Death, decay and suffering describe the reality of our biological life, but it seems that it is a reality we cannot look steadily upon. Like looking at the sun, or at a welder at work, we have to quickly avert our eyes, because to look honestly on the reality of biological death will, at least for most normal people, lead to a kind of moral death, a massive loss of heart. Death itself is a ‘nothing’, a nihil, a yawning abyss. Furthermore, our energetic attempts at resuscitation and extension of life are only futile efforts to stave off the inevitable. They are, in fact, attempts to deny what we fear most: the ultimate reality of death. Frantic death denial is a ‘tell -tale’ ─ it gives away that we have seen death momentarily, and that we have concluded that it is the ultimate grim reality. This conclusion has been so terrifying we have evermore energetically put it out of our minds….and this is completely understandable because, whilst biological death is very real ─ undeniably real ─ it unfortunately offers human beings no meaning. Nothing is added in death, death’s work is deleterious. In it all the spiritual meaning and moral obligation of our life is confounded. Death itself is a ‘nothing’. We human beings are driven, perhaps presumptuously, to interpret suffering, and this making up of stories to console us itself contributes to our culture of death denial. It seems unbearable that the pain of death, bereavement and injury is for nothing, and indeed it is quite unbearable. Futility gnaws at the human will to live. And yet looking prematurely for meaning in suffering is not necessarily a helpful and life-giving thing to do. The point is that Jesus’ suffering by itself is meaningless, futile, and ought not to have happened, and we need to ‘sit’ with this meaninglessness for a little while just as the disciples did before they could comprehend the resurrection. In James Alison’s words, the death of Jesus ‘is a meaningless futile event, signifying nothing, accomplishing nothing’.
We should add quickly add that there is nothing to say that Jesus’ response to the suffering was meaningless. But even this response, when examined against the end result of death as Jesus’ ultimate reality, is quickly dispensed with by the intelligent observer. It becomes ‘noble’, ‘loving’ and ‘self-sacrificial’, but also ‘not for the faint-hearted’, for some sort of selfless hero but not for ordinary people. In short, without the resurrection, the story of Jesus lies entombed in all the other tombs culture erects over the dead bodies of its founders. It becomes an heroic tale that sets us an example, but at the very same time makes that exemplary life recede to where it is out of reach. It becomes tragically heroic.
The thing about tragedies is that they are so very serious and grave, but that is nowhere near what we see portrayed in the comedic sequences that are the gospel accounts of the resurrection. We have ‘Jesus the cook’ in one of the most domestic and harmless scenes in the New Testament as he barbeques fish over a campfire for his fishermen friends. We have ‘Jesus the gardener’ meeting Mary and quietly speaking her name to undo her disappointment. Gardeners and cooks are not what we expect tragic heroes to look like. And even when Jesus’ wounds are focused on, they are focused on by Thomas, and not made much of by Jesus. We worship as wounded man, yes, but you wouldn’t know that to hear him speak for Jesus’ sparkling personality in the resurrection stories subverts our expectations of tragic heroes. He exacts no penalty for their having deserted him, he sulks not, neither does he lay on the guilt, or play up to the drama. ‘Peace be with you’, he says, ‘Do not be afraid’. In the story of his meeting the two disappointed travellers on the road to Emmaus, Jesus falls in step with them, and the evangelist includes us in a light hearted joke. The readers and he know that this is Jesus, but the two on the road are kept from recognising him. Jesus speciously asks them what they are talking about. They are talking about him ─ his tragic life and heroic death, and about their dashed hopes. Death has made a nonsense of all that oriented them, and their messianic hopes are confounded by its final reality. They ask despondently ‘are you the only person who doesn’t know the things that have happened in these days?’ (Luke 24.18). Its so serious, so important, so grave; ‘doesn’t he know?’ Jesus does know, but never lets on. You can imagine the mischievous twinkle in his eye as he resists the temptation to play a role in their kind of drama. It could be his opportunity to make his grand entry: ‘The person you speak of is me!’(flourish… flourish…) ‘It was an epic fight, a titanic struggle, but, as you can see by these scars, (furnish them appropriately), I have made it, I have overcome’. Instead he teases them as he says innocently, ‘What things?’ (Luke 24.19). The reason Jesus is able to be so flippant is because it wasn’t a titanic struggle. There is no sense of only just having seen off a close rival in Jesus’ speech. He is calm and composed with no real concern for his own vindication. That is so well secured by the God who gratuitously raised him that he needn’t give it another thought. His composure is one of someone who wants to talk of things that to him are much more interesting, much more exciting than what he had been through. His deportment speaks of heaven, not hell. His way of being present creates relaxation, not the stiff servitude exacted by the vinegar of guilt. Notice, also, who he appears to. He appears to some of the women who followed him to the foot of the cross, and later to those males who deserted him ─ and this appearing is frightening enough for them, so much so that he finds it necessary to say repeatedly to them, ‘Peace be with you, don’t be afraid’. He graciously declines the opportunity to show up amongst those who actually organised his execution. He allows these ones to hear about it through the apostolic witness. Even then, this verbal form of the account would ‘cut them to the heart’ (Acts 2.37). Vindication is not Jesus’ agenda, his style of resurrection refuses in the end to be triumphalised, or even institutionalised. It works in erasure, in that, as soon as its encouragement is imparted and the converting work of its import has begun to dawn, Jesus departs. He is playful, carefree but not at all careless with the people he deals with; compassionate, modest and unassuming. His is a presence that doesn’t impose itself but which as gently as could be possible for such a momentous thing as a resurrected presence, liberates those in its company. In short, Jesus acts with gracious magnanimity…and he calls us too away from our fears. He breaks our fear filled embrace with death, where we are afraid to look, and afraid to look away. He calls us to relax, and to look away. He frees us to act towards the rivalistic world with this same magnanimity – the love of Christ.
We all have, or else should have at least one real experience of gracious magnanimity. This is love in the sense of an act or attitude of self-giving, self-emptying love given towards us without ulterior motive and without any resentment or interest for the way in which it is received.