It is at funerals more than anywhere else, that I feel glad to be a thoroughgoing Christian. Not because of any naive belief in life after death, or because of faith in my own personal survival, about which I am to say the least agnostic, but rather because of all the arrant, sentimental twaddle and sub-Christian guff that I hear at too many funerals, from those who are not thoroughgoing Christians.
The artificial turf of platitude
All that pretence, hypocrisy and fantasy; the artificial turf of platitude and euphemism used to insulate people from the reality of death’s terrible finality, horror, grief, and sorrow, and which represents, it seems to me, a refusal to acknowledge that death signifies the unutterable end to all the sweet human mutuality, creative development, dialogue and give and take that make our loving relationships so wonderful and life enhancing.
You know what I mean, we’ve all heard it at funerals and cringed: “Old Mum’s in a better place now, cooking Anzac biscuits for the angels....” or “Dad’s up there looking down on us, having a beer with Uncle Bert, sharing a joke and barracking for Collingwood......” or that famous and well loved funeral piece written by Henry Scott Holland which begins with a downright lie: “Death is nothing at all, I have only slipped into the next room....”
Death is nothing at all? Nothing at all? Rubbish! It is the end to everything we hold dear. Did Jesus of Nazareth in Gethsemane sweat tears of blood over nothing? Over nothing at all?
Finality loads life with significance
To refuse to face up to death’s horrible reality like this is infantile. Our maturity as human beings lies in accepting the truth, not in evading it, and being enabled, in the accept-ance of death’s brute truth, to determine all the more strongly to press on and live life’s every precious, death-bounded moment with a profoundly appreciated intensity, and so to make something worthwhile of such moments as we still have to live.
In fact it is the finality of death and the honest acknowledgement of that finality that helps load every moment of life with significance and poignant potential. Love now, love now, love now! Do what you want to do for the beloved now, now, now! Because, as St John’s Jesus says: “Night is coming, when no one can work.”
Reading Jesus’ death aright
But if this is so, if death is so final, then what is it exactly that we celebrate at Easter? What can we possibly mean when we say with mother Church, “death is defeated,” and when we sing with such joy all those marvellous hymns of victory?
I shocked a colleague in conversation recently by remarking that had Jesus of Nazareth died in the certain knowledge that he was going pop back to life in three days time then his death is emptied of most of its heroism and significance.
But that is not how those of us who are serious about our faith, and who theologise it into a story to live by and die for, and who read scripture to discern it truth rather than for merely personal comfort and reassurance, do read Jesus’ death.
Finis, caput, terminus, full stop
Gethsemane tells us, as does the doctrine of the Incarnation, that Jesus was human, was man, was incarnate, he died as we die. It is all there in the passion narratives, death does its worst to him, not only in the form of physical pain and final extinction, but in the terror and desolation with which Jesus approaches it. He lets go of everything, even the hope that God will intervene to spare him.
He died indeed as we die, that is, he went down into death’s darkness into the dissolving of all things, into dust and nothingness as we do. Knowing, as do we, that in the only way he could be himself he was ceasing to be. No more touch, taste, hearing, smelling, seeing; nothing to communicate with, nothing to communicate; nothing with which to relate, so nothing to relate to; the end then of love, friendship, companionableness, freedom, joy, happiness. When we die, when he died, it all stops, finishes, ends. It is finis, caput, terminus. Full stop.
But..... one thing, one thing only does remain. We might cease to be, but there is still God.
Which is exactly as it was at the beginning of creation when too, there was nothing, absolutely nothing, except God, and then, what God called into being.
Death can destroy anything in our universe, but not God, its maker and redeemer.
Into the hands of the living God
And so even if, as mature human beings, we must accept rather than evade the truth that when we die we cease to be, and that all our hopes and schemes fall into the dark, nonetheless, we do so knowing that God remains. That God is unchanged, and so to die is indeed, to “fall into the hands of the living God”, as the Epistle to the Hebrews puts it.
And that “living God”, once upon a before time called into being from nothingness, both time and space as well as a universe to articulate both!
What we celebrate at Easter, then, is a new creation. The Easter story is not about how Jesus survived death, or how his spirit or divinity outlasted his mortal frame, rather it is about a person going down into darkness and into the dissolving of all things, and being called again out of that nothingness just as was the Universe itself called out of nothingness at the first Creation.
Stifled not even by nothing
Easter Day is the first day of creation, all over again, or, as some have put it, is the eighth day of the week, an unimaginable extra, that is assured by the fact that God’s creative word is never stifled or silenced.
So for thoroughgoing Christians, like me and I hope you, Easter challenges us to accept death for what it really and terribly is, rather than evade it, euphemize it, disguise it, and so to go on and live life courageously to the full in that knowledge. But then as well, it offers us the real and truly believable hope, that although death is both inevitable and an end to all we are, it is also overcome because the Creator’s voice, which is stifled not even by nothing, calls us back into being as readily as once it called a universe into being.
What a wonderful, hopeful, sophisticatedly simple faith is the Easter Faith. Who would want to be other than a thoroughgoing Christian? Not me.
(The inspiration for the above, which I acknowledge with gratitude, is a sermon by Rowan Williams, many traces of which remain. It is the subtlety and profundity of the original has all but disappeared. AN)