Do not go gentle into that good night…
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
So wrote Dylan Thomas about his father dying in old age. How much more should we rage at the tragic death of a young man in his prime. Joe was 27, full of life. He died riding his motorcycle, on his way to dinner with his parents. When he did not arrive, and the next knock on the door was a policewoman, they knew immediately.
And yet, at the time, you cannot rage. You cannot do anything—there is no energy.
Time seems to slow to a crawl. The next day took a week to pass.
The world has changed; the landscape is all different now. It is not so much that you do not have a map to navigate this new territory—you simply cannot see any of its features. The swirling chaos of shock and grief is like a blizzard, as if you are locked into a giant snow globe which someone (God?) has given a very vigorous shake, and the flakes continue to swirl and play and take an agonisingly long time to settle before you can see anything.
And what will God say? What can God say? Can anything be said that will make sense, or be of help? It’s like watching a magician do the impossible and turn a circle into a square. You know it is just a trick, an illusion, and it has not solved anything in the real world.
Why wasn’t he a minute earlier, a minute later? Even a few seconds? Why did the car pull out to turn at that moment? Any number of things could have been different, and we would not have entered this parallel world to normality. In this moment there are no words to explain, because what has happened does not make sense.
Of course, there are the usual reassurances. ‘Death is not the end’. ‘Because Jesus died and rose again, there is hope beyond death’. It’s not that these things are not true; just that they don’t do anything right now. When you sit in the darkest moment of night, knowing that (at least in theory) dawn will eventually come does not make the darkness any less dark.
As I was making the endless journey down to see them, my mind kept going back to the story in John 11, where Jesus meets Mary and Martha after their brother Lazarus had died. It is all there. The regrets. ‘If only you had been here…’ The articulation of belief, forming a thin crust over the reality of grief. ‘I know the dead will be raised…’. Tragedy. Lazarus is mentioned third, after his sisters (John 11.5), so is almost certainly a younger brother—possibly not yet 20, certainly young like Joe. A life ended prematurely. Incomprehension in the words of the disciples.
And Jesus’ response?
When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. “Where have you laid him?” he asked. “Come and see, Lord,” they replied. Jesus wept. (John 11.33–35)
Jesus wept. The shortest verse in the Bible, and rightly so. Few words are needed.
But the enormity of it! Can it be true that the God who made the world shares our grief? The unmoveable first mover is now ‘deeply moved?’ The one who was God’s speaking of the cosmos into being wept with those who were bereaved—and does so again today? ‘Man of sorrows—what a name for the Son of God who came.’ What an extraordinary thing this is. God does not simply point forward to the dawn that is to come, which yet we cannot see; he sits in the darkness with us, silent, grieving.
Paul Butler, now Bishop of Durham, wrote about death when he was newly Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham. It is a reflection on the metaphor of ‘tasting’ and ‘swallowing’ death.
I enjoy food. I like the huge variety of tastes that exist. I will always go for savoury rather than sweet, whereas Rosemary goes the other way. Our taste buds are a small part of the extraordinary way that we are made.
But we have all experienced tasting something that is ‘off’ or simply unpalatable because it is too bitter (or sweet). Death has a bitter taste. I have sat with people dying and heard death; both the very quiet, still final breath and the horrible death ‘rattle’. I have seen death; finding two of my best friends lying dead in the road when I was a teenager is an image that has never left me. But so too sitting by my Dad’s bedside waiting for him to wake up, yet knowing he would not, is imprinted on my brain. I have smelt death; it is not pleasant. On that occasion I also tasted something of it; the stench in the air was so strong that it affected my taste buds.
On Good Friday Jesus ‘tasted’ death. He willingly approached death, gave himself up to it and tasted it. He did not simply take a small bite and then spit it out because the taste was too unpleasant. He knew it was going to taste foul but he went right on and consumed it all. Consumed it, ate it up, until there was nothing left on death’s plate.
In tasting death Jesus dealt with death for us all. God raising Jesus from the dead on the first Easter Day was his way of saying ‘Yes’ death has been consumed; it has been overcome; it has been defeated. All that now lies ahead is life, resurrection life, Jesus kind of life.
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