It’s family movie night, and Jon is stuck outside, dealing with a troublesome vehicle. The kids and I are sitting on the couch, watching Fantasia 2000. We’re nearing the end. Already, we’ve seen an abstract battle between light and darkness set to the music of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. We’ve watched a humpback whale calf dive and sport through sea and sky to the music of Respighi’s “The Pines of Rome.” A tangle of humorous characters has given us a tour of 1930’s New York City while Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” hurries them along. Donald Duck has loaded the ark to the accompaniment of “Pomp and Circumstance,” and “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” has rushed by in a blur, on fast-forward.
Then we hear the soft opening strains of Igor Stravinsky’s “The Firebird.” An elk ambles through the dewy morning in a green wood. He breathes on a stony overhang in a cave, and his breath condenses, one drop of moisture falling into the still pool tucked inside the cave. Something is born. Life stirs, hair parting as the water churns. She is lovely, fragile, a flowing curtain of hair and pale green robes. Her face is smooth and young, with eyes as golden as tree sap. She rises, emerging from the cave, and where her robes touch the ground, tender blades of grass spring up. Butterflies test their wings. Flowers open shy buds, and trees don robes of vivid green.
At her touch, the whole forest bursts to life. But she can only go so far. In the heart of the mountain that shadows the wood, nothing will grow. Something old and dark and lifeless as stone is waiting there. She peers at it, and it awakens. Rigid black lids part, revealing eyes that burn with fury and flame. The Firebird. It rises out of the mountain, trailing ash and smoke. It spreads its wings, summoning liquid fire, and the earth trembles. The foundations of the mountain are splintered. The Firebird soars over the forest, and wherever he passes, the earth is burned, drowned by great floes of lava. Grasses and flowers are scorched. The animals flee and perish. Trees bright with blossoms are blackened, broken. Rivers of fire pour through the forest, and everything is destroyed. Everything returns to dust.
In the gray aftermath, in the quiet of smoke and desolation, the elk returns, nudging at a gray heap on the barren ground. She is nothing now but flakes of ash. The faintest breath of wind could rip her apart. But the elk nudges her with his nose and Life rises, leaves of dust falling from her papery robes. She clings to his antlers, weeps. Her tears water the ground, and wherever they fall, green things sprout up, rising through the blackened earth. She takes heart, grows stronger. Her tears flow freely now. She spreads her flowing robes wide, and her grief waters the earth and everything is made new. She rises, flying high over the land. Mighty forests leap from the soil, and birds and bees and butterflies take to the air. In her sweeping train, everything grows tall and strong and green again. Even the mountain is blanketed with thriving forests.
I turn to my children. “That’s how much stronger life is than death,” I say. I’ve never seen it illustrated so clearly, so simply. Death rises up, godlike, and scorches the earth. It robs the world of its beauty. For one brief, terrible moment, it seems as if nothing will ever live again. But it cannot last. In the great expanse of eternity, it is only for a moment that the darkness seems to conquer. Then, beyond hope, at the gray edge of everything, Life comes surging back, crushing death. Our grief waters the soil, and what’s lost is regained. It grows larger, stronger, lovelier than it once had been.
“What’s lost is nothing to what’s found,” Buechner says, “and all the death that ever was, set next to life, would scarcely fill a cup.” Jesus drank that cup of death already. He absorbed the bitter draught, took it into himself, and transformed it into life and hope. Still, the Firebird is real. We have felt the force of his rage. We have stood in the gray quiet of the desolation he has wrought. But hold on, my friends. Hold on for another moment. Feel the life that trembles just beneath your feet. The soil is alive with innumerable green sprouts and countless spreading roots. It is coming. He is coming. Even now He comes, and “my Jesus makes all things new.”
Photo courtesy of Carey Pace (www.careypace.com)