Chapter ll: God Undertook Death (John 19:1 6b-1 9, 31-53, 41-42)
Loren Eiseley had a dream in which he was visited by Death. The dream came soon after the sudden passing of the writer’s patron, his uncle, Buck Price.
"One night he dreamt of sitting in the parlor of his uncle’s home, rocking gently and waiting. A laugh came from behind a curtained door, followed by the sound of a snapped lock. The laughter resumed, deep and vibrating. The lights suddenly went out, and then he heard the mocking voice of Death emanating from Buck’s favorite chair: 'We are alone now. Isn’t that what you have always wanted?' Loren hurled himself at the chimera, only to be met in midair by an equally violent force. The mortal adversaries twisted and rolled across the floor like Saturday-night saloon brawlers, smashing every piece of furniture in their path. Loren gradually gained the upper hand; he had his foe by the throat and could feel something collapsing between his constricting fingers. The lights blinked to life again; in his hands was the unrecognizable form of a crumpled puppet, a papier-mâché creature 'murdered' in an imaginary moment of blind rage. (Gale E. Christianson, Fox at the Wood’s Edge: A Biography of Loren Eiselev, 1990, p. 164)
Jesus’ encounter with death was also terrible, but different from Eiseley’s. It is reported in the Gospel of John as follows:
So they took Jesus; and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha. There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them. Pilate also had an inscription written and put on the cross. it read, "Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews."
Since it was the day of Preparation, the Jews did not want the bodies left on the cross during the sabbath, especially because that sabbath was a day of great solemnity. So they asked Pilate to have the legs of the crucified men broken and the bodies removed. Then the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first and of the other who had been crucified with him. But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs.
Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there. (John 19, selected verses)
As you read those words, very likely a multitude of images flash upon your mental screen. Perhaps snatches of hymns ring in your ears. You may recall a picture in a Sunday-school book showing Jesus bent under the weight of a heavy cross. A voice wails, "Jesus walked this lonesome valley, he had to walk it by himself." If you saw The Last Temptation of Christ, you can visualize the actor Willem DaFoe being hoisted on the cross. A Gospel choir murmurs, "Were you there when they nailed him to the tree?" You remember viewing a medieval painting of Christ hanging on the cross - possibly Grunewald’s altarpiece. Isaac Watts’s hymn sounds in your ears, "See, from his head, his hands, his feet; sorrow and love flow mingled down." Do you know the Pietà, Michelangelo’s sculpture of Mary holding the lifeless body of her son? "Were you there when they laid him in the tomb?"
Even if you wished, you could not erase those images nor still those voices. So I will not ask you to do that. I will not insist that you listen to me telling you "how it really was." But I do ask that you revisit those familiar scenes and let me stand behind you, as it were, and whisper some things in your ear that you may not have thought about - or may have forgotten.
"Carrying the Cross by Himself. . ."
The Gospel account begins with Jesus carrying a wooden cross to the place where he will be put to death. He is, apparently, a willing participant in his execution. There is no display of rage, no passive resistance, no lying down on the job. He bends his will as well as his back. He accedes to the propriety of what is a being done. As with most political prisoners, Jesus’ spirit is crushed before his body is broken.
This scene is all too familiar to us. Every decade brings new political executions. We have witnessed so many that our hearts are hardened against pity: Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia, Hussein’s Iraq, Pinochet’s Chile, Argentina, El Salvador, Brazil, China, North Korea - is there no end to the list? Will the killing never stop?
It is killing of such an awful kind. Political executions have this double-edged penalty: Before being cut off from the land of the living, one is severed from society. How desperately lonely must be the last hours for those to whom the State turns the grim face of executioner.
Betty Stam was with the China Inland Mission during the war between the Nationalists and the Communists in the 1930s. The town where she and her husband served was overrun by the Red Army. While Betty was bathing their baby, the soldiers came and arrested her husband and demanded twenty thousand dollars in ransom. When the money could not be paid, Betty and her husband were taken from their home and killed. Betty watched while her husband knelt and was beheaded; then it was her turn. Consider her feelings as she faced execution - a young wife, in a foreign country, surrounded by a hostile army, taken from her baby, her husband already dead. Could the world appear less friendly, more lonely?
