Friday, April 06, 2012

O Death, Where is your victory?

Courtesy - The Island By Fr J.C. Pieris

To understand the message of Good Friday one must pose the question ‘after death, what? Do we die into nothingness? After death do we have only a big black blank or do we die into something? Is there some reality after death, even though unlike our reality, which some may call nirvana, some heaven, some moksha and others something else? This is the fundamental and perennial human query any thinking woman or man will ask sometime during her/his life. Very often the answer is, rationally speaking, unsatisfactory. Yet, the answer is crucial for the quality, richness and meaningfulness of life before death here on earth or for the drab poverty, cynicism and insignificance of this life.

Philosophy and metaphysics

Somebody had posed the same problem, in the internet, in a very interesting and a utilitarian manner. "I prefer to live believing in life after death and in God, in goodness and in love and find after death only a big black blank rather than live not believing in any life after death neither in God, in goodness nor in love and find after death that they do exist!" Similar sentiments are echoed by the catchy, popular song of ‘Abba’ group: I have a dream. Philosophy and metaphysics have always failed to answer this question adequately. For none of the two alternate answers can be proved or disproved logically by reason. But there are several holistic answers to this fundamental question and they have produced the great religions of the world. I aim to present the Christian answer to this problem as I have understood and accepted it. And I feel that is the main objective of the Holy Week, especially Good Friday, which Christians will be celebrating in the week before the Sinhala New Year.

The Holy week begins with Palm Sunday when the triumphal entry into Jerusalem of Jesus, sitting on a mule, is remembered. On Maundy Thursday Jesus’ last supper with the disciples will be commemorated with the accent on the washing of the feet of his disciples and the institution of the Eucharist. At that Supper Jesus made, perhaps, the most moving farewell speech ever made in history. He spent that night in the garden of Gethsemane going through the agony of a condemned man waiting for the executioner. It was not so much the terrifying anticipation of the barbaric punishment that would be dealt by the Roman Empire that made him sweat blood but, I feel, it was the desperate search for the answer to our original question and not finding any certainty or conviction on the outcome of his life’s goal. Could everything he said, taught and did be in vain? The moment of death would be the moment of truth when he would know whether he won or lost the magnificent, all or nothing, gamble. Sweating blood he would place his final act of faith in the Unknown whom he always called ‘Abba’ (Appachchi or Daddy) and he sighed ‘Thy will be done." On Good Friday we remember the Trial of Jesus when he stood alone, unbowed and unafraid before all his enemies consisting of the Roman Empire, the Jewish Sanhedrin, the local satrap, Herod, and the rabble of the city ganging up against him while his own had deserted him to the last man. (If there ever was an illegal trial, Jesus’ was it. It was illegal from the beginning to the end; it was a total fraud. According to the Jewish law no trial can be heard at night. Jesus’ trial was held at night. To be legal the trial must be held within the precincts of the Temple. Jesus’ was in the house of Annas, the father of the High Priest. To condemn a man there must be at least two witnesses agreeing on the evidence. They couldn’t find two such men. From the sentencing of a man to death and the execution one full day and one full night must elapse according to the Jewish law. Jesus was condemned in the early morning and he was dead by afternoon. Then the Roman trial took place before the Governor. Pontius Pilate found Jesus innocent. He tried six times to save the life of Jesus but failed giving in to the shouts of the Jewish leaders and the rabble who accused Jesus of treason. When Pilate told the Jews to try Jesus according to their laws they lied and said they could not sentence a man to death. They very well intended to stone to death the poor woman caught in adultery whom Jesus saved. And the first martyr St Stephen was stoned to death soon after the Pentecost. But they wanted Jesus to have the cruelest, the most painful and the most ignominious punishment ever devised in the world, the crucifixion. Only the Roman Governor could condemn a man to the cross. They hated him from the depths of their bowels. ) Christians will then very devotionally follow the Way of the Cross of Jesus. The Roman soldiery pierced his head with a crown of thorns, scourged and whipped him tied to a pillar, slapped him and spat on his face, beat him with sticks before keeping the heavy wooden cross on his shoulders to carry it to Golgotha (The Skull) outside the city where criminals were executed. The tortuous and torturous journey through the narrow cobbled streets of the city and outside the walls of the city under the merciless sun in the hottest month of the year ought to have done him in. Yet he reached the hill top and was nailed to the wooden beams which were raised up for the whole world to see justice carried out according to the Roman law. What a caricature of justice and law! It exposed the Evil hidden in human institutions, the degradation and the depths of inhumanity men can fall into in their greed, jealousy and hatred. And he hung for three endless agonizing hours on that most cruel gibbet still doubting and screaming defiantly "O God, O God why have you forsaken me?" Even at the last bitter moment he was still trying to find meaning in an absurd, senseless, meaningless existence not just for him personally but for the whole humanity. The four evangelists record his last words thus: Mark and Matthew simply say he died ‘with a loud cry’. John puts the last words of Jesus in a matter of fact manner, ‘It is finished.’ Only Luke gives us a glimpse of the radical, total, trust and faith of Jesus in the Unknown whom he called ‘Appachchi’: "Jesus called out with a loud voice, "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit." When he had said this, he breathed his last". (Lk 23/46)


