Thursday, July 26, 2018

The Sting of Death

Alice C. Linsley

Life and death are a reality from which none can escape. We read of tragic sudden deaths due to automobile accidents. In the nightly news, there are accounts of murders and fatalities in house fires and drownings. In the local newspapers, we find the obituaries of the recently deceased, both young and old.

Most people hope to die well, or at least to have what Emily Dickinson called "a tame death of simplicity." Some make final preparations. Priests arrive to administer extreme unction and the last rites and to comfort those who are left behind. Pastors call to consult the family about memorial services at the church. Funeral services commend the dead to the care of the eternal God and convey hope of immortality to those sitting in the pews.

Throughout the ages, death has been regarded as a natural event. In many societies it is sanitized and hidden, the province of medical practitioners and hospice care givers. In some cultures, people are told to develop a mindfulness of death as a way to detach from the world. In Buddhist and Hindu societies the body is something to be cast off.

Unlike the religions that seek to escape the material world, Christianity and Judaism value the body and believe it is not to be destroyed beyond the processes that are natural to death. Jews do not cremate and traditionally Christians to not cremate as this is seen as an un-natural process of destruction. Both Jews and Christians practice primary and sometimes secondary burial. It is common for Christian monastic communities to gather the bones of the deceased monks for secondary burial in a charnel house.

In the Middle Ages, Europeans were reminded of the reality of death by skulls and crucifixes. Alixe Bovey provides an excellent description of the Medieval preoccupation:

Death was at the centre of life in the Middle Ages in a way that might seem shocking to us today. With high rates of infant mortality, disease, famine, the constant presence of war, and the inability of medicine to deal with common injuries, death was a brutal part of most people's everyday experience. As a result, attitudes towards life were very much shaped by beliefs about death: indeed, according to Christian tradition, the very purpose of life was to prepare for the afterlife by avoiding sin, performing good works, taking part in the sacraments, and keeping to the teachings of the church. Time was measured out in saint's days, which commemorated the days on which the holiest men and women had died. Easter, the holiest feast day in the Christian calendar, celebrated the resurrection of Christ from the dead. The landscape was dominated by parish churches - the centre of the medieval community - and the churchyard was the principal burial site.

Skulls of monks who lived at St.Catherine's Monastery at the foot of Mt. Sinai

Robert Hertz, an anthropologist who studied secondary burial rites in Borneo and Indonesia believes that the final transition to the status of ancestor comes when the flesh is gone and only the bones remain. The bones are gathered and placed with the ancestors in a permanent burial site.

This was the practice of the Hebrew ruler-priest caste. When the flesh of the High Priest Caiaphas was gone, his bones were placed in an ossuary and at that point he could be said to be resting in the
bosom of Abraham.

The ossuary box of Caiaphas

In Ezekiel 37, God addresses the dry bones:
Prophesy concerning these bones and tell them: ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the LORD! This is what the Lord GOD says to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you will live. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh grow upon you and cover you with skin. I will put breath within you so that you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the LORD.’”

Hertz saw this transition from buried wet flesh to collected dry bones as a refusal to regard death as irrevocable. He writes, "..the last word must remain with life."

The phrase "life and death" is a merism that expresses all human existence and experience. However, "life and death" also represents a binary set in the Bible and in that context, life is posed as greater than death.

Among people groups who have shamans, the rites of passages from the living to the dead represent transformation and continuity since the shaman is trained to consult the dead through the agency of spirits. This is motivated by grief and by the veneration of the ancestors. The veneration of ancestors is a powerful motivation to focus on the dead. Christian missionaries find the greatest resistance to their Gospel of Life among people for whom this is a sacred trust. The astute will find a way to connect the Messianic message of deliverance from death to the wisdom of the ancestors. This is easier for missionaries who have retained the catholic faith than for Protestants and most Evangelicals.

In the Church, we remember those who have gone before us who are "in Christ" at All Hallows or All Saints. We rejoice that they now "rest in peace" and that their repose is beyond human grasp. Yet we are still one in the Body of Christ and in the Communion of Saints.

Geoffrey Gorer and David Cannadine studied the effects of the catastrophic loss of human life on the battle fields of Europe's great wars. Indeed, in many European countries the grief was so profound that people were desperate to communicate with their lost loved ones and turned to mediums.

With the absence of bodies over which to mourn, this was a time in Britain when there was a significant rise in spiritualism, spiritualist churches, and the practice of holding séances in the hope of having ‘dialogues’ with the dead. In a way, the direction of travel was opposite to that described by Vitebsky for the Sora – whereas the Sora turned away from their dead as active in their lives, British mourners, with the help of spiritualists, actively sought them out. Crucially, the First World War not only changed a nation’s relationship with death but also, for a time at least, its relationship with the dead. (From here.)

In England it was the Anglo-Catholics who were best equipped to resist spiritualism. They retained prayers for the dead, the commemoration of the saints, and the doctrine of the Communion of Saints. Because the English Reformers condemned prayers for the dead, the age old practice was of no service in this time of spiritual and pastoral crisis. The Broad churchmen of the Church of England won the day with their liberal theology, but lost the souls whose care they were to make their first priority. The Evangelicals had a more hopeful message, as they believed in the bodily resurrection and "the life of the world to come."

