The Art of Dying Well, with Jesus

Recently there has been some significant deconstruction of the grief cycle as postulated and engraved into our psyches in the last twenty years by the work of thanatologist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. So it is incumbent on me before I reference these “stages” for the work of Holy Week that I acknowledge the challenges that have been put to her work. I  concur with most of the criticism of the “Grief Cycle”.  What was intended to be a tool for helping professionals became popularized and bandied about by people who demanded of grieving friends that they pass through each stage in some kind of causal process. I am not sure Kubler-Ross would have been happy with what became of her insights anyway! The main outcome of the critique has been a realisation that what Kubler-Ross identified exclusively with death and dying processes are in fact normal human responses to chaos and change. For example, there is as much chance of experiencing the “stages” (and they are non-linear stages that come in any random sequence and recur multiple times) when your motor vehicle engine “dies”, as when you hear that you are suffering from a terminal illness.

Having paid my dues to current research, let me proceed to say that the headings of the Grief cycle still offer useful lenses through which to observe some of the archetypal activities and personalities playing out during Holy week. Along with the work of Kubler-Ross I have in the last few days been introduced to the themes of the classical “Ars Moriendi” – the art of dying from 15th and 16th Century Europe and so may be able to weave these into the themes as well.

Born in a time when death from Bubonic plague (Black Death) was prevalent. the Ars Moriendi, or “art of dying,” is a body of Christian literature that provided practical guidance for the dying and those attending them. These manuals informed the dying about what to expect, and prescribed prayers, actions, and attitudes that would lead to a “good death” and salvation. The first such works appeared in Europe during the early fifteenth century, and they initiated a remarkably flexible genre of Christian writing that lasted well into the eighteenth century.

An article in the Christianity Today Library merges the themes of Ars Moriendi with the Seven words of Jesus from the Cross and this might just become my outline for the Three Hour Vigil on Good Friday,

The Grief Cycle Stages

DenialPeter and the crowing cock – the” rock” that wobbled.

What to do when the ground beneath you shifts.

“I feel fine.”; “This can’t be happening, not to me.” Denial is usually only a temporary defence for the individual. This feeling is generally replaced with heightened awareness of situations and individuals that will be left behind after death.

Of course Peter was denying knowledge of Jesus, in the presence of possible hostility and exposure, but was this denial rooted in a deeper denial within Peter that was the result of the chaos he was experiencing?

In my own experiences of shock and chaos, which include being blown up by a land-mine during the bush war, motor vehicle accidents, and experiencing divorce, I have known the numbness that floods the psyche and the functionality that has one feeling that you are standing outside yourself and simply going through the motions without being fully present. Peter had been very vocal about never allowing anything bad to happen to Jesus, but now it had and he was numb. This can’t be happening!

I wonder if Peter’s denial of any association with Jesus was an attempt to disassociate? Disassociation is a very powerful psychological protection mechanism and I don’t want to enter the Freud – Janov debate on this matter, suffice it to say, that there is a very strong pull in times of chaos to deny what is happening and extreme cases even to disassociate from the reality of what is taking place.

The first two woodcuts in the classical Ars Moriendi (see graphic above) show what are called Temptation in the Faith and Encouragement in the Faith respectively

The first woodcut shows the Saints and sages, isolated behind the headboard, whilst the dying one is beset with a horde of tempting and fear inspiring characters.

Chaos will do that won’t it?

All that we know and trust has little worth as we are overwhelmed by the experience.

The second woodcut, “Encouragement in the Faith” has the person surrounded by consoling and nurturing visitors.

Could this two stage process be a graphic illustration of Our Lord’s own experience on the cross?

My God my God why have you forsaken me?” is classically named the Cry of Dereliction, it could also be the cry of Desolation.

Jesus beset by the chaos, the pain, the loneliness, the sheer brutal horror, finds himself denying that God is present.

I insert this here, because I believe it is important that we recognise that these processes are largely unconscious. It is only one who has established a grounded spiritual practice of prayer and contemplation, who will be able, in every moment to be conscious of the inner and outer processes at work in their being and not disassociate and be overwhelmed by the demons who masquerade as realities, whilst the stable mind would know in a wink that they are illusory and ephemeral shadows on the screen of a tormented mind.

It is a great consolation for me that even Jesus had this moment of overwhelming fear!

Anger“Father, …take this cup away from me..”“Why me? It’s not fair!”; “How can this happen to me?”; “Who is to blame?” Once in the second stage, the individual recognizes that denial cannot continue. Because of anger, the person is very difficult to care for due to misplaced feelings of rage and envy. Any individual that symbolizes life or energy is subject to projected resentment and jealousy.

Whenever I am confronted by people who insist that Jesus knew every step along the way that he was going to die as a substitutionary sacrificial lamb as his Father’s will, I refer the discussion to Jesus in Gethsemane. Here we see a Jesus who is not resigned like some robot to the execution of the programmed plan. I see a young Rabbi, with dreams and trust in a Kingdom of Love that could change the world if given a chance to grow in people’s hearts. The looming opposition, the sinister leaving of Judas bringing in the darkness (and it was night!), all of this brings Jesus to his knees before God and he isn’t acquiescent, could he be angry?

God knows it didn’t have to be this way! Jesus knows it too. For me the grappling Jesus, in the Garden of Gethsemane is a deeply consoling image, a transformative icon. Once again I see the move from desolation to consolation. The shift that is shown in the woodcuts at the start of this blog. From, “Take this away!” to “Let your will be done in my life“. And if you thought that the movement from that desolate pole to the consoled one was easy, count the drops of sweated blood along the way!

BargainingJudas said, , “What are you willing to give me if I hand him over to you?”

“Just let me live to see my children graduate.”; “I’ll do anything for a few more years.”; “I will give my life savings if…” The third stage involves the hope that the individual can somehow postpone or delay death. Usually, the negotiation for an extended life is made with a higher power in exchange for a reformed lifestyle. Psychologically, the individual is saying, “I understand I will die, but if I could just have more time…”

Judas makes a bargain. Thirty silver coins, a month’s wages for a life. What makes this deal unconscionable is the fact that Judas is bargaining with someone else’s life. There is the hint of the scapegoating theme here again. It is easy to bargain with the lives of others, but it is also cheap and has suicidal consequences. We can speak of Endlösung der Judenfrage (the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question”), we can speak of Colateral Damage but what whatever our euphemistic name for the bargaining with the lives of others may be, