Monday, 6 April 2009

The Mirage of Fear

In the time before America became part of me, while I was still alive to its idiosyncrasies, I would marvel at its culture of memorial. The trail of all of our shared history marks places by events or the people that shaped them. In Europe this has mostly been the prerogative of royal houses, and it is part of the founding character of the United States that anyone’s life can be commemorated. I used to like walking over a crossroads named after an infantryman or a schoolteacher, the subtext was that people of all stations in life build our quality of life, not just those of high social rank, and so it had more of a chance of remembering talent or virtue than most of the royal or aristocratic memorabilia back in England.

But the relentlessness of it would chafe. You couldn’t just drive on an interstate in New York, it had to be the Governor Thomas Dewey Freeway, you landed at John Wayne airport on Orange County and even the swings and slides in my local park would forever immortalise Hiram J Hackenbacker (or whoever’s) whose playground it would become. At worst, you could not pray in the National Cathedral in Washington DC without considering the family names of benefactors etched in huge serif upper case stone letters, a perpetual obscenity which violates the first rule of religious philanthropy: that you are only giving back to God what is God’s in the first place.

When you consider the high reliance America’s public sector has on private philanthropy you have to ask why this arrangement is so dependable? Any dime-store psychologist will tell you that it is about the need for significance and about the fear of death and oblivion. It is a way of making sure that you have not been overlooked, it is a way of buying good memory, it is a way of immortalising your name, just in case God doesn’t deliver. It is the final testimony to the supremacy of the individual, there is no common achievement, no civic good.

It is also driven by fear, the fear of being nothing, the fear of being forgotten.

Today we rehearse a story whose power lies in living where this fear has no power. It is not a story without fear or despair. It is the sense of loss, betrayal and abandonment that makes it an heroic story. But the events of Holy Week have at its centre a man who is not driven by the fear of death. As difficult as the journey becomes, there is an underlying persistence to the end. Jesus may be the central figure in the Holy Week story, but it is not about him, he points to something beyond himself, his words and acts are testimony to God’s purpose, not his immortality. He walks towards death as if its horrors were a mirage.

We can’t begin to engage with this imaginatively unless we can conceive what it would be like to live as if our deaths were behind us. Imagine if your death were not somewhere in the future, but in the past. Think of what could be set aside.

Concerns about status, rivalry, family feud, affronts to dignity, seeking justice for a wrong done, needing to be noticed, given our proper regard, even the need to be memorialised. All these things would melt away along with all their imperatives, that intensity, because they are driven by the fear of death. With our deaths behind us, all these melt away and look trivial, even frivolous.

The Last Supper is not Jesus’s attempt at memorial, it is framing his death in a way that invites his followers to emulate, to live as if their deaths are behind us and mortality an illusion. This is the power we see unfolded in Holy Week.

It is fulfilled after Easter Day. The resurrection stories in Christian sacred texts are about a man walking among his friends whose death is behind him. He is walking a new life. He doesn’t go back to Herod or Pilate or the high priest Caiaphas or Judas Iscariot for revenge, or even vindication. He returns to the life-enhancing business of meals with friends, and his presence a testimony to their never having to fear for themselves, an invitation to put the fear of death behind them.

Paradoxically, this life becomes one of the most remembered in history, but the power of its message remains confined, hidden even from many of his followers, and seen only by those with eyes to see.

So we rehearse the final days of a man walking towards his death, surrounded by the wreckage of a world financial system, driven by a few who are compelled to acquire, profit, and rob in the futile cause of being significant, and trying to stay their mortality. This week, the way ahead is in their midst.

Posted by Andrew Spurr on Monday, 6 April 2009 at 10:18am BST | TrackBack
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Categorised as: just thinking

I'm not sure. I seem to remember an awful lot of dread, and even panic and anger on the part of Our Lord as He faced His death; very much like the rest of us mortals when we face our own ends. When He said "My God my God, Why have you forsaken me?" I doubt He was piously quoting the 22nd Psalm.

