Throughout the Gospels, Jesus goes, smashing down whatever
barriers the people of God have carved themselves up by, bringing
joy and feasting where there were divisions of sex, poverty,
sickness and sin. Around Jesus, in all Israel's misery, joy
The last enemy, however, is death. Death is the ultimate
divider, that which breaks down the people, separating them into
their graves where they are for ever alone, for ever isolated. The
dead have lost the living, and the living have lost the dead, for
The Psalms express the fear that the dead are cut off even from
God: "Will the dust praise you?" (Psalm 30.9). Death is the
ultimate failure of relationship, and thus the ultimate mockery of
God's hope for Israel.
So Jesus's mission must inevitably involve confrontation with
the power of death. If joy rebuilds Israel only for it to end in
death, there is no gospel, but only the pain of a common and final
mortality. The stories of Lazarus, Jairus's daughter, and the widow
of Nain's son only raise the tension - for these, we know, will die
again. In their stories, death still reigns supreme, biding its
time. Lazarus still has his grave clothes, ready for use.
The great contest comes in the death of Jesus himself. What we
see is the one who brings joy, who embodies joy, allowing himself
to be pierced by all that is joy's opposite. Death and destruction
rush in to smother and stifle life. The one who would rebuild a
people is expelled from it and from the world in the most brutal
"This is your hour, and the power of darkness," says Jesus (Luke
22.53). So the powers of violence, hatred, and contempt do their
worst; they pour themselves out upon defenceless joy. Everything
that divides and kills surges forth to destroy Jesus.
This is what looms before him in Gethsemane, why he prays that
the cup may be taken away. It is also why, in the end, he knows
that it must be drained to the dregs. For the contest must be
What is the most real reality? Is it the power of death, which
un-fathers, un-mothers, un-childs? Or is it joy, which leaps out of
itself to create more joy, which heals and brings people
Jesus dies trusting that, violent and overwhelming as the dark
powers are, there is a deeper truth: that ultimately, at the heart
of all things - creating them, sustaining them, redeeming them -
there is not violence, but joy. Indeed, he is the embodiment of
that truth: he is the one whose life is nothing other than the love
and joy that is the deep-down heart of things.
In the technical language of later doctrine, he is "of one
substance" with the joy that makes the world: with God. When death
meets this, it meets its end.
This is the first of four edited extracts from Joy: The
meaning of the sacraments by Peter Waddell (Canterbury Press,
£12.99 (CT Bookshop special offer £10.99 - Use code
CT742 ); 978-1-84825-279-0).