The pastoral crisis has been described in Rene Kollar's book Searching for Raymond: Anglicanism, Spiritualism, and Bereavement Between the Two World Wars. Richard J. Mammana wrote an excellent review of the book which appeared in Touchstone Magazine in April 2002. Mammana sets the stage for the review with this explanation:

Despite the heroic actions of dedicated priests in the trenches, a spiritual vacuum haunted many of the men who returned from the Great War. This vacuum likewise haunted the homes whose hearths they left empty when they died “over there.” Into this void stepped a series of religious fads, loosely based, as all heresies are, on some aspects of the Christian faith bent out of shape. Prominent laymen—among them Sir Arthur Conan Doyle—promoted the idea that spiritualism and Christianity were not by any means at odds, but rather were complementary and even essential to one another. Hungry audiences devoured the deception, and clergymen weak in their own understanding of Christian doctrine willingly adopted the relation as well. 
The first Lambeth Conference after the Great War addressed itself in earnest to the challenges raised by “Some Movements Outside the Church,” including spiritualism, Christian Science, and Theosophy. This conference, the same one that condemned artificial methods of birth control, said that these movements “are clearly shewn to involve serious error” when “tried by the doctrines of the Incarnation and the Cross.” It “urge[d] strongly that a larger place should be given in the teaching of the Church to the explanation of the true grounds of Christian belief in eternal life, and in immortality, and of the true content of belief in the Communion of Saints as involving real fellowship with the departed through the love of God in Christ Jesus.”

The Church of England failed to meet the pastoral need of millions of grieving people because it had lost an essential message:
"For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Romans 8:38, 39)

In 1937, Archbishop William Cosmo Gordon Lang established a committee “to discuss the relationship, if any, between spiritualism and the traditional teachings of the Anglican Church.” As Archbishop of Canterbury during the abdication of 1936, Archbishop Lang was faced with crisis upon crisis, not the least of which was the popularity of spiritualism. Although Archbishop Lang took a strong moral tone toward the failure of duty of Edward VIII in abdicating the throne, he reopened the question of spiritualism by forming the committee.

The committee delivered its report in 1939, but its findings were not made public until 1979. As Mammana notes, "The “Conclusions of the Majority” reveal a shocking discovery of inherent value in spiritualist practices. One paragraph merits quotation without comment:

It is often held that the practice of Spiritualism is dangerous to the mental balance, as well as to the spiritual condition, of those who take part in it, and it is clearly true that there are cases where it has become obsessional in character. But it is very difficult to judge in these cases whether the uncritical and unwise type of temperament which does undoubtedly show itself in certain spiritualists is a result or a cause of their addiction to these practices. Psychologically it is probable that persons in a condition of mental disturbance, or lack of balance, would very naturally use the obvious opportunities afforded by Spiritualism as a means of expressing the repressed emotions which have caused their disorder. This indeed is true of Christianity itself, which frequently becomes an outlet, not only for cranks, but for persons who are definitely of unstable mentality.

The committee closed with the recommendation of a sort of ecumenism between the Church of England and the spiritualist movement: “It is in our opinion important that representatives of the Church should keep in touch with groups of intelligent persons who believe in Spiritualism.”

Evelyn Underhill, who had been on the committee, resigned, stating that she was “very strongly opposed to spiritualism... especially to any tendency on the part of the Church to recognize or encourage it.”

Another factor that undermines the Christian hope is individualism, the desire to "plough one’s own social furrow" and to pursue spiritual things independently. The trend is dying as young people seek to be connected and are afraid to be alone. However, their mediator is not a warm-blooded priest or pastor who points them to the hope of immortality. It is an electronic device carried everywhere and pointing to everything. 

In the ancient world, the ruler-priest was regarded as the mediator between God and the community. If God turned His face away from the ruler, the people suffered from want and war. If the ruler found favor with God, the people experienced abundance and peace. The ruler was expected to intercede for his people before God in life and in death. The ruler's resurrection meant that he could lead his people beyond the grave to new life. This is why great pains were taken to insure that the ruler not come into contact with dead bodies, avoid sexual impurity, and be properly preserved after death. The ruler's burial was attended by prayers, sacrifices and a grand procession to the royal tomb.

The New Testament speaks about Jesus as the ruler-priest. He is the firstborn from the grave and by his resurrection He delivers to the Father a "peculiar people." He leads us in royal procession to the Father where we receive heavenly recognition because we belong to Him.

Heavenly recognition for the Hebrew was never an individual prospect. Heavenly recognition came to the people through the righteousness of their ruler-priest. Horite Hebrew rulers took this seriously, some more than others. The best were heavenly minded and the worst were so earthy minded that they shed much blood enlarging their territories. All failed to be the Ruler-Priest who rose from the dead. None has the power to deliver captives from the grave and to lead them to the throne of heaven (Ps. 68:18; Ps. 7:7; Eph. 4:8). That one true Priest and King is Jesus Messiah, the Son of God, who has trampled down death by death.
When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come to pass: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”

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