By Cole Hartin
People will tell me that the reality of death so far exceeds the thought that when we actually get there, all our fine fencing amounts to nothing. Let them say so: there is no doubt whatsoever that meditating on it beforehand confers great advantages. Anyway, is it nothing to get even that far without faltering or feverish agitation?
— Michel De Montaigne, “To philosophize is to learn how to die”
There is a philosophical tradition that aims to familiarize oneself with that awful, creeping darkness by which we will all one day be consumed. Montaigne’s words here point to that ancient tradition that was later taken up by Christians. It is pragmatic and to-the-point: Death’s meaning is immaterial. We all must die, so we might as well get used to it.
By meditating on death, we might be able to face it with composure, restricting the panic and suffering that would otherwise engulf us. The fear, the dread, that accompanies death is not lessened in any way — all of the terror remains — but through this self-imposed regime of cognitive behavioral therapy, we assuage it by taking the novelty and surprise out of death. Nothing external changes, but our attitude does, and this means that when we cease to exist, we do so composed rather than flailing. And, if we can make our deaths slightly less unpleasant, why not do so?
The wisdom of this tradition — a wisdom verified with the loss we experience at every funeral — is worth heeding. None of us get out of life alive. We are all going to die. Life, in an ultimate sense, will not get better.
Now, I don’t mean to diminish that reality that has been revealed in Christ’s resurrection, that he is the “first fruit of those who are asleep.” The resurrection was the central focus in Christian worship for its first five hundred years. Exulting in the power of God to raise Christ from the dead is wonderful, but it is easy for this final victory over death to be glossed as another form of cheap optimism. “See,” we might say, “Jesus rose again, just another reason for us to believe that everything will work out in the end.”
This line of thinking, that the world is a place where good vibes and positivity will ultimately come to the rescue, reduces the resurrection to an illustration of some happy force, an appendage to a story of the goodness of God winning the day without the blood and guts of the incarnation.
During this Holy Week, let us dwell in the shadows of the darkness of death for a moment longer.
Montaigne’s advice to acclimate ourselves to the death that is coming has value, but even more so does our reflection on the Passion and crucifixion of our Lord. This is the darkest death.
In the funeral service in the Canadian Book of Common Prayer, one of the suggested readings is Psalm 121:
The Lord himself is thy keeper:/ the Lord is they defence upon thy right hand;
So that the sun shall not burn thee by day,/ neither the moon by night.
The Lord shall preserve thee from all evil:/ yea, it is even the Lord that shall keep thy soul.
These promises of protection from evil ring out distinctly when uttered over a corpse in a coffin. I’ve found their juxtaposition with the cloying scent of funereal bouquets odd and unsettling. They remain true, but the truth is viewed against the backdrop of death. It’s a reminder that whatever preservation the Lord promises, it is a preservation through death, not from death.
Christ surely knew these words, prayed these words, as he trudged toward the bleak dark of Golgotha. Intermingled with the promises of protection, Psalm 22 wasn’t far from mind: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” he called from the cross.
On the night before, in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus whispered “Father, if you are willing, let this cup pass from me.”
These words stand in contrast to the prayers for protection and deliverance. The death of Christ is a liminal moment in which the truth of his Father’s protection and deliverance is fused with his sense of abandonment, “Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?”
All hope, whatever glimmer of belief that flickered in the hearts of the scattered disciples, would have been snuffed out as Christ’s lifeblood dripped from his outstretched arms.
There is an utter finality here to this death, like our own. The disciples did not understand, could not glimpse the end of the story, had no reason to believe everything would work out in the end. So they fled, they huddled, afraid, behind locked doors. For all of the miraculous power Jesus had unleashed in the world — healings, deliverances, wisdom — now his end was like all ends. He might have mitigated the terror by philosophic reflection on death, might have patted the heads of his squirmy disciples to say, “Things usually work out for the best,” but the end is the end.
There is no hope, only the long descent into the dark.
George MacDonald compares the struggle of Gethsemane with that of the cross. He avers that the Father was still tangibly present in the garden, but on the cross, Christ’s will
is left alone to drink the cup of The Will in torture. In the sickness of this agony, the Will of Jesus arises perfect at last; and of itself, unsupported now, declares — a naked consciousness of misery hung in the waste darkness of the universe — declares for God, in defiance of pain, of death, of apathy, of self, of negation, of the blackness within and around it; calls aloud upon the vanished God.” (Unspoken Sermons, vol. 1, 168-9).
The march to the blackness of death leaves Christ to obey a “vanished God.” Resurrection will come, but only after Jesus is buried fully in death.
We are in a moment, globally, where it would be wise to think about the finality of the cross and our deaths as well. It is a moment that is not unique in many ways, but given our long peace, the march of progress, we’ve become accustomed to sanitized living. But for all of our advances we can never obliterate death, we can never fully get past it.
Nor would we want to. Without the sting of death, we would never know the joy of the resurrection, we could never know the resurrection. Only in the resurrection do we find salve for the wound of dying. The triune God — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — most fully reveals himself through the death of Christ. The central act of worship in the Church – Holy Communion -– proclaims the Lord’s death until he comes again.
In Christ’s death, God shows us that there is no general bent toward goodness, no cosmic force of happiness constantly drawing the world into a better place, but an old enemy, creature death, that is once and for all exploited for our good. Christ, giving himself over to death, to the will of the vanished God, destroys death.
There is no room for cheap optimism, only a world-redeeming love that gushes from the pierced heart of God in Christ. Things are not going to work out in the end, but they will be remade in the power of the life-giving Spirit. The God who has vanished will raise his Son, and in him, raise us.
The Rev. Dr. Cole Hartin is assistant curate at St. Luke’s in Saint John, New Brunswick.