We are the people who talk about death.
Though I doubt many of us think of Christianity that way. Our whole message centres on death: a single death and the defeat of Death through it. We should be talking death each week, to bolster the saints and retell the story. Our rituals are gory: we place people in watery graves, drown them even, in baptism. We eat a body and drink someone’s blood.
We might want to start waving our hands and shouting that these are ‘just symbols’. Ok, if you think so then I suspect I’m more ‘sacramental’ than you, but putting that aside nothing is just a symbol. Symbols are what things are for. Symbols are where we find meaning. Of course they’re symbols, what things aren’t? But there’s no ‘just’ about it.
We are the people who talk about death in an age when everyone wants to escape it. As I write Jeff Bezos has announced he’s looking for eternal life. Twitter enjoyed pointing out to him that it’s freely available—for those willing to die of course.
What is the Christian life but the slow and steady death of ourselves, one ugly idol at a time? This is the heart of our faith: the death of Life himself has made Death a doorway, so die to yourself to receive life from Life.
The early Christians met in catacombs surrounded by the dead. When we moved above ground we continued the trend, the average church would be built with a graveyard around it. To gather on a Sunday you have to walk past the dead. Which is fitting, because you come to be comforted in your dying and have preached the Christ who conquered death.
These days most churches I know don’t have a graveyard. The Anglicans ones do, but anyone else either meets in a chapel style building with a car park, or rents a school hall, or meets in a converted something. Our church in Nottingham met in a converted Labour Exchange, an early twentieth century municipal building that’s listed for its architectural merit, but its barely got a car park, there’s no graveyard. I grew up in a Baptist church with a mid-century purpose-built building, but no graveyard. My wife grew up in a church that bought and converted a carpet warehouse, no graveyard. My church here in Birmingham meets in a school hall—funnily enough, no graveyard.
If one day we’re in a position to own a building—which is no given, several of the largest city churches own offices but not Sunday venues, Birmingham is a tricky city to do that in—it is highly unlikely that we would have a graveyard. The likelihood of having a plot with spare space would be very slim, the permissions needed to bury bodies are complex, and very understandably it’s unlikely to be near the top of anyone’s priority list.
But we have collectively lost something. We’re the people that do death in a world that tells a story that we should avoid it at all costs. We’re the ones who think that death is evil, not a natural process, but a dragon whose maw drips with foul poison. We’re the ones that preach the gospel of the death of death in the death of Christ.
The culture we live in prefers to hide from death; to sweep the dying under the carpet, out of the home, into clinical areas. We like to pretend we will all live forever (so far so good!). Yet there is something profound about walking past graves each week, some of them people you knew now planted in the soil as seeds. There is something profound about entering church past the place that you too will be buried. It ties us to a place and a people in a way we lack, but much more than that it ties us to reality. It brings the urgency of the resurrection home week by week. We are not the people who escape death, but those who in hope plant our bodies in the earth.
Face death head on
Recovering the physical symbols is unlikely to be the path for many churches, though I do think it should be the path for those who can. I do wonder if their loss has also changed the whole way we approach things. We are always more effected by what’s around us than we might assume, do we adopt our day’s thinking on death?
My only advice is this: don’t shy away from it. When baptising someone, remind everyone that you are burying them. Comfort dying saints Sunday by Sunday, rebuke those who forget that they are dying. Everything is perishing and the dragon will have his day. Remind them of that. Remind yourself of that.
And then speak the truth, that his teeth are pulled and his heart pierced, the destruction he wreaks in the world is his death throes. That Jesus the Christ descended to the dead, declared his victory, and wrested the keys of death and hades from the hands of the Prince of this World.
He holds the keys, friends. Take comfort in that.
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