Friday, April 02, 2010

Once Upon a Time...

We remember that an important event happened today as I'm sure you are all aware... and just in case you had forgotten, Google wants to leave you in no doubt...

That's right... today is the anniversary of the birth of the Danish author, Hans Christian Anderson.

Of course I write with something of an air of sarcasm... despite Google's political correctness, we recall that something much, much greater occurred on this day... because it just so happens that (this year at least), Anderson's birthday falls on Good Friday.

Many fundamental atheists may scoff and feel that is fitting that Anderson - the writer of children's stories and fairy tales, shares this day with what they consider to be the ultimate fairy tale story - the Gospel.

Amazingly, I agree with them but for entirely opposite reasons.

What do I mean?

Well... amongst his other works, Hans Christian Anderson wrote a little fairy tale you might have heard of - The Ugly Duckling. We all know the story... a mother duck lays a clutch of eggs and broods over them... but one of the eggs she warms does not belong to her... it found its way into the nest by some other means... but she doesn't notice. As the hatchlings emerge, it soon becomes clear that one of the ducklings is very different indeed. He suffers abuse at the hands of his siblings and fares little better in the wider world. Eventually the duckling ends up alone in a bitter winter... expecting to meet his end. However, when spring arrives his visage has utterly transformed and he has become a beautiful swan... capable of winning the hearts of his former abusers.

That tale, although largely written by Anderson as an autobiographical parable, shares similarities with the ministry of Jesus. Today a passage from the book of Isaiah is often read out... it is a prophecy that speaks to us of the life of Jesus. It begins:

"Who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed? He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted."
Isaiah 53:1-4

You may think (and one could hardly blame you because of the way he is often portrayed), that Jesus Christ is someone you might find hard to relate to. I disagree. He was born upon this Earth to live as one of us. He experienced the full spectrum of human emotions available from his experiences. He knew what it was like to be different... and what it meant to be despised for being different. He knew loneliness, he knew the deepest sadness... and by virtue of his passion... his suffering, he knows exactly what it's like when we are experiencing pain and sorrow.

Upon Good Friday, it seemed that all that suffering was in vain. Jesus - suspended from a crude wooden cross and apparently abandoned by God... died. He entered into the bitter winter that is death.

But it was not for nought:

"But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. By oppression and judgment he was taken away. And who can speak of his descendants? For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was stricken. He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth."
Isaiah 53:5-9

You see... Jesus, although he was raised as one of us, lived as one of us and completely shared our humanity... in as much as he was all these things, he was also equally God. Just like the ugly duckling, his origins were different. If you go to various old churches and look in the stained glass windows, you often see an image of a swan. This may seem obscure but it is no mistake. In the older days, people mistakenly believed the swan fed it's cygnets by plucking food from its own breast (presumably the y mistook the bird's preening of itself for this). Artists inspired by this image drew the analogy and made the point that Christ was God granting his people life, by sacrificing his own body. There are many other allusions to swans and Jesus, you can read a few of them on this page that I discovered.

"Yet it was the LORD's will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the LORD makes his life a guilt offering, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand. After the suffering of his soul, he will see the light of life and be satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities. Therefore I will give him a portion among the great, and he will divide the spoils with the strong, because he poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors. For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors."
Isaiah 53:10-12

You might think it cold and capricious of God, the Father to desire the crushing, suffering and death of his Son... let alone actually allow it to take place... but to think that, is to misunderstand the relationship between Jesus and the Father. John's gospel in particular speaks a lot about the oneness in the relationship between the Father and the Son... and in another prophecy God tells his people that they will "look upon me, whom they have pierced". So whilst the Father speaks of Jesus as a separate person here... it's clear that they are (along with the Holy Spirit), also one person. So when the crucified Jesus spoke of God forsaking him... he was speaking on an entirely different level to what we normally comprehend when saying that.

You've seen the awesome power that is released when the atom is split... how much more so was the power released when the Godhead was split; for the power of God goes unimaginably far beyond the nuclear.

If the ugly duckling had died in the bitter winter that followed its suffering, it would forever have been known as the ugly duckling. Similarly, if Jesus had remained in the grave... there would have been nothing special about his death. Just as spring revealed the swan... Christ's resurrection on Easter Sunday revealed his sonship... and confirmed that his sacrifice, intercession and atoning sacrifice had been acceptable in the Father's sight.

There's an interesting fact about the word atonement. When the Bible was first being translated into English, there wasn't a word that described what it means. William Tyndale had to invent it. It literally means exactly what it says on the tin: at-one-ment (being returned to a state of oneness). That's the great thing about Jesus Christ... he didn't just return to life, he opened a door that allows us all access to that oneness with God.

When the ugly duckling became a swan, nothing else changed... but Jesus offers us all the opportunity to become "swanlike", to quote an old praise song he "lifts our humanity to the heights of his throne". The ugly duckling's story ended... but the story of Jesus goes on because his story is our story... the human race learning soul by soul to kneel in humanity before God's utter compassion and being changed from glory to glory because of it.

A few years ago at Easter, I posted the lyrics of a Phil Overton Song "Golgotha"; I think I want to leave you with the final verse of that song as my parting thought. You see, despite the fact that Good Friday and Hans Christian Anderson share today; despite the fact that there are similarities between The Ugly Duckling and the life of Jesus, there is a greater fact in the contrast. The Ugly Duckling is just a fairy tale... but the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the truth... and the truth shall set you free:

And this is no fairy story but reality.
Death it couldn't hold him.
He arose in victory!
From the place of a skull, to a place of majesty,
From the place of a skull, to a place where we can see that He’s alive…
Oh yeah, Jesus is alive
Jesus is alive,
Jesus is alive.

...and one day we'll all live happily ever after.



  1. Anonymous4:01 pm


    this is beautiful. i can but weep at the "glory of it all"

    Similarly, if Jesus had remained in the grave... there would have been nothing special about his death. Just as spring revealed the swan... Christ's resurrection on Easter Sunday revealed his sonship... and confirmed that his sacrifice, intercession and atoning sacrifice had been acceptable in the Father's sight.

    the following song has been my mantra this week. the images are hard to watch but how can we not??

  2. Thanks... somebody else drew my attention to the Anderson/Google thing and while most reasons to be critical... I thought I'd try and see it as an opportunity to do something positive! :-)


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