A man named Jim died at work today. I watched it happen. I came out and there he was supine on the tarmac as though enjoying a particularly fine patch of sky. A security guard knelt beside him, pumping his dying chest. Jim’s body rocked slowly like an unmoored ship, rippling with each compression in plain sight of us all.
I felt embarrassed for him. To die like that.
Sun, pavement, flesh. No matter how gently I handle them there is no coming away clean, no avoiding the inevitable mental thumb sticking to mental forefinger, no escaping the viscid mess. That day watching Jim, I thought of my father and the bicuspid valve that may one day take his life. I thought of my grandfather’s headstone. A security guard told me it reminded him of a suicide he’d witnessed more than twenty years earlier. Strange how the dying are always compounded. Death has a way of calling up death.
And of barbing the hooks on our endless questions, whirring out like fishing line across time and space: Why? Why him? Why now? They float to us on the illimitable ocean of experience, calling up monsters from the deep, asking can you look at this and still say God is good?
You see this question burning in the eyes of the newly-bereft: The primacy of the personal militating against anything outside its own experience, thumping its chest against all-comers, declaring, I am, my pain exists, and all else be damned.
But what is more universal than death? Tens of thousands have died today and will continue dying tomorrow. And it’s not as though human beings have cornered the market on dissolution. Seen any road kill lately? Ever dispatched a spider in the bathroom? How many millions of bacteria are dying inside your small intestine right now?
To be part of a great world system of the dying—so what? What consolation does this commonness bring? As every mourner knows, we experience death most keenly not in the universal, but in the particular—this mother has passed away, this friend. And it’s true. Something unique has happened. A hole in our existence emerges, a void, the destruction in a peculiar way of possibilities and relationships. The obdurate selfishness of pain crying to be heard above all others—“Woe is me”—contains within it a truth as elemental as the hills: the self-ness of grief. Grief is, and always must be, personal—even in its universality.
Where does this leave those who sit, like Rachel, on the eternal mourners’ bench refusing to be comforted? Our answers to these questions are important, never more so than in a world with a maelstrom of opinions on offer about death’s role in human existence.
Some conceptions of evolution see death as advancement, weakness flushing down and out of the drain of existence. Others see death as the ultimate expression of personal choice, the birthright of an unalloyed sovereign self whose very existence hinges on the freedom to make such unencumbered decisions. Some Christians see death as God’s will, a punishment for evil, perhaps, though usually and more simply a way of calling his people home. Other believers see death as a brutal consequence of the fall, somehow ransomed through the work of Christ on the cross. Simplest of all, many see in death nothing but unreflective causality, equivalent in tone to a shoulder shrug: It happens.
As I watched Jim on the pavement none of these thoughts were on my mind. There was too much chaos—blinking lights, people shouting, firemen and paramedics. Gradually one thing became certain, however. His death was attracting quite a crowd. Why does it fascinate us so? It is the same today as it ever was: Fires, car accidents, and all other violence attract onlookers and busybodies.
As Jim lay exposed, a man jostled forward, looked, slipped a cameraphone from a void of fabric, and clicked a picture. Then he walked away. There was no uproar. No judgmental looks at what was surely a gross breach of decorum. The crowd did not notice. Why should they? It was only a slight aberration from what we were all doing anyway. Devouring with our eyes the sight of this man as he slipped away, curious in spite of ourselves, unable to look away.
Death as spectacle. It’s sickening, isn’t it? All our talk about it, all our philosophizing and theology, the question ever-circling around the plughole of our minds. We live in a world saturated with the stink of it. On a certain level the logic of death binds us, enfolds us, contains us—and who hasn’t, at some point or another, worn-out and wearied, soul-crushed beneath the weight of mortality, wished to be free from it all? Cameraphones in hand, God help us, echoing St. Paul, we cry: “Who will rescue us from this body of death?”
For the Christian, so much depends on the answer to this question. And make no mistake: The answer is, after all, a who and not a what. It is not an answer that will satisfy, perhaps, the implacable among us. But it is an answer, like grief itself, rooted in particularity, in this man, in this Jesus.
We do well to remember death is not our friend. We do well to remember God is not served by its awful power nor does he need it, being perfectly sufficient in himself, to display his glory. It is not an accomplice. It is an enemy—the last enemy, in fact, according to Paul. And God refuses to be party to the spectacle, refuses to stand aloof, to watch, to hold in contempt, to remain unmoved in the audience. That is the comfort we cling to: a God who himself bears scars. He joins us on the mourners’ bench and makes himself the greatest spectacle of all on our behalf—the spectacle of God before man crucified. In the work of Jesus, in the spectacle of the cross, we see a God who participates, and through participation, ushers in, at last, the end of death as spectacle.
The thief comes to steal and kill and destroy, but not Our Lord.
And so when death comes, as it will, and we see on the news another genocide, or another tsunami, and people shouting or screaming and blood spattered on the pavement, or when we watch our own loved ones wasting with cancer and wired with tubes and inscrutable blinking machines, or see a beloved father or mother lowered coldly into the grave, or read of forty million babies silenced in the womb, I do not think we can comfort ourselves with the belief that one day all these things will make sense, that God will synthesize all disparate strands into one seamless fabric, and that we will find the glorious purpose that necessitated the suffering of the innocent. Nowhere do we see Jesus calling us to himself, saying: “Come, see my logic, and all will be well.”
Instead we have the triumphant “Behold, I make all things new,” and tears being wiped away, and lions lying with lambs, and death nonexistent, and no mourning, or crying, or pain, and the passing away of former things.
This last point bears special notice. The victorious Christ is not a natural extension of the status quo, the logical next step in a process that began with the first atom exploding outward to create all matter. He is not a geological system or a mathematical equation like the wheeling sun or the tides of the sea. No: The victorious Christ is the greatest disruption, the striking off of shackles from a fettered world. He liberates us from the cruel facts of our existence in this present world. He is the end of death itself.
As people ahead of time, it is the Christian’s responsibility to proclaim now that which we know will be proclaimed on bended knee from the lips of all creation—that Jesus Christ is Lord. This demands a type of seeing, a type of imagination. It requires the eyes of faith—a looking forward in hope to the King coming on the clouds with fire and Heaven descending from above, to the One who will judge the living and the dead, who holds time in his hand, and who promises to put all things under his feet.
When I saw death plant his white flag onto Jim’s face, I did not see a friend, but an enemy. And a conquered one at that. Let me proclaim it as I should.
Joshua John Mackin lives in Brooklyn.