Everybody knew that the Jesus episode was over, period. The two dejected disciples on their way to Emmaus were convinced of it. But the story of Jesus did not end there and so we have Christianity. That is because of Easter Sunday. It is very clear in all the four gospels that nobody, not even his mother or those closest to him like Mary Magdalene, Peter or John, ever expected Jesus to walk out of the tomb. Nobody expected to see him again. The disciples went into hiding in fear of being arrested themselves. Thomas would not believe unless he touched and poked his fingers into his wounds. Mary Magdalene went to the tomb Sunday early morning to conclude the last rites they could not finish before night fall on Friday while Saturday, the Sabbath, passed uneventfully. Mary found the tomb opened and empty. She ran back to Peter and John and told them not that Jesus was alive and well but that his body has been stolen by somebody. The two closest disciples of Jesus ran back to the tomb and John recorded that he went inside, he saw and he believed. Afterwards Jesus appeared to Mary and the other women and when they announced it to the disciples they did not believe it as their words seemed nonsense. Only when they saw Jesus, with their own eyes, and their fears and doubts drowned in the joy of seeing Jesus did they finally realize that he has truly risen from death. The impossible, the unbelievable, the ultimate miracle, the Resurrection has taken place. Jesus did not come back to this life but neither did he die into nothingness. He passed on to another reality, the real reality. He met and embraced the Unknown whom he always lovingly called ‘Appachchi’. Or rather the Father embraced Jesus like the father of the parable of the prodigal son. This is the Christian answer to the perennial, fundamental human question. And St Paul answers it with a defiant cry of joy"Where, O death, Is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? 1 Cor 15/55. This victory over the seeming defeat in death changed the whole perspective of the preceding life of Jesus. His life, his work, his words were justified; all the suffering and pain he underwent were vindicated; all his enemies were confounded; all his disciples were so firmly convinced of the Resurrection they would lay down their lives rather than deny it.

Resurrection of Jesus

This Christian optimistic outlook on death and hope in the life here after is, strangely, shared by none other than the greatest modern poet of India, Rabindranath Tagore. Nobody has written about death more beautifully and consolingly than Tagore. Though not a Christian he was so deeply human and had distilled the best of Hindu religion and culture in his thoughts and poems he can be called a religious mystic. I have not found anybody describing the transition at the moment of death more sweetly and reassuringly than Tagore. He says just as we arrived into this Life from nowhere and found ourselves in the warmest and cuddliest bosom of our mother so at death why fear? We shall find ourselves in the safe and loving hands of the Unknown whom Jesus called ‘Appachchi’ but I prefer to call Amma. This lovely poem from Gitanjali expresses the hope in the here after and removes all fear of death. "I was not aware of the moment when I first crossed the threshold of this life. What was the power that made me open out into this vast mystery like a bud in the forest at midnight! When in the morning I looked upon the light I felt in a moment that I was no stranger in this world, that the inscrutable without name and form had taken me in its arms in the form of my own mother. Even so, in death the same unknown will appear as ever known to me. And because I love this life, I know I shall love death as well. The child cries out when from the right breast the mother takes it away, in the very next moment to find in the left one its consolation."

After the Resurrection of Jesus everything regains meaning, even the blade of grass and the grain of sand at our feet. For though the Real Reality is not this reality, this reality will be a constituent part of that Reality. Just as the Resurrection of Jesus will give meaning and value to every positive moment of growth, joy and success happening in our humanity so also will it right every wrong, every act of injustice and humiliation, every stab of pain, every drop of blood, sweat and tears, every moment of despair and failure, yes, even sin. All of them will be the building blocks of what Jesus called the Kingdom of God. The Resurrection is a solemn pledge, believable and reliable, that every act of unselfishness and true love is worthwhile. Every decision taken for the common good giving up personal gain, every sacrifice lovingly made for the good of others, every duty performed with honesty, responsibility and excellence, every act of concern, kindness and forgiveness and finally even laying down of one’s life resisting the evil, unjust social structures of power and wealth; all these seemingly foolish ways of simple people, looked down upon by the mighty and the wealthy as weaknesses, will become radiant, glorious and of infinite value because of the Resurrection of Jesus. This is the Christian Creed. We believe in the Resurrection of Jesus and in the Resurrection of our frail, perishable humanity.