Your point though about so much our enterprise driven by the fear of death is right on the mark. Life without that fear would indeed be profoundly different.

But, we all die, and we're all afraid of that fact, and here we are.

Posted by: Counterlight on Monday, 6 April 2009 at 3:03pm BST

"But, we all die, and we're all afraid of that fact, and here we are."

One of the most profound things I can recall from recent television was on an episode of House. One of his assistants says of their patient, "She's dying...." and House responds, "We're all dying, just at different speeds."

Posted by: Pat O'Neill on Monday, 6 April 2009 at 4:41pm BST

The gift of the Christmas babe. the Incarnation, had as its foundation the taking on of mortality. Included in that mortality was the dread of suffering and death. How useless is the Passion if Christ was immune to it? On the other hand the central purpose for me is the defeat of death through the acceptance of it by Christ. That is the reframing of the Eucharist, and which SHOULD bring God's Kingdom to earth. It is our fears and our need for our own memorialization that resists it.

Posted by: BrotherBob on Monday, 6 April 2009 at 6:39pm BST

Ah, but the Last Supper is indeed a memorial. I don't know Greek so I can’t go to original sources, but English translations have Jesus of Nazareth saying, after the offering of both the (unleavened) bread and wine, after Jesus recites the blessings (or gives thanks, in the words of the Gospels), after making new symbols of each, Jesus says "Do this in remembrance of me." Regardless of the theology -- transubstantiation, consubstantiation, real presence, etc., -- of the Mass or Eucharist, those who bless and sanctify the elements, and those who receive them, do it in remembrance of Jesus. He lives on in that simple act of eating and drinking -- of, literally, breaking bread together.
As far as fear, the apostles had it in plentitude. That fact, and the aftermath, is what I find most striking. Upon Jesus’ arrest, Peter denies knowing Jesus. The apostles scatter. On Sunday morning, the re-united apostles and others are huddling in a room like scared rabbits, worrying about what will become of them. Will Pilate also round them up and execute them as accomplices? Will the High Priest move against them? Then Jesus re-enters their lives, and they are filled with joy. They are so transformed, that -- according to Church tradition -- 10 of the remaining 11 are martyred for their cause. They are willing to face torture and be executed for their cause. And they are so filled with joy that hundreds, then thousands, are attracted to their cause
That transformation, for me, a non-Christian, is what is the most striking about these people. Something Happened. Something entered their lives, and they were never the same.

Posted by: peterpi on Monday, 6 April 2009 at 8:37pm BST

I well remember, in an Anglican Community of Franciscans in Australia, one of our Brothers preferring to sleep in an alcove in the wall of one of the cells of the friary - somewhat like a recessed tomb. He said it reminded him of our common human mortality. We thought he was nuts at the time, but with the approach of old age, one marvels at the insight. I guess such an approach to life-through-the-lens of-death would be a healthy way of viewing our eternal destiny in Xp.

Posted by: Father Ron Smith on Tuesday, 7 April 2009 at 5:20am BST

"Rejoice not against me, O mine enemy: when I fall, I shall arise; when I sit in darkness, the LORD shall be a light unto me." - Micah 7:8

Posted by: Rev L Roberts on Wednesday, 8 April 2009 at 1:33pm BST

"When He said "My God my God, Why have you forsaken me?" I doubt He was piously quoting the 22nd Psalm." - Counterlight -

No. I have the idea that Jesus, being fully human - as well as divine - had to experience the separation from God that is the hallmark of sin.
If Jesus was to bear our sins, then he must have had an actual experience (humanly speaking) of separation from the Father he loved. That, alone, would have been devastating.

However, for me, the great wonder is that in the end, after asking his Father to forgive everyone connected with his death, Jesus commended his spirit into the hands of God. His cry of despair was truly human; his forgiveness and final resignation, truly divine.

Posted by: Father Ron Smith on Thursday, 9 April 2009 at 4:46am BST
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