But everyone faces death alone, doesn’t she? doesn’t he? Of course. That may help to explain the need of the terminally ill to separate themselves from their loved ones. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross tells about Mrs. W., a fifty-eight-year-old woman who knew she was dying of abdominal cancer. When she was taken to the operating room for one more operation, she became grossly psychotic - the only way she could protest the prolonging of her life. After returning to her room and recovering her senses, she asked to see Dr. Kubler-Ross.
"When I entered the room the following day, she looked at her bewildered husband and then said, 'Talk to this man and make him understand.' She then turned her back to us. clearly indicating her need to be left alone. I had my first meeting with her husband, who was at a loss for words.
Her husband said with tears in his eyes that he was totally puzzled by this unexpected change. He described his marriage as an extremely happy one and his wife’s terminal illness as totally unacceptable. He had hopes that the operation would allow them once more to be 'as close together as they had been' for the many happy years of their marriage.
When I asked him about the patient’s needs, rather than his own, he sat in silence. He slowly began to realize that he never listened to her needs but took it for granted that they were the same. He could not comprehend that a patient reaches a point where death comes as a great relief, and that patients die easier if they are allowed and helped to detach themselves slowly from all the meaningful relationships in their life. (On Death and Dying, 1969, pp. 103 - 104)
"There They Crucified Him"
Let us move on to the scene of Jesus’ death - the crucifixion. The site of Jesus’ execution has a significant name, Golgotha, The Place of the Skull. In the absence of any explanation, we suppose that Golgotha has something to do with skulls and bones. It is a boneyard. When we have no more use for an artifact, we throw it on the dump. When society wants to express contempt for a man, it delivers him to the boneyard.
In this place of desolation Jesus is fixed to a wooden cross. Two others are nailed up with him, one on each side. Simone Weil reminds us that Christ "did not die like a martyr. He died like a common criminal, confused with thieves, only a little more ridiculous" (Waiting for God, p. 125). Jesus’ crime is specified; on his cross is the indictment, "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews." If one assumes that capital punishment is justified as a warning to others, Jesus’ blood should flash a stop sign to would-be Jewish kings.
"He Was Already Dead"
We may want to linger in awe and wonder at the spectacle of Jesus hanging on the cross. We may be moved to pity, tears, even love. But public execution, especially crucifixion, is a disgraceful way to end a life; such a death is a blot on the social record. Because the crucifixion happens on a day of Preparation for the sabbath, pious Jews come to the civil magistrate and ask that the bodies be removed. The soldiers break the legs of the other two, to be sure that they are quite dead. But they find that Jesus has already died. Sometime between his being hoisted on the cross and their coming, the breath has gone out of him. He has left the land of the living. He has passed away. The spirit has left the body. What remains is a corpse.
Why is the body of Jesus not left on the cross? Isn’t the main purpose of a public execution to scare the wits out of the living populace, so that none will be tempted to crime or rebellion? Yet, why not dispose of the body, once life has left it? Death is nature’s way of clearing the way for a new generation. "If nobody had to die," said Gertrude Stein, "how would there be room enough for any of us who now live to have lived? We never could have been if all the others had not died. There would have been no room." Surely all of us understand this about death: It is the end of our usefulness. What began with Jesus’ conception is now ended. His song has been sung; his story has been told; the flower of his genius has bloomed.
Oh, one’s influence does not end at death. Very ordinary folk leave behind the legacy of children, even grandchildren. And the works of the dead go on working. The books that Jane Austen wrote continue to be read; the music that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed is still played; Emily Dickinson’s poems are still memorized and recited; the speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., are quoted on his birthday. But Jane, Wolfgang, Emily, and Martin write no more books, music, poems, or speeches.
