Anticipation is the best part of Christmas, at least for a child. Half of the wonder and joy of it all is counting down the days, seeing the presents pile up under the tree, and preparing — all for that one day.
Our Christian hope is a lot like that, only Christmas day ends while the eternal life we anticipate does not. But there’s a difference. A child looks forward to Christmas because he’s experienced it before. That lends to the excitement. But often it feels like the hope of heaven we’re offered is vague, distant, and unrealistic to anything we’ve ever experienced or desired.
Perhaps you’ve never thought this through and been satisfied to read about golden streets and pearls and just assume it’s got to be good. Or maybe you’re like the young woman in Elizabeth Prentiss’ classic Stepping Heavenward, who honestly complains if heaven will be the bore of sitting in rows and singing hymns all day, she’s not sure she wants to go there!
I was blown away recently by C.S. Lewis’ solution to this apparent problem of hope in his short essay “Transposition.” Lewis suggests that what we know of eternal reality on this earth is a mere ‘transposition,’ because the reality itself is greater than what we can comprehend right now. Imagine, he says, a boy is born in a dungeon and has never seen the outside world. To explain what trees and sky and houses look like, his mother draws these things on paper. The boy is very excited, but as she tries to explain, she realizes that he legitimately thinks that the trees and sky and houses she is attempting to draw are actually made out of black and white lines!
This, Lewis says, is something like how we understand eternal, spiritual reality in the here and now. The spiritual reality we’ve yet to experience is transposed for our limited understanding like lines on a paper. What we know now, both in the biblical descriptions and in our own desires and feelings of pleasure, is but a transposition of spiritual reality, which is far more real, far greater, and perhaps far different, than anything our limited minds can comprehend right now.
How does this practically grow our gift of hope? It means the best we experience now is but a taste, a foreshadow, of what it is come. In Lewis’ words: “These things — the beauty, the memory of our own past — are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself, they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of the flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have never yet visited.”
As we relish in the pleasures that Christmastime brings, let us remember that they are but a broken picture of the eternal hope Christ promises us, when our spiritual family will be reunited to never be separated again, when we will experience a vast inheritance that never rusts or fades, and most of all, when we get to see Christ, the baby born in the manger, face-to-face!
- I don’t want to get overly philosophical, but I don’t take Lewis’ dungeon analogy to mean the same thing of Plato’s famous cave analogy of shadows on a wall. Plato was suggesting that what we see and sense in this world doesn’t represent true reality, while true knowledge of the higher reality comes from the philosophical journey. Lewis is not saying what we can touch and feel on this earth isn’t real, but that it pictures in an imperfect and broken way the New Heavens and New Earth we will someday experience. For more on this, I recommend his book, The Great Divorce.
- C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory, 30-31.