In nomine Jesu!

Death strode in with us today.

Not Saint Francis’ “kind and gentle Death,” but Death that is proud, arrogant and cruel.

Death stands among us today, not on the periphery, but at center stage. Fists clenched, arms condescendingly crossed, not just barring our way to the next life, but arrogantly asserting that there is no next life; there is nothing more. To us — to our very lives, our very selves and to our every attempt to ignore, romanticize, trivialize, minimalize or dismiss Death; Death shouts a defiant “No!”

Is it any wonder that when Death strode among those gathered on Golgotha’s hill, the whole crowd fled as Death looked Jesus squarely in the eye, and spat out his definitive and final verdict: “No!” Is it any wonder that, according to Mark, Jesus could gasp just one reply: “’Eloi, Eloi lema sabachthani!’ ‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’ And then with a loud cry breathes his last.”

It’s not a happy ending; as he concludes his
Gospel, Mark doesn’t make it any happier. Three days later and even to this day, Death still remains standing among us, sneering and arrogant — fists clenched, arms crossed — not just to bar our way, but arrogantly asserting that there is no way around him; that there is nothing more.

Death stands among us today, sneering and arrogant, boldly looking at us squarely in the eye; defiantly daring us to meet his gaze directly, expecting us to look away or blink.

We’ve spent a lot of time with Death this year; those missing panels on the Columbarium behind you bear mute and solemn testimony to that. We’ve tried to avert our gaze, but nearly everywhere we’ve turned our eyes, Death has been there: In the senseless deaths in the Alps this week. In the murderous cruelties of ISIL and Boka Haram and in the chants of those who cry for justice in Ferguson, Missouri and Cleveland, Ohio and Gaza and Paris and Staten Island and on our city streets. And so it may offend us that Death can stride so arrogantly among us in the very place and through the very means by which we expect to hear Good News and not confront the power and presence and damned factuality of Death.
Dear people of God, assembled here together: Do not avert your eyes from Death. For everywhere you look — to the font, to the altar, in the faces of those who surround us; to the cross and to the columbarium — are signs of Death’s presence which are also signs of God’s Promise to all who stand to face with Death: To all, beginning with Jesus. To all, including us. Do not avert your eyes from Death. Christ’s death. Your death. My death. All death. Keep Death’s gaze while you trust God’s Promise. Acknowledging Death with Christ and one another, wait with expectation for God’s best and final YES!

Keep Death’s gaze and, in the words of the poet John Donne whom we commemorate this week, say:

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,
nd 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.

Isaiah 50:4-9a; Philippians 2:5-11; Saint Mark 14:1 – 15:47

Amandus J. Derr
Saint Peter’s Church
in the City of New York