Jesus goes to join them. No more sermons on the mountain, no more feeding of multitudes, boat rides, meals with friends, healing of paralytics. What Jesus might have done had he lived another ten or twenty years, who knows? He might have written his memoirs. Think how different the literary scene would be had he done that. He might have founded a political party. How that would have changed the political landscape! He might even have organized a religion, with a woman named Mary as its high priestess. How about that!
It is this unrealized part of a person’s life that makes death so painful for those left behind. Of the death of her seventeen-year-old son, Frances Gunther wrote:
"What is the grief that tears me now? No fear of death or any hereafter. During our last summer at Madison, I would write in my diary when I couldn’t sleep. 'Look Death in the face. To look Death in the face, and not be afraid. To be friendly to Death as to Life. Death as a part of Life, like Birth. Not the final part. I have no sense of finality about Death. Only the final scene in a single act of a play that goes on forever. Look Death in the face: it’s a friendly face, a kindly face, sad, reluctant, knowing it is not welcome but having to play its part when its cue is called, perhaps trying to say, 'Come, it won’t be too bad, don’t be afraid, I understand how you feel, but come - there may be other miracles!' No fear of Death, no fight against Death, no enmity toward Death, friendship with Death as with Life. That is - Death for myself, but not for Johnny, God, not yet. He’s too young to miss all the other parts of Life, all the other lovely living parts of Life. All the wonderful, miraculous things to do, to feel, to see, to hear, to touch, to smell, to taste, to experience, to enjoy. What a joy Life is. What does not one talk of the joy of Life? shout, sing, write of the joy of Life?" (From John Gunther, Death Be Not Proud, 1949, pp. 255 - 256)
"They Laid Jesus There"
But the joys of Life are over for Jesus of Nazareth. Like Loren’s Uncle Buck, like Mrs. W., like Johnny Gunther, and like Jane, Wolfgang, Emily, and Martin, Jesus must be buried. Fortunately, his place of execution is next to a garden, where there is a new tomb that has never been used. Evidently it is a cave-like space in the hillside. And so the remains are taken from the cross, wrapped in grave-clothes, and laid in this cavity. Jesus’ body can then begin its slow journey back to the dust from which it came. Society’s debt to the dead is to bury them, to get them underground or under a seal. Let the forces of nature now do their work.
In John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Grandpa Joad dies while the family is on their pilgrimage from Oklahoma to California. Pa says, "They’s laws. You got to report a death, an’ when you do that, they either take forty dollars for the undertaker or they take him for a pauper." The family has only a hundred and fifty dollars; they cannot afford the undertaker. So the men dig a grave by the side of the road. In a fruit jar, buried with Grandpa, is a piece of paper with his name and a verse from the Psalms, "Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven." The family insists that Casy, the ex-preacher, say a few words, and he does:
"This here ol’ man jus’ lived a life an’ jus’ died out of it. I don’t know whether he was good or bad, but that don’t matter much. He was alive, an’ that’s what matters. An’ now he’s dead, an’ that don’t matter. Heard a fella tell a poem one time, an’ he says, 'All that lives is holy.' Got to thinkin’, an’ puny soon it means more than the words says. An’ I wouldn’ pray for a ol’ fella that’s dead. He’s awright. He got a job to do, but it’s all laid out for ‘im an’ there’s on’y one way to do it. But us, we got a job to do, an’ they’s a thousan’ ways, an’ we don’ know which one to take. An’ if I was to pray, it’d be for the folks that don’ know which way to turn. Grampa here, he got the easy straight. An’ now cover ‘im up and let ‘im get to his work." (pp. 157 - 158)
Death Has Two Faces
Those are my reflections on a few of the many mental images we bring to any account of Jesus’ crucifixion, death, and burial. What happens if we should combine these several pictures into a single portrait, as when several slide projectors throw their various images on a single screen? Then we may discern, as in a glass darkly, the face of death. Rather, we see the two faces of death. Or, if you prefer, we see that death has two facets. Death calls each by name; death comes for us all. It is what each must suffer alone; it is what none of us can escape.
