy and the commandment is holy (Romans 7:12). How can a Law which Paul speaks of as good in one breath be described as our enemy in the next?

It’s because we are fallen. We’re sinful, under the thumb of selfish desires we cannot fully master, proud, conceited, greedy and wrathful. A good Law can have bad effects if the one it is applied to is bad. To rescue us from the bad effects of the Law required something fundamental, because the Law, like the Deep Magic, is woven into the very fabric of the created order.

The universe is moral. We crave justice and hate it when justice cannot be seen to be done because we recognise at root that injustice Should Not Be. But all of humanity’s efforts have never succeeded in rooting out our flawed natures and creating the perfect moral society. Fascism tried. Communism tried. The Religious Right look like they’re trying, with all of the attempts to legislate Christian morality.

But we can’t do it on our own. Even the best of us are flawed. “There is not a righteous man on earth who does what is right and never sins” (Ecclesiastes 7:20). The whole idea that we can make a paradise here on earth by our own efforts is nothing less than a reinvention of the ancient alchemical dream that we can make gold.

In Narnia, however, the Deep Magic is not the highest law. There is a Deeper Magic from before the dawn of time, of which the Witch is sublimely ignorant. Aslan’s sacrificial death on the Stone Table puts an end to the power of the written code and the elemental powers of legalism. As Aslan explains, “If she had known the Deeper Magic, she would have known that if a willing victim who had committed no treachery were killed in a traitor’s stead, then the Deep Magic would unravel, the Stone Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards”.

The cracking and breaking of the Table is no natural event, but part of Aslan’s resurrection and symbolic of the final end of the Witch’s power, just as the arrival of Father Christmas heralded the joy of the new Spring and the unravelling of her hundred-year winter.

If a stone table were to break naturally through the weathering of years or an earthquake, you would expect it to collapse in the middle. This is how it’s often portrayed. But the breaking of the Table is anything but natural, so I painted it the opposite way. Just as in the mundane world the Temple curtain had to be torn from top to bottom, so in the Narnian world the Table should buckle upwards as if from a blast out of the very ground itself.

“What is it?” Susan asked. “Is it Magic?”

“Yes!” said Aslan’s voice. “It is more Magic!”

The Deeper Magic from before the dawn of time. The grace and mercy of God that triumphs over judgement and rescues from death.

I’m quite pleased with how it came out. Both the reality and the picture.

Without the Resurrection

Without the Resurrection, none of it makes sense.
The Cross is just another tragedy, a miscarriage of justice. Another innocent victim of the envy and sinfulness of men. The life of Jesus that of a good man inexplicably seeking death, and death in the most horrible way imaginable.
There’s no church. There may be a group of people still trying to follow Jesus and trying to live out his teaching, but that’s not the same thing.
The hope of the resurrection of the dead remains a vague and possibly unfounded piece of wishful thinking. Something to comfort yourself with when a loved one dies, not something to fortify the spirit against potential martyrdom.
There’s no assurance of salvation, no sure and living hope.
No putting an end to the Law and its written code. No grace in which we stand, only a vague hope that God will choose to be merciful.
What the early church in the Apostolic age talked about most was not the cross, not even in all its atoning glory.
It was the Resurrection.
The symbol of Christianity was never meant to be a cross, but an empty tomb.
Christ is risen!