Wednesday, 12 July 2017


Did an angel inspire ex- POTUS Bill Clinton’s funeral oration in Berlin? ‘All of us, sooner or later, will be in a coffin like that’, Slick Willy told sundry EU and world leaders assembled for ex- Chancellor Kohl’s funeral. Searing words. For a fraction of a moment, the puffed-up, stunned panjandrums heard the unvarnished truth about themselves: they are destined for death.

‘Bubba is old. Natural he should feel that gloomy way’, you are thinking. That misses the point. Everybody is old enough to die. Death can befall anyone, of any condition, at any age. Those who perished in the Grenfell Tower inferno were all ages, from kids to geriatrics. Accidents, illness, murders, suicides ensure death can come upon anyone anytime. And it can be sudden. In St Luke’s Gospel Jesus tells a parable: a rich man built larger barns to store his crops, expecting to live merrily for years to come bur death overtook him that very night (12:19). The fool overlooked the possibility of death – actually, he wanted to overlook it.

As a priest in parish ministry, I noticed people often didn’t like visiting their friends in hospitals. They also manifested an unspoken fear of cemeteries and crematoria. Shunning words like death and dying, they instead spoke euphemistically of ‘passing away’, ‘going to rest’ and so on. Their absorption in the things of this world, their reliance exclusively on spatio-temporal existence made them terrified to accept that death meant the dreadful shattering of their very being. That is why they could not bear thinking of it. Avoiding the word ‘death’, however, doesn’t conjure away its stark reality.

Individual psychology apart, truculent, hubristic Western culture shrinks from the thought of extinction. From the crass cults of progress, materialism, liberal democracy and human rights to the much-plugged wonders of technology, the assertion is that man has come of age. Humanity has reached the summit of her power. Artificial intelligence, quantum computers, slave robots, space travel, colonisation of other planets…the sky is the limit. It’s the Enlightenment syndrome squared. Bright new morn! Unbridled human reason vanquishes respect for ancestors, religious piety, tradition - even the Creator. Marvellous, eh? Pity that death in the end squashes flat all those wonders, bringing man face to face with his ultimate finitude, his utter nothingness.

The pagan Greeks sought to overcome the dread of extinction by the image of life going on in their offspring. Poor man’s survival, so to speak. As athletes ran relay races, they carried and passed on burning torches to those ahead. Like a parent passing on his genes to his children. Funny how many European notables, from Theresa May to Angela Merkel, from Macron to Nicola Sturgeon, have no children. And some have had erring or fey or idiotic kids. Cromwell’s son Richard was an incompetent. Winston Churchill’s own were useless. (My childless son Linus cohabits with a slut…groan…) Bill’s daughters Chelsea? Too early to say whether she is worth the money her parents have invested on her. So, maybe surviving in your kids isn’t quite the best survival.

Death’s meaning has always haunted philosophers. Schopenhauer is scathing: ‘We begin life in the lust of the flesh, the madness of carnal desire and we end it in the filth and stench of the grave’. Socrates argues that lovers of wisdom should meditate on death daily. ‘Cotidie morimur – we die a little bit every day’, writes Seneca - the flight towards death begins at birth. Sartre echoes him: ‘Every day of your life brings death one day closer’. But it is Heidegger that makes death part of the very essence of being human. Man’s being is that of a being-unto-death: Sein-zum-Tode. Whether you are aware of it or not, death is the one possibility in your contingent existence of which you can be certain that it will become actual. Man is a thrown being, the philosopher says. Thrown into the world. Did you choose to be born? No. Existence has been imposed upon you, unchosen. Hence the absurdity of your life. Sartre and Camus in their novels made their heroes rebel against that
absurdity. The maws of death, however, await even the absurd hero. Did Slick Willy get an inkling of that one?

The New Testament is entirely different. Death is resolutely not the end of the human story. ‘If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied’, preaches St Paul. And the Apostle doesn’t pull any punches: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting? But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.’

So Bubba and the dreary philosophers got only half of the message, methinks. Its gloomy part. The other, joyful half is best expressed not in words but in a picture. One painted by a great English artist, Stanley Spencer, in his mind-blowing work, Resurrection. Look! Death isn’t the end. The coffin doesn’t hold its body forever. The dead rise up out of it. From their graves in the churchyard of the artist’s parish church in Cookham, Berkshire. The beauty of it! The bliss! The truth! The marvel! Death is indeed swallowed up in victory. Got that, Bill, you sucker? And you, foolish secularist pseudo-leaders? Not the coffin but the Resurrection has the last word.

Revd Frank Julian Gelli


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