All Souls: "Death Be Not Proud"

The Revd Brutus Green

There are two equally important and equally damaging approaches to the question of the individual and society that may offer wisdom or temptation in equal measure. I will refer to them here as Miss Liberal and Mr Social. Which paradigm you instinctively prefer, in all probability, will entirely affect your politics, your attitude to others, and, most importantly, your theology.

Miss Liberal begins with the individual. She typically has a meritocratic instinct, believes in self-improvement and self-determination. She rails against the nanny state and regulation.  She has pulled herself up by her bootstraps and she expects others to follow, though she is happy out of her largess to be philanthropic.

Freedom and fairness are her virtues.

Mr Social on the other hand begins with people. It is the state and society that forms us.  When people go wrong it’s because of poverty, neglect, difficult family situations or bad influences.  We are the product of our environment so we need strong institutions to form good citizens and lots of taxes to even up the woeful inequalities of economic distribution.  Compassion and justice are his virtues.

Salvation in Western Christianity is the product of a long line of Miss Liberals. Salvation has largely been seen as a personal issue.  You have your freewill, you make your choices, and heaven and hell are the horizons of the judgements you make in this life.  On the other hand, we have long known that ‘bad company ruins good morals’, and sought to build Christian societies, encourage education, reform the criminal and relieve the poor. Society has a role to play in the work of salvation. St Ignatius, founder of the Jesuits, allegedly said: ‘Give me the child until the age of seven and I will show you the man’.

Depictions of hell also mirror these two ways of looking at the world. In Dante’s Inferno individual punishments are meted out for particular vices and the souls tell their individual crimes, their particular falls from grace. The epistle of Jude describes hell as a terrible solitary confinement; ‘wandering stars for whom it is reserved the blackness, the darkness, forever.’ If these words seem familiar it may be because rather weirdly the 90s trip hop band Portishead decided to turn them into a pop song on their first, Mercury music prize winning, album.

But one of the most famous contemporary depictions of Hell is the socialist Jean-Paul Sartre’s play, In Camera. Three characters find themselves trapped together in a room; their mutual animosity and flawed characters prevent any genuine friendship and each poisons the relationship between the other two, leading to the infamous line: “L’infer est les autres…” Hell is other people.  Such visions take up the most painful of human experiences and imagine them at their full extension. Like Hieronymous Bosch’s nightmarish paintings of weird creatures and the most obvious forms of torment; isolation and animosity point us to the darkest of human experiences and the horrors that each soul fears.

But we are told today that by God’s great mercy we have a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus from the dead into an inheritance, imperishable, undefiled and unfading. Why? though you must ask.  Why should Jesus dying and being resurrected make any difference to us?

Typically Christians in the West have looked to Easter morning and seen in Christ the model of their own resurrection.  Western depictions of the Easter scene show Christ alone, rising above the sleeping soldiers. This is Miss Liberal’s vision. Christ is her saviour, and she, like him, will rise on the day of resurrection to assume her glorious body. This is a good and reasonable faith. But there is another way of looking at it.

Before the day of resurrection is Holy Saturday. It is an odd day when you are following the church’s calendar because God is dead.  You have dismantled the altar on Thursday, followed the Via Dolorosa to the cross on Good Friday.  Christ has been buried but you have a whole day still until the resurrection.  In the Apostle’s Creed we say of this day:  ‘He descended into Hell’.  Jesus died.  He shared solidarity with the dead. He experienced death.  Those images of Hell I brought up earlier, the animosity of conflict, the physical torment, the isolation of the wandering star, whatever else you can imagine, he underwent in crucifixion, death and burial.  Christ though was not merely a man and so he brought God to all those dark places.  If Hell is, by definition, where God is not, Holy Saturday is the conquering of death and Hell.  As Psalm 139 has it ‘whither shall I go then from thy presence? If I climb up into heaven, thou art there, if I go down to hell, thou art there also.’  Christ has brought God even into hell. Whither, then, shall I go from thy presence?

The Eastern Church produced many pictures and icons of Holy Saturday. Here Christ is raised from the tomb, but below him you can see the gates of Hades opened and all the souls of the lost freed; as our Gospel put it, ‘And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me’. This is the salvation of Mr Social as Christ’s resurrection brings about the rescue of all souls, because he has shone the light of God into the very depths of darkness and called us out. The connection of Christ to every creature is enough to bring God into all flesh; hallowing the darkest areas of our soul. Christ has been there. I’ve shared this story before but I’ll remind you of it because it’s so lovely and such a good reminder of the Gospel. A friend of mine was speaking to some children and he asked them where they thought Jesus was on Holy Saturday. One of them replied: in the very depths of hell, looking for his friend, Judas.

My caricaturing of Miss Liberal and Mr Social is a little stark, but as I said they offer a little wisdom and a little temptation. Miss Liberal reminds us of the importance of the individual, that not one is lost, that the choices we make matter and that we take responsibility for our participation in God’s kingdom. But her temptation is to think that she is herself alone, that she is the ‘master of her fate/ [she is] the captain of her soul’; that she ends in isolation, a wandering star in the darkness.

Mr Social can tempt us into believing that it’s all predetermined, that nothing can be done and that we are not responsible, that we cannot morally own our decisions. He may end up thrown about by the will of others, torn by conflict. But he reminds us that we are all connected; that we are God’s creature, formed in God’s image; that with all the souls who have formed us, the places, the characters, we are one body and that is the body of Christ, who has brought the human and divine together and taken it to the darkest place in order that there be light.

In one of John Donne’s Holy Sonnets he reduces death to punctuation. The final line is: ‘And death shall be no more [semi-colon] death [comma] thou shalt die’; death is a mere shudder, between a semi-colon and a comma. No full stop. And this is how we should think of All Souls. We gather here with all the saints and angels to celebrate the Eucharist, in communion with the 180 years this church has stood, the two thousand years that have gone before, and with all whom we have loved. They are a hair’s breadth away. And we declare at the breaking of the bread, the breaking of Christ’s body, that we who are many are one body because we all share in one bread. That is to reduce death to a comma. Not something to be afraid of, not an end but a pause, for the work of Holy Saturday has done away with all of that.

I will finish with Donne’s poem:

DEATH be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think'st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,
Rest of their bones, and soules deliverie.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,
And better then thy stroake; why swell'st thou then;
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.