First of all, death is the experience that each of us must go through alone. Jesus’ crucifixion on Golgotha is utterly unlike anyone else’s death. Each person’s death is unique; no two people die the same way. And each of us is never so alone as when we go to meet our death. Just as Jesus’ death was unique, so is yours, so is mine. Death never whispers, "You all come," but rather "Buck," "Betty," "Johnny," "Jesus." Each dies alone; each is never so lonely as when confronted with death.
And yet all die; no one is exempt. Even Jesus died - he who had every reason to live. If Jesus died, how can you and I hope to escape death? It is inevitable; it is common; it is necessary. Each of us wears a different shape and face; yet each is made of the same clay.
This twofold nature of death is pressed upon the hearers of Johannes Brahms’s Requiem for the dead. In the overpowering conviction that all of us must die, the choir sings:
"Behold, all flesh is as the grass, and all the goodliness of man is as the flower of grass; for lo, the grass with’reth, and the flower thereof decayeth."
In the next chorus, the solo male voice is heard:
"Lord, make me to know, know the measure of my days on earth, to consider my frailty that I must perish.
Surely, all my days here are as an hand-breadth to thee, and my lifetime is as naught to thee."
Death comes for all; death comes for each. Death mirrors the two-fold character of human existence: We are molded of the same clay, yet each of us is unique. Such is our humility and our glory.
Where Is God?
But where is God in all of this? Is God merely a spectator at our death? Are we to think of God as the parent who sits in the audience and watches beloved sons and daughters graduate from one kind of existence into another? Does God preside over our death, like the high-school principal who stands on the platform during the commencement exercise and hands each graduate a diploma? Or is God present at our death in a more direct way?
The answer surely lies in the answer to a prior question: Where was God when Jesus died? Those who believe in a benevolent and merciful God are confronted with what seems a multiple-choice response:
(1) God took Jesus.
(2) God forsook Jesus.
(3) God undertook death.
There are those who insist on answer #1. They say that death is a doorway leading from life on this earth to life in heaven. God was waiting for Jesus to die so he might be taken to dwell with God in heaven.
In James Agee’s novel A Death in the Family (1957), Mary Follett loses her young husband in a car accident. She explains to her children:
"'Daddy didn’t come home. He isn’t going to come home ever any more. He’s - gone away to heaven and he isn’t ever coming home again. Do you hear me, Catherine? Are you awake?' Catherine stared at her mother. 'Do you understand, Rufus?'
He stared at his mother. 'Why not?' he asked.
She looked at him with extraordinary closeness and despair, her severely and she went on: 'Daddy was on his way home last night - and he was - he - got hurt and - so God let him go to sleep and took him straight away with Him to heaven.' (pp. 251 - 252)
Then there are those who choose answer #2; they insist that God forsook Jesus. When Jesus died, God’s face was turned away. God was grieved, God was upset, but God did nothing to interfere or intervene.
The French writer/priest Jean Sulivan reports:
"In dying my mother taught me a lesson. She refused every word of assurance, every consolation of religion. Then I realized that it wasn’t only in the novels of Bernanos that the servants of God die abandoned and apparently in revolt.
As she lay dying my mother’s faith, as regards its human supports, formulations, and religious objects, suddenly crumbled. This good woman lived through an agony of abandonment." (Morning Light, pp. 12, 36)
There are, of course, scriptural warrants for both answers. But there is also the third answer and a stunning possibility: that Jesus and God were united in death as in life; that in the crucifixion God undertook death. According to the dictionary, to "undertake" something means to take it on oneself, as a task or performance. Where was God when Jesus died? God was on the cross.
If the thesis of this book is correct, that in the human Jesus we see the face of God, then we may choose answer #3. Jesus was never more fully human than in his death. God was never more fully present to the world than in the hour of that death. Doesn’t that mean that God is never more fully and truly present to us than in the hour of our dying?