Thursday, 13 April 2017

Fear of Death & Hope of Heaven

By Isaac Withers

Fear of Death
(Maunday Thursday)

Before I came to university, I wasn’t sure what was going to affect my faith the most when I was there. It turns out, it wasn’t really ‘the uni scene’ stuff I was warned about: the clubs, the occasional stack of mouldy plates (yes, really, mouldy), strange lecturers, stranger landlords, etc. Those things I found I could navigate okish. It wasn’t even the dreaded sleep/work/socialise balance of it all. The things that hit me the most, were the bigger parts of life that I now had to figure out independently. One of those, was death.

That sounds dramatic, but it’s true. For me, when I was around fifteen, my faith came alight, and after accepting Jesus, recognising him in the Eucharist and the Church, accepting Heaven seemed pretty straight forward, and for a few years, death just didn’t bother me. It was a very rational ping-ponging of thoughts that didn’t require much faith at all. And, it left me in the outstanding position of having answered one of the biggest of life’s questions at a time when I could barely grow facial hair. Hah. Take that world. (Not that the facial hair thing has changed much…)

And then, for some completely unknown reason, one evening when I was sat in bed in my first-year box room, something big happened. In the slum of student accommodation they called Maple Bank, at the bottom of a hill in front of the canal with its resident rats and a pretty active train line, the fear of death returned to me.

More specifically, the thought, ‘I will have a last day’. To this day, I don’t know why it did. Something in a YouTube video just twigged it in me, and I had an intense, very physical reaction to that idea, that just seemed so foundationally true and almost physically present. Suddenly, Heaven seemed ridiculous to me, and it was like a rug had been pulled out from underneath me. For the next couple of months, this realisation would come back to me and dwell with me, in my box room, at the bottom of that hill by the canal and the train line. Suffice to say, it was pretty grim and it was massively spiritually erosive.

And I felt really alone in it. I didn’t feel like I could talk to anyone about it, I thought it would be way too intense for my freshers, but I was even more uncomfortable with sharing it with Christian friends, because I thought it could do to their faith what it was doing to my faith.

But was I right to feel alone?

Hope of Heaven
(Easter Sunday)

Easter is a highly underrated celebration. One of my housemates doesn’t even go home for it. Another friend described it as ‘rubbish Christmas’, explaining it away with, ‘everyone gets the same present, it’s like ‘oo, is it an egg? Yeah, they’re all eggs, every time.’

The truth is, Easter can only be the explosive celebration of a phenomenal event if we put it into the context of darkness and death. This is the contrast that makes it radical. As Bishop Robert Barron puts it:

‘We’re the first culture they say, in the history of humankind, that is largely accepting a secularist view of the world. ‘There’s just this world, this is it.’ The resurrection is saying in no uncertain terms, that this world though good, is not the final horizon of what is real. It tells us, as the Bible puts it, that God’s about the business of making a new heavens and a new Earth.’

The truth is, we don’t talk about death that much, and Christianity is diminished without that context. I found a talk by Nicky Gumbel, the founder of Alpha, on YouTube that summed our generation up pretty well, he said:

‘The Victorians used to talk a lot about death, but they never talked about sex.
We talk a lot about sex, but we don’t talk about death. It’s kinda just something you don’t mention.
Even in hospitals now they try to avoid using the word death. I heard of one hospital where they said you must never use the word death, they had a politically correct way of describing it, ‘negative patient care outcome’.

The more I have read around this (and I still have plenty to do), the less alone I have felt. Christ, throughout his ministry, preached about Heaven, and described it. This has been the biggest help to me, in terms of hope, as if Jesus is was who he says he was, then his constant talk of a ‘father who art in heaven’ really matters. One of my favourites is John 14:2:

‘There are many rooms in my Father’s house;
If there were not I should have told you.
I am going now to prepare a place for you.’

Easter is big deal, because after three years of talking like that, the son of a Carpenter from Nazareth dies and apparently returns. That’s not a casual apparently, it’s one that demands investigating. Because if true, it means that Jesus stepped through death, and normal men like St. Paul, could then suddenly write something as bold as:

"Where, O Death, is your victory? Where, O Death, is your sting?"

1 Corinthians 15:55

And centuries later, John Donne can write:

‘Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.’

John Donne, Death Be Not Proud

The resurrection changes everything. It radically addresses our most basic human fear, and it is immensely relevant to every single person, to every student sat in their dingy flat and to everyone else. But it’s still ok to experience that anxiety, a lot of faith is dealing with mystery, and it is completely natural to fear the unknown.  And I think we should talk about it more, if only because it makes the whole celebration more real.

But man is Easter so much more than rubbish Christmas. 

(Why eggs are a big deal is a whole other blog I think.)

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