Faith Matters

Martin Henry: Death has lost its sting

As November, the 'month of the dead', continues, Martin Henry reflects on how death not only binds humanity together because it is our common destiny but also points to life in Christ

Michelangelo's depiction, from 1540, of the crucifixion of Christ.

"IT'S always other people who die."

Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), the French artist and cultural gadfly, arranged to have this wry sentiment, with its immediate, even compelling, ring of truth, inscribed on his tombstone.

But just how true is it?

We may first become acutely conscious of death in experiencing the loss of those we personally know and love.

And terrible public, and apparently arbitrary, tragedies can allow death to become eventually a symbol of our common, always imminent, destiny.

Death can happen to anyone anywhere, and it will happen to all of us at some point. So it doesn't just happen to other people.

In that sense, curiously or paradoxically, death, while it brings definitive separation in this life, can also be seen as something that binds people together, because it is the destiny we all have in common, regardless of age, condition, race or religion.

So maybe that saying on the tombstone can possibly have a more hopeful meaning than the one seemingly intended by its author.

Beyond its surface objective of making us perhaps reluctantly or even slightly guiltily aware of a feeling of relief in the face of death - a feeling of relief that this time we ourselves have been spared - it might also make us more conscious of our common humanity, marked as it is by the constant possibility and the inevitability of death.

The Latin adage, mors ultima ratio - often translated as 'death is the final reckoning' - suggests that death is in fact the final word on life and hence that it should be seen as the most profound truth about life.

But the witness of Christian faith suggests otherwise.

The fact that people can, through death, experience a deeper grief and pain when they lose someone they love - someone whom they love more than life itself, as a telling phrase has it - and the fact that many find an experience of that kind deeper than even the fear of their own inevitable death surely suggests that death is not in fact the ultima ratio, or the last word, on life. There is something deeper still.

This is the same lesson that the martyrs of the Church can convey.

They too had an awareness, or rather a belief in something deeper even than life itself, because it was a belief in the one who makes all life possible, a belief in God, without whom there would be no life and hence no death.

The martyrs, or witnesses to Christian faith, did not give up their lives because they thought they were of no value.

On the contrary, they were willing to give them up or sacrifice them because they believed there was a reality even more majestic than life itself.

It is perhaps worth remembering in this context that the basic meaning of 'sacrifice' is to 'make something holy', or to place it within the very reality of God.

To ease the grief that death can undoubtedly cause, a well-meaning consolation often offered to the bereaved is to say that 'time is a great healer'.

Apart from the fact that it often just isn't, surely the notion of a 'healer' in relation to the ultimate challenge of death can only genuinely apply, for our faith, to Christ.

Jesus, not time, is our healer and redeemer.

Time is part of the world of creation.

Jesus is the one through whom the world came into being, our faith teaches.

As the Lord of Creation, Jesus is the only one - as the early Christians taught when they passed on their gospel or 'good news' to us - who can cope with the imponderable pain of the world and take it away because he absorbed it into himself in his agony and own death on the cross.

He thereby transformed it into something unimaginably great and everlasting when he rose triumphant from the grave.

And in doing so, he showed that love and truth and goodness really are ultimately more authentic, deeper and more enduring than what seeks to deny or destroy them.

"Only where there are graves, are there resurrections," Friedrich Nietzsche wrote.

The ancient Christian story hasn't changed. The womb of death can become the source of new, unexpected life.

God - the living God, the source and sustainer of all things - can turn even death itself into something that we cannot even begin to conceive of.

However, it is only if we are willing to go through the thicket of the cross, as St John of the Cross put it in an arresting phrase, that we can find our way into paradise.

But that again was foreshadowed right at the beginning of creation.

In Paradise, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, which was to be the root cause of human suffering and death, was not the more important tree.

Alongside it was the Tree of Life and it was not destroyed when Paradise was closed and human beings had to live outside Paradise, in history.

God, we believe, intended the Tree of Life to be the more important Tree, the everlasting Tree, the Tree, as an old Christian insight teaches, on which Jesus was to be crucified, but by which he won for us all the possibility of finally reaching Paradise.

:: Martin Henry, former lecturer in theology at St Patrick's College, Maynooth, is a priest of the diocese of Down and Connor.

A longer version of this piece appeared in the February 2018 issue of Doctrine & Life.

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