Monday in Holy Week: confronting death

Beauty anointing the spirit

Isaiah 42:1-7. John 12:1-11

The events in tonight’s gospel story take place before the Palm Sunday procession we recalled yesterday. I’m going to take both stories together, in the Biblical order. Here are some themes that strike me.

  • Preparing for death: Mary’s anointing Jesus with oil normally reserved for anointing the dead
  • Jesus facing the future squarely: his cheerfulness, and the crowd’s acclamation.

We live in a society that refuses to look death full in the face. People try and pretend it will not happen. They go to great lengths to try and delay it, even when it’s obviously inevitable. We spend money on seeking a cure for this or that disease as if there is some hope that we can live for ever. We forget that one day, even if we are cured of this or that disease, tomorrow we will die of something else.

This always leads to trouble. If you pretend it won’t happen, you can’t set things straight before you go. You are left with unfinished business. If you can’t set things straight, you are left with regret and guilt. You can’t say that you wished you’d not said so-and-so, and you can’t say, before it’s too late, what you should have said years ago. And all that is the overwhelming cause of grief and weeping and family tensions at funerals. It’s in contrast to the death of a friend of mine recently, who knew she was dying, told the world, and wrote her own funeral address, and characteristically witty it was too. For six months of my life I worked in a north Brixton children’s hospital in south London. I saw babies with incurable conditions having operation after operation, and I was required to insert drips into their tiny veins whilst seeing their eyes looking at me. I was gravely distressed at the inhumanity and cruelty of it. I plucked up the courage to suggest that baby Anthony should be allowed to die with dignity. The reaction was swift: I was reprimanded in no uncertain terms. He died the next week after yet another operation. It is not my intention to start a debate tonight on end-of-life issues—that’s for another time maybe—but I’m using this as an illustration of how many of us refuse to confront one of the realities of animal existence on this planet. Our refusal to be straightforward about death results in grief for ourselves and for those that love us.

This sanitisation of death, this refusal to look it full in the face, is partly a consequence of urbanisation. Rural folk have a more robust attitude to death. They see it day by day. Animals are killed so that we might eat. Many of us think nothing of shoving an arm up a cow’s rear end to pull out a dead calf. Now, I acknowledge that my attitude to death may be more peculiar than most: not only was I brought up in a farming village, but for 25 years I was using human cadavers to teach anatomy: cutting them up, examining them and handling them.

However unusual my attitude to death might be, I’m convinced that our attitude to death needs realigning. Tonight’s Gospel and the Palm Sunday procession seem to say likewise. Our Lord faces death full in the face. Face: earlier in the gospel Jesus came down from a mountain with a shining face. Then he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And now acknowledging to Judas—I’ve more to say about him on Wednesday—that he is being anointed for death, just as many priests have anointed people for death. The Easter message is that death leads to new life. If you want to build on a new site, it is wise to clear it of rubble so that good foundations can be laid. This is new life following death of the old. And so, of course, is the resurrection story.

Death of the old prepares for the new

Biologically speaking, death is part of life. The cells of our bodies are dying all the time, and new life replaces them. Skin cells are constantly being shed and replaced. Blood cells past their sell-by date are replaced all the time. There are lots of other examples, but here is a startling example of the necessity of cell death. When a fetus is developing in the uterus, the hands and feet start off as spade-like things, a bit like fists. You might think that fingers and toes grow out from the spades, but you’d be wrong. What happens is that rather than digits growing out, four strips of cells are programmed to die, leaving digits remaining between them. If not enough cells die, we get webbed fingers and toes. If more strips die we get more fingers than usual. Here is another example. When a bone is fractured and reset, the two ends are rarely aligned properly. The body copes with this by killing off bone cells in the wrong place, and laying down new ones where needed.

Biology has no hesitation in killing off the old in order that the new can flourish. We can’t move on if we try to preserve the past. That is why I oppose the conservationist lobby. We must face death when necessary. We can’t engage with the present if we refuse to accept the inevitability of death, because we will be tempted to put off things that need attention before it’s too late.

I am calling for honesty and clarity of vision. And this, I think, is what Our Lord called for throughout his ministry. Yesterday and today, Our Lord stands up to face the future full on. He stands at the gates of the city, the city of wrong. Facing the future mindfully means killing, letting go of, all that holds us back. It can be very painful. We begin to see ourselves as others saw us. We realise that we are not as good as we thought we were. We realise how we deceived ourselves and the truth was not in us. We need to grieve our lost attitudes, our lost expectations, our lost dreams. We need to let go of what we want, or wanted, and accept the grace of God to resurrect us. We must die in order to live, as Christ Jesus died in order to live. Death of our self-obsession enables us to rise:

As larks, harmoniously, And sing this day Thy victories: Then shall the fall further the flight in me.

As I grow older, I look back on some of the things I used to be passionate about and wonder what it was about them that so obsessed me. Obsession is the right word, because these passions blinkered my vision and limited my action. I once had a huge collection of books: they were my friends. I came to see that they limited me. Not only did they cost a lot of money, they also dictated the type of house we could move to. And after all, when one has sucked the marrow out of a book, one might as well pass it on. These are not evil things in themselves but they limited me, they narrowed my vision. They stole some of me and prevented me from being fully me, in a similar way to that of any addiction. I am still afflicted by such things—I suspect we all are—but now I’m slightly more aware of the symptoms of the addiction. As we get older we find ourselves attached to fewer and fewer things. Our vision becomes less restricted. We are moving into a wide, unfettered place. This notion of being in a wide place is one of the Hebrew images of salvation, and it is one that Jesus teaches. If we die to earthly attachments, we are in this place, and we can focus on what matters: love of God, and love of neighbour. There is much truth in the Buddhist idea that all disease is caused by attachments.

There is a kind of renewal in this, and the key to it is to live in the present. Our Lord’s teaching again and again emphasizes that we need to do just this. Learn from the past certainly, but don’t live in it. Look to the future, but don’t waste time laying up treasures. Live now, in the moment. This, actually, is what eternal means. When we hear ‘everlasting life’ in church services, we often get the wrong idea, and it would be better, and more accurate a translation of the Greek, to use the word eternal rather than everlasting. It’s not quantity or length of time that matters, but quality. Eternal, timeless, out of time, in the present, Divine. Thy kingdom come on earth, here and now. Trust the teaching of Jesus: live in the present moment, and do your best in that moment. We can do no more, and we need do no more. In one sense this is easy to do, and in another it’s extraordinarily difficult when we are surrounded by the petty irritations that life throws up day by day, when we see the injustice that surrounds us, and when we are governed, as we are, by prejudices and faulty behaviour patterns bred into us by our upbringings. But see all these for what they are, and trust and hope.

Faces of the Divine

If we are to attain eternal life, here and now, we must face death and die to worldly trivia. Having divested ourselves of these burdens we walk off lighter. ‘My yoke is easy and my burden is light’ – light in both senses, light because of the light of the world, and light because we are less burdened by impedimenta from the past. Jesus’ last hours complete the incarnation. Our Lord gave up a divine dwelling for human frailty, and now he suffers the stripping away of dependence on self to fall into he arms of the selfless, the divine. ‘It is finished’. It is a renunciation that we are called to join in these five days. And the task for us, sisters and brothers, is to accompany the Lord on this journey of death in order to fall into the arms of the divine.

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