As we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus we are also confronting what must be the most persistent and intractable of fears: death.
Today it is the great taboo, writes Rev Sydney Maitland, to be laughed off like a trifle if anyone were so indelicate as to mention it out of place. Yes, we meet it as elderly members of the family are taken from us, but when it meets us in the face of a tragic illness or accident then it all seems so unfair and God is portrayed as a monster who created us in order to enjoy our own idiocies, contradictions and pathetic attempts at storming the gates of heaven.
Seen this way the church is irrelevant and powerless for it cannot stop or reverse death, it can only give it a veneer of respectability. It can provide coping mechanisms but not counter its power or terror. At depth however, death is seen as the monstrous scandal of creation: life which can never persist except in the following generations. Even the Psalmist had his doubts: ‘The dead do not praise the Lord.’ (Psalm 115: 17)
Yet for the Christian, death is stripped of its power and its terror.
We are given a wholly new perspective, for while the manner of our deaths will vary according to circumstance, the fact of death takes on a new meaning. The Book of Genesis points out that Adam was expelled from the Garden of Eden, into his mortality but in order to prevent him from approaching the Tree of Life. To have done so in his sin and rebellion would have put him beyond the power of any redemption that God might ordain. He would have been committed for eternity to his sin, and his progeny with him.
In expelling Adam from Eden, God was already providing for a form of redemption. Jesus would be born into Adam’s flesh – ‘For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive’ as St Paul puts it (1 Corinthians 15: 22). Jesus would be the pattern of the new humanity that has been corrupted by Adam. Jesus would also live a life of toil and instead of the innocent Adam sinfully embracing what is forbidden, the innocent Jesus would be punished for the sins of all of Adam’s progeny.
Even as Adam was being expelled from Eden, the Word of God, who would be born and named Jesus, was being prepared to go to the cross. Here, life would end but from the tomb life would be reasserted as never before. It would no longer be an obscene theological joke but an eyepiece into a new kind of being, now reconciled with God and receiving that reconciliation by faith.
It makes me wonder whether the real unmentionable is faith – that is the saving faith in God that lifts us out of our own self-destruction.
People may well have faith in other creeds, and atheistic, political creeds are extremely popular these days. They do not last long before their own frailties are exposed for ridicule shortly before they are also consigned to oblivion.
But the personal faith in a personal God who not only created us and cares for us but who has also given His utmost for us is something different. A God who is knowable yet in Jesus is known and who is approachable in prayer, who can be shared and known and worshipped in community is quite different from the memoirs of a political leader, no matter how saintly and accomplished. And many of the most notable political leaders were very much less than that.
So no, death is not the end. To misplace a quotation from Winston Churchill, it is ‘not the end, or the beginning of the end: more the end of the beginning.’
‘Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of comfort, who comforts us in our tribulation, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.’
(2 Corinthians 1: 4-5)