“The Dying God” is a motif found in most mythologies, at least those in the western world. The Greeks had Prometheus, who gave fire to mortals and was punished by having his liver ripped out by an eagle every day, only to regenerate/resurrect at night. The Egyptians had Osiris, who was cut into pieces by his brother Seth, and whose resurrection stood as the pattern for the mummification of Egyptian dead. The Norse had Baldur the Beautiful, pierced by a hawthorn dart, who will be raised only after Ragnarok, the apocalyptic “Twilight of the Gods.” The Sumerians had Dumuzi (“Good/Faithful Son”), the Babylonians had Tammuz – cognates of an agricultural god whose death and rebirth represented the cycle of planting, harvest, and replanting. The Celts had Cernunnos, the “Horned God”, who almost certainly represents the same.
And then there is Jesus Christ, God made flesh, the perfect human whose death Christians remember today, and whose resurrection we celebrate on Sunday.
It certainly seems as though the death of divinity – the death of the immortal, the death of that which does not die – has been on the minds of the human race for much of its history. A skeptic would view this through the prism of human psychology: we explore the mystery of our own mortality through the prism of stories of gods who die. Perhaps we even see ourselves as would-be gods, and imagining a god who dies is our way of bringing the gods closer to us?
The great Christian writer C.S. Lewis saw it differently: he saw the motif of the dying god as a prefiguring of Christ – a pattern of awareness, throughout human history, of the great sacrifice that was coming — ripples in a pond, if you will, spreading backward through Time as well as forward. He wrote:
“In the New Testament, the thing really happens. The Dying God really appears—as a historical Person, living in a definite place and time. . . . The old myth of the Dying God . . . comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens— at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We must not be nervous about ‘parallels’ [in other religions] . . . : they ought to be there—it would be a stumbling block if they weren’t.”
This view of Christ, as fulfilling not only Hebrew prophecy, but also the myths and stories of a wide assortment of cultures that came before, is a startling one. For Lewis – and I find I agree – it is one of the things that points to the truth of Christianity. The Jewish religion is and always was the faith of the Jewish people particularly; God did not ask the Hebrews to proselytize, only to remain faithful to Him as His “chosen people.” The disciples of Christ, Jews all, were given a different mission: to spread the word to all people everywhere. That the Christian story contains a truth recognizable to all of those cultures with a story of a god who dies, and is reborn, underscores the universality of the message.
On this Good Friday, then, we remember the death of Christ: the paradox of an event so unimaginably horrible – the death of One who was never meant to die – that bore within it the fruit of the event so unimaginably marvelous: the resurrection of the dead and the liberation of all Mankind from the cycle of sin and death. Let us also reflect on the mystery of a historical event so profound, it was perhaps “remembered” centuries before it happened, almost as an inevitability of history.
Blessed Good Friday to all.