December 9, 2010
by Patrick Lafferty
[Anna] did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day.
Haughty, boorish, and almost completely insufferable. That's what we discern of Eustace Scrubb in the first several pages of C.S. Lewis' The Voyage of the Dawn Treader—the fifth of Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia. He is cousin to the Pevensie children—Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy. While exasperating the younger two Pevensies in the first chapter of the story Eustace was swept (literally) into Narnia and, to his chagrin, into the adventures of his extended family. Edmund, Lucy, and infuriated Eustace are hoisted upon the Dawn Treader, a majestic ship captained by Prince Caspian, whose present task was to sail east and find (or to avenge the deaths of) the friends of his late father. Edmund and Lucy eagerly accept the commission, while Eustace submits a needling protest.
Not far into their journey, the Dawn Treader anchors near an uncharted island, where Eustace goes exploring, partly for curiosity's sake and partly to escape briefly from what he considers to be irritating company. A fog settles in near dusk and Eustace becomes lost. He finds himself in a low valley, and, to his great shock, in the company of an aged dragon, who proceeds to take his last breath. Relieved, Eustace then finds the dragon's lair, which is full to the brim with treasure. Gold, silver, and jewels shimmer in both the darkened cave and Eustace's now greedy eyes. He slips a gold bracelet upon his arm and falls asleep for the night.
Eustace awakens to the rude discovery that he has been transformed into a dragon himself—and the bracelet he took is now pinching his dragon-sized leg. Unable to speak and desperate to find help, the now scaly Eustace flies to the Dawn Treader's camp. When the retinue eventually discovers the true identity of the dragon, Lucy steps forward to see if the healing elixir Aslan had given her could restore Eustace to his former self. Sadly, it could only reduce the swelling of his leg.
For days Eustace lives mournfully as a dragon, which has the intriguing effect of softening his hardened character. Only then does Aslan come to the afflicted child-dragon and lead him to a large bath-like well. There he invites Eustace to wash to ease the pain of his throbbing leg constricted by the bracelet. Before he can wash, though, Aslan tells Eustace to first undress. The boy molts like a lizard but each time finds yet another layer of scales beneath the other. Aslan then says, “You will have to let me undress you.” By the lion's sharp, devastating claws, Eustace is released from his squamous hide in an experience both excruciating and exhilarating. It had taken something more intense to liberate Eustace from what held him—in both body and heart.
This last Sunday we looked at the coming of Jesus through the eyes of Anna, a woman who knew the word of God and who, being a widow for decades, also knew the affliction of loss and uncertainty. But amid her lack and longing for the redemption of God's people, she clung to the Lord by prayer, and, the text says, fasting. She declined the customary and inclined herself to the Exemplary to find faith in the extraordinary. When the extraordinary appeared, her joy intensified.
This Child would grow and eventually speak of the importance of fasting as a means of communing with God—once even suggesting that prayer and fasting were prerequisite for the most entangling spiritual issues. For some afflictions, you see, require particular intensity in our attention to God. We decline the customary to incline to the Exemplary to find faith in challenges that are extraordinary. Like Eustace, we require something akin to Aslan's undressing us Himself before we can walk free of longstanding, deeply entrenched priorities and attitudes. Fasting is one context in which we allow God to rip through our toughened resistance to change.
There was another brilliant but cheeky British lad named John Lennon. Thirty years ago this week, he was gunned down near his apartment in New York City by a manically envious man named Mark Chapman. In an interview with Lennon long after the breakup of the Beatles, he was asked about the recent work of his former songwriting partner, Paul McCartney. His response was at first tongue-in-cheek, but then rather candid: “I think he'll do great work. . . .I wish he wouldn't—I wish nobody would—Dylan or anybody. In my heart of hearts I wish I were the only one in the world.”
We may not be manically envious of another's fame, or deeply desirous to be the pinnacle of what we're known for. But in all of us there's an instinct to establish our own worth independently of the God who made us. We give ourselves to what does not suit us, and more importantly, which cannot satisfy us. Through fasting, He undresses us of our folly as we more intensely ponder the sufficiency of His Son's work on our behalf. What must He undress you of today?