Facing The Cross

Facing The Cross

Good Friday. Fr Euan Marley considers the difference between ‘death’ and ‘dying’.

When the first high rise flats were built in Britain, it soon became apparent that among the many signs of negligence in their design was that the lifts were too small to take coffins. To this day, undertakers often have to stand guard at the base of lifts, while the body is taken out in a body bag and hastily transferred to a coffin at the bottom. I think this was a significant oversight. Not just as a commentary on the mentality of these sort of buildings, but on a culture which had lost sight of death itself.

It’s a truism to say that death is the last taboo, but let me also make a distinction here between ‘death’ and ‘dying’. Dying is hardly a taboo. In fiction, we can expect to encounter representations of many hundreds of examples of dying every year. I may say that fictional dying on the screen is far superior to the real life dying which I often encountered as a hospital chaplain. Most people are unconscious when they die, and the only decent death-bed speech I ever encountered was rather ruined by its maker deciding to wake up and live for another four months. The gruesome, flamboyant, spectacular deaths we see on the screen are just dying as drama. Far from facing up to death through the depiction of such events, we are avoiding death. Vampires, zombies, ghosts and suchlike are popular because they die all the time, but they are not dead. They keep coming back. For them the act of dying is quite separate from death.

Death is something else. It’s the realisation that the person we phoned every week isn’t at the end of the phone line any more. We can’t ask them for their opinion, we can’t apologise to them and we can’t buy them presents. That’s the nature of death. Death is about not being there. When the angels in the tomb tell the women that ‘He is not here’, that would have been true, even if his body was still lying in the grave. Death is the great emptiness.

Death shapes the life of all animals. We procreate because we die; we have children because we die. We are male and female because we die.

Of all the animals, the human being is the most aware of this. St Thomas Aquinas says somewhere that we long for eternal life because we have the capacity to grasp universal being. Since our concepts are unchanging and immortal, we expect to be immortal ourselves. Death is therefore not against our animal nature but against human nature. Yet we do not escape death by denying its existence. When we turn against children, and when we disconnect sexuality from the struggle against death, that is what we are doing, and this attitude has rotted much of our human culture. I remember, from a television studio debate in the sixties, one woman who said that it was selfish to have children so that they could look after us in our old age. That woman will be old now, if she is alive, and looked after by someone’s children, I hope. If they are her own children, then she will be receiving a care that she has in some part earned.

We Christians gaze on the Cross. We gaze on death. Christ compares his being lifted up as the Son of Man to the lifting-up of the serpent in the desert by Moses (John 3:14). Moses was trying to heal those who had been bitten by snakes, by causing them to gaze on the effigy of what was killing them. The first stage of overcoming the evil of death is to overcome our fear. This requires courage but the proper remedy for fear, in the Christian disposition, is not courage but hope. Those who deny death do not overcome their fear but instead bury it deep in their hearts, where it begins to warp their judgements and leaves them floundering in despair. They are enemies of the Cross of Christ (Philippians 3:18). This Good Friday, may we gaze on the Cross, kiss the Cross, face the Cross, and share a hope for all the world.

Readings:Isaiah 52:13-53:12|Hebrews 4:14-16,5:7-9|John 18:1-19:42

fr. Euan Marley O.P. lives and works at Blackfriars, Cambridge.