Advent’s Four Last Things: DEATH


DEATH

In the New Testament, resurrection is key. Its light transforms all the life described there, placing all things under its spotlight, and revealing the extent of God’s love for us.

Without shadows, it is hard to see death in its full harshness. It’s there, of course: the young man at Nain, Lazarus, Jairus’ daughter, are all stone-cold dead. Lazarus has been dead for so many days that there’s a stench. Jairus has brought in the professional mourners. The townsfolk of Nain are already wondering what will happen to the bereaved widow without a man to belong to. (Luke 7:11, John 11:39, Mark 5:38.)

The New Testament depicts death as final and irreversible. Lazarus is not sleeping. Jesus told the disciples plainly, “Lazarus has died.”’ (John 11:14)

A humorous old spiritual, The Deacon Went Down to the Cellar to Pray, has a chorus which claims ‘You can’t get to heaven on roller-skates, You’ll go right past them pearly gates.” Underneath the humour there’s a serious point: If you fail to take death seriously enough, you’ll miss out on the resurrection.

Despite popular culture’s love-affair with murders, we are reluctant to talk seriously about death. Our unexamined fear of death makes Western society especially vulnerable to, say, Al-Qaeda’s acts of terror.

At Christmas-time when absence scratches at people’s wound of loss, our unfamiliarity with death prevents us from providing comfort and community to the bereaved.

Death has the last word. We are the stronger for facing its power. Classics like Bishop Jeremy Taylor’s Holy Dying admonish Christians to face death full on as a powerful way of growing spiritually.  It’s not good enough to say that we will be raised with Christ. First, we die. We must experience the reality of death: no-one escapes it.

Eugène Ionesco’s play, Exit the King, is a powerful meditation on death. The King comes to realise that the whole world dies when he dies. Trees, people, stars, the universe, all disappear with me, me! he complains. Each death is indeed an appalling loss. Each individual is of cosmic worth, and her or his unique talents and personality are plundered from the world at death. All ceases to exist when we die.

As Christians, we shout, ‘Death may have the last word, but God has the last last word!’ God reached into the tomb where Lazarus’ earthly remains were starting to rot, and brought him back to the world of the living.  Jesus himself was dead and buried: gone from existence. Yet God called Jesus back into existence so triumphantly that the raising of Jesus is a guarantee that, if we stick with him, we too will be called back into life (I Thessalonians 4:14), a life that is even more glorious than this life.

Believing in resurrection is not enough. It’s like being sure that Houdini will escape from the water-tank. Of course, he will: that’s the nature of illusions. But our dying is real, not an illusion. Jesus, like us, was born to die, and it is only in the spiritually-bracing acceptance of death, death as final act, that we can open to the possibility of being raised from the dead.

Our response can only be ‘Alleluia’.

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Raising of Lazarus, Sebastiano del Piombo, 1519 (Wikipedia)
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