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Death meets its end

11 January 2013

Peter Waddell begins a new series on joy

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 happens.

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 ever.

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 fashion.

"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 joined.

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 together?

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).

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