The Last Four Things: Death; Advent I
I’ve asked some people to do a little guest blogging; to write on the Last Four Things for the first four Sundays of the Liturgical year. Traditionally the season of Advent is a penitential season and the four Sundays were aligned with the Last Four Things: Death Judgement, Heaven, and Hell.
What is there to say about death? Medical science defines it in terms of chemistry, electricity, and knows death when it sees death. But the precise time of its occurrence remains a question. There is no end of quotations that reflect on death in some way. Woody Allen, who came up first as I searched, reflects in his typical fashion: “I’m not afraid of death; I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” We could call this “the comical view of death,” but we’d wonder what the humor is trying to deflect. Albert Camus, whose classic L’Étranger opens with the comment, “Aujourd’hui, maman est morte,” (as Ward translated it, “Maman died today.”). But whatever we might expect this to mean for the story and our understanding of its main character, Meursault, the following statement, “Or perhaps it was yesterday, I cannot be sure,” seems to lighten the load unexpectedly. Camus’s later personal reflection on death (or is it life?), “Should I kill myself, or have a cup of coffee?” gives expression to the absurdity he found to underlie the human experience of life with its ineluctable conclusion.
To make a second beginning in this reflection on death, I would re-begin with Derrida and what he describes as the illusion of the present, located as it is between the past and the future. He suggests that the present, which we all generally accept as a reality, or as the temporal locus or space of our conscious existence, is revealed to be illusory because it is constituted only of traces of the past and traces of the future. It may seem like a thought experiment or mind game, but what is the present except some illusory, “unpindownable” instant after the past and before the future. There it is, now; no, now; no, now . . . and so on. Whatever one might think of this game or Derrida’s claim, human existence as it is presently known is historical and subject to chronicity, having a beginning and an end. And there is no real experience of present except in relation to past and future. There is no other way to have it, at least not according to the usual features of human consciousness: birth (or conception, as one wishes) marks the beginning of history, and death its conclusion.
And this is how Jürgen Moltmann thinks of the historical life and death of Jesus. The manifestation of the incarnate Son of God involves a historical beginning in birth and a necessary historical end in death. Running counter to this is the general notion, or wish, really, that the Jesus of the Gospels, and especially the Fourth Gospel, adopts the position that death is somehow unnatural to human existence. But a careful look at one of the stories often used to shore up this mistaken view actually deconstructs it. The details of the story of the “raising of Lazarus” do indeed include the confident claim of Jesus to be “the resurrection and the life,” and the miracle of Lazarus’s revivification grounds the claim nicely. Jesus delays precisely to give his disciples the opportunity to “believe.” But neither the claim, nor the miracle removes death from the current human historical equation. In fact the claim incorporates human death: “even though they die . . .”. Lazarus will in fact die twice (one hopes the second round was painless and quick): in this scenario of human historical existence it is not death that is exceptional but the return to life. Jesus delays and in doing so allows a situation of human weakness, suffering and grief to run its course. His own expression of emotional pain underscores that of the sisters and friends, as he fully embraces human death, present as God in that span of time, acknowledging the sadness and pain of this friend’s death. This story in John parallels the Gethsemane story elsewhere for its revelation of the full humanity of Jesus, which in each Gospel telling leads to the historical cross where Jesus most fully embraced human death.
Death, considered within the frame of the Lazarus story or the death of Jesus Christ, is the end of history. It is the logical conclusion of an experience that must navigate time and space. And as long as human existence is subject to the ticking clock, it will be this way. Now, to complete Moltmann’s thought about death and history, the resurrection must be understood as the beginning of eternal life; and the Empty Tomb, as the historical sign (or premonition, or proleptic trace), the Editorial mark of deletion in the redemptive script, of the End of History. And here the terms of Derrida’s mind game might just need to be reversed: a present no longer bounded by past and future, which presents a picture that cannot be fathomed by time-bound thought. This may explain the ambiguity of the resurrection appearances in which eternity may engage with temporality but not according to the old rules.
If a theology of death can be drawn from the Lazarus story, it would have to include the certainty of human death as the conclusion of historical life—the certainty, and indeed the sadness that goes with pain and the loss of loved ones—but also as the prelude to a commencement unbound by different rules.