Death Working Backwards

by Charlotte Long, Youth Ministries

One of the most mystical and astounding moments in all of children's literature is the narrative of Aslan the Great Lion's death in C.S. Lewis' The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. As a kid, I had no idea that Aslan represented anything or anyone, and I think it's best that you don't either as I recap this scene for you.

Susan and Lucy are two ordinary sisters in the magical land of Narnia. The White Witch has just killed Aslan on a great stone table and Aslan has let her. He seems to have traded his life for the life of their brother Edmund due to the laws of something he calls "Deep Magic," but none of that really makes sense to the girls. In this moment, after witnessing the shaving, mockery and murder of their king, they are said to be "walking aimlessly" around the stone table in the dawn air, sorrowful and unsure of how to proceed.

At that moment they heard from behind them a loud noise - a great cracking, deafening noise as if a giant had broken a giant's plate. The Stone Table was broken into two pieces by a great crack that ran down it from end to end; and there was no Aslan. "Who's done it?" cried Susan. "What does it mean? Is it more magic?"

"Yes!" said a great voice from behind their backs. "It is more magic." They looked round. There, shining in the sunrise, larger than they had seen him before, shaking his mane (for it had apparently grown again) stood Aslan himself. "Oh, Aslan!" cried both the children, staring up at him, almost as much frightened as they were glad. "But what does it all mean?" asked Susan when they were somewhat calmer.

"It means," said Aslan, "that though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor's stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backward."

Death Working Backwards? What is this, Medieval Times? We are reasonable and intelligent Episcopalians, don't have us equating the Gospel with magic!

But look at this story and try and expand your notion of "magic," a word that has been used for hundreds of years in a scornfully incorrect way about prayer and our relationship with God. C.S. Lewis is speaking quite meaningfully of the hope of resurrection-a deeper magic than our traditional categories of decay and death. A deeper magic than our notion that death is the inevitable stop to lower-case-L life.

And the joy of this scene is that there is a "deeper magic" available for all of us. Which begs the question, "What does resurrection look like in our 2016 lives outside of ancient holy texts and children's chapter books?"

We soon will be celebrating Easter. Perhaps you could sometimes say as Aslan does that Easter is "death working backwards." It is both the celebration of the historical reality of the resurrection, as well as the hope in the future promise of our own.

Yet I am going to challenge Lewis on this phrase. What if it is not "death working backward" so much as it is death continuing its push towards resurrection, death continuing the cycle of life to something greater and holier? Often Jesus' death is simplified to some sort of bargaining deal with the Devil for our lives, as if God were someone keeping tallies and debts in a little book.

Jesus' death and resurrection show us that nothing can die forever.  All of the atoms of the universe and all of the energy of the molten core of the earth reaching up through the sediment and the rain which falls into the ocean only to evaporate back into the sky again - all of this is death and resurrection. So, too, does a baby's way of living die in order that a growing child may emerge; and then a teen and then an adult. "The Deeper Magic" is that death is not the ultimate power, and this is what the witch forgets.  She believes that the final measure of strength is in death. The witch does not represent a devil to which God owes something, the witch is us, our inability to Love completely, our small ego-self getting in the way and needing control. We are the ones who forget about the resurrection.

And so to remind us every year, the story of Aslan's rising is a story of shadow selves/small ego continuing to think that death is the way to power and that death will put a stop to human capability. The story is a reminder that we are made up of Godstuff. And death has no dominion over that. By witnessing the resurrection after death, our shadow selves have nothing left to fight with. No Devil or God is demanding sacrifice. Death is simply the path to resurrection. Things must die in order to rise to their more complete selves - and resurrection is not a demand either, but a GIFT.