Saturday, 15 April 2017

The Grim Inevitability of Death

Sad news from Italy, where the oldest human being on the planet, Emma Morano, has died. 117 years of age. Whenever the oldest person dies - which is, after all, quite frequently, what with them being old - we hear about their advice on how to live a long life. "Her doctor for 27 years, said Morano rarely ate vegetables or fruit. “When I first met her she ate three eggs a day, two raw in the morning and then an omelette at noon, and chicken at dinner.”"

Well no wonder she died, with that kind of diet.

There's a grim inevitability about death. You read the accounts of the patriarchs in the book of Genesis: you know, the ones that lived for five or six hundred years, long enough to beget the next in line and other sons and daughters - and then it always says "and then he died." Drives it in. Even the mythical heroes of the past, who lived great long lives, are dead.

There's a scene early in the sit com series, Red Dwarf. Dave Lister has been awoken from suspended animation - all the other crew having died in a radiation leak on their space ship. And the computer, Holly, is trying to persuade Lister that everyone else has died, but Lister can't get it: 

Lister: Where is everybody, Hol?
Holly: They're dead, Dave.
Lister: Who is?
Holly: Everybody, Dave.
Lister: What, Captain Hollister?
Holly: Everybody's dead, Dave.
Lister: What, Todhunter?
Holly: Everybody's dead, Dave.
Lister: What, Selby?
Holly: They're all dead. Everybody's dead, Dave.
Lister: Peterson isn't, is he?
Holly: Everybody is dead, Dave.
Lister: Not Chen?
Holly: Gordon Bennett! Yes, Chen, everybody, everybody's dead, Dave!
Lister: Rimmer?
Holly: He's dead, Dave, everybody is dead, everybody is dead, Dave.
Lister: Wait. Are you trying to tell me everybody's dead?

Thing about death - we know it's utterly natural. An inevitable result of the way our bodies work. The result of the way the universe works. Everything dies. It's how it is. And yet - it's always a shock. The discovery that a loved one has terminal cancer. The news that people have died in a terrorist attack. Even the death of an old, old woman like Emma Morano - we know deep down that, however much this may be how the world works, it's not right. Someone who laughed, danced, cried, hugged us, loved us - they are no more. And there's a hole where love should be. And it's not bloody right.

Early on a Sunday morning, a grieving woman called Mary goes down to a tomb. Her teacher, her leader is dead. And it's not bloody right. But even so she's going to do what needs to be done - to dress his body with herbs and then leave him until the flesh is gone from his body. The Jews didn't flinch from death - they would return after a few years, take the bones and put them into an ossuary - a bone box - where they would take up less space.

These days they're always getting dug up in Israel and Palestine in archaeological digs, ossuaries. Every year or two somebody will dig an ossuary up and find it's got the name "Jesus" on it and get over-excited in the press for a day or two. But it doesn't mean anything. Being called "Jesus" in 1st Century Judea and Galilee was like being called Harley or Kylie today. They all were. Well, a lot of the men at any rate. Not Kylie. Jesus.

But that's the precise point here - the Bible makes the claim that when Mary went down to the grave, there was no body there. The rock - put in place to make sure nobody could steal the body - is out of the way. The guards - well, they've run away to make up stories to cover their respective backsides. Ideally a story that doesn't involve the awful, shocking news that the one they were supposed to be keeping neatly stacked away, had decided to go for a walk in the dew of that first morning of the week. Because death is shocking, but this life is even more so.

Mary's not stupid. She knows that people don't just go rising from the dead. Not a normal activity. Especially not from a bloody, hideous, thorough death like being flayed with a Roman whip and then nailed to a cross and left there till everybody knows you're dead, then stabbed in the side with a javelin just to make sure. Nobody who's been through that is going to be running around the garden in the cool of the day. So this bloke hanging around must be the gardener, mustn't he? The one person he can't be is Jesus.

And he says just her name, "Mary", and she knows who he is. Despite the fact that it's impossible; despite the hideous cold finality of death. This is her Lord. And he's calling her.

And the world changes.

It's not that death becomes less ghastly. It's an outrage - a hideous outbreak into the way we believe things should be - and we know it. It's not that disasters are less terrible. Not that injustices are less unfair. The 96 of Hillsborough, the refugees car-bombed in Syria, the trafficked innocents drowned in the Mediterranean - they are all dead, and their deaths call out to heaven. And we can't undo them by wishing.

But it offers hope through the valley of the shadow of death. It says that when an evil empire and a cabal of powerful men got together - when the Devil himself thought he had won - that their vision was too weak. The bounds of their vision were those of death. They did not see that justice would outlast injustice, that love could be stronger than death. 

In his death, Jesus Christ - the Son of God - descends with us into the depths of our human experience. His pointless, evil, cruel death is just one more in the litany of evil that starts with the death of Abel and goes all the way up to the Copts that were murdered at their Palm Sunday service last week. There's no distance down that we might encounter, that Christ has not descended with us. He's gone there all the way with us.

And as he rises from the tomb, he drags us back up from Hell with him. His arms - shattered on the cross - are still strong to lift us. His back - torn by the whip - is able to carry us. And all things are changed. Death is still death, but it's not final. Evil is still evil, but love wins in the end. And we wait, and hope.

Christ is risen.

He is risen indeed. 

1 comment :

  1. Loved it! Esp as I'm a big red dwarf fan. Powerful and thought provoking. Thanks


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