Suffering unto death?


The comment was only half in jest, and it caught me by surprise. “You sound disappointed that you weren’t diagnosed with bone cancer or blood cancer.” My answer was the sanctioned one: “I am disappointed that they haven’t found something that they can treat. I don’t really care what its name is.”

The truth is, there is a little part of me that felt disappointed when the scans and blood tests returned negative. Of course, that’s partly explained not as a death wish, but as frustration with my symptoms, which have been powerful enough on some days for me to think that death would be easier to bear than the pain.

But my friend made me wonder. During those days of waiting for results I did rehearse my reactions to the possible diagnosis of a fatal illness. The prospect that I would not have more years with Rae filled me with pain. The thought that, though I might live to see Clare’s wedding, I might not see the children she will have with James and watch them as babies, toddlers, children, adolescents and growing to adulthood, seared my heart. The idea that I would not be around long enough to see Brendan settled and happy troubled me deeply.

No, I am not disappointed. I want the chance of more life. But I hope I am also strong enough to face my mortality, and to wonder what that now means to me as a Christian. These last weeks have reaffirmed for me the stark fact that I will die, if not soon, then in the coming decade or two. And whatever I believe, I cannot escape the reality of nature: death is the end. We live, we die. Anything that might be beyond our life span would be a sheer miraculous gift of the Most High. Resurrection is by definition surprise.

It is many years since I believed (if ever I really did) in my continuing existence after death as an individual. I hope I have not given false comfort to people over the years that they will somehow be reunited beyond the ashes or the grave with their loved ones in some happy valley. This false but widespread belief is both arrogant and petty: Arrogant to believe that human beings are so important in the scheme of the Cosmos, and petty to think so poorly of God’s imagination.

By definition, “eternal” cannot be after anything. The word itself tells us that the grace of God operates not after our death, but beyond our life – out of time. As far as we can know now, eternal life is about the intensity with which we live in this too short space between birth and death. Eternal life is about our gratitude now. Eternal life is about intentionally taking time to be simply in the Presence of all that is.

Looking forward to some second-rate paradise after death will in fact take away from the joy and brilliance of living in the now.

Instead, we should be journeying within to discover the broad and marvel-filled country of our souls. Instead of yearning for a union with those whom we love in the past, we could be yearning for a greater quality of loving those we are given to love now.

I am not afraid of the darkness to come. The problem is that sometimes I am afraid of the brightness of the light here and now.

Planetary nebula NGC 2818

I can say Alleluia!


I wake on Easter morning with my wife’s kiss. “Christ is Risen!” she smiles. I hesitate before responding, “He is risen indeed.” it is a great day, but I feel just pain behind and in front. The Psalmist’s words were louder in my mind than Easter’s liturgical cry: ” Fat bulls of Bashan surround me on every side.” Back pain behind and gastritis before fill my consciousness. in the same breath, I pray, “You are behind me and before: such knowledge is too wonderful for me,”, and I feel the truth of Psalm 139 deep within.
But it is not enough to get me to celebrate the Great Feast in the company of fellow-Christians. I deal with disappointment by turning to the gospel account of the first Easter morning.
I have been reading Brendan Byrne’s “theological reading of Mark’s Gospel” – A Costly Freedom, and it being in the Year of Mark, I turn to Mark 16. It is exciting to re-read the Greek: so much new is there!
Three women leave for the tomb “very early in the morning” (verse 2), between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m. This, according to my hospice nurse wife, is the low time, the time when death often creeps through the house of the dying and claims those who are ready. It is a time of intense dark, and for most, the deepest sleep. Yet in Mark’s Easter story, they arrive “just as the sun was rising.” Easter is a dawn that arrives before expected, the good news that tears away the deepest darkness! The first Easter, and all those that follow, are extraordinary dawns.

As the Sun Was Rising
As the Sun Was Rising

The story moves on. I smile at the colloquial translation of verse 4(c) that springs to mind. The women are amazed that the stone is rolled away: it was a “bloody great boondie”! This whole business with the stone is amazing. The women discover that it has been moved by “lifting up their eyes and gazing” – the word theoriein calls to mind both wonder and the deep seeing of meditation.” its removal is literally “apocalyptic”, a heavenly revelation.

And then verse 5: “they enter into, into” – the preposition is repeated – the tomb, the realm of death. This detail sets Mark’s resurrection narrative apart from Matthew’s and Luke’s. The three women here enter deeply into the experience of death (“baptised into his death ” (Rom.3.6 perhaps?)) This is more than grief, although the grief is profound, like Jacob’s at the supposed death of Joseph.
This is a mythical experience of the profundity of death; Orpheus going into the place of the dead to retrieve Eurydice, and the lost possibility of new life with her. This is the place where many of Mark’s original readers may have been – in the hell of persecution or martyrdom. This is the place where true disciples must take shelter before they can shout the joy of Easter.
In my pain and disappointment this morning, I can identify some way with the women going into, right into, the place of death.
This also means I can identify with the hope put into the angel’s mouth: I too am looking for Jesus of Nazareth, the Crucified One, the Risen One. Any emptiness I experience is because “he is not here” (verse 6). I too can experience the thrill of being called again to discipleship and mission, “go and tell the disciples that they will see him again.”

Best of all Mark’s “shorter ending” with its abruptness restores to me the sense of being included in this ongoing mission of God. The other Gospels describe many Appearances of the Risen Jesus. Mark doesn’t crowd me out with the experiences of others. Mark trusts that my experience will be authentic on its own terms.
Even though I struggle with pain that takes my breath away, I can feel his breath filling me with new life. He is Risen Indeed! Alleluia!

Walking with the Risen One
Walking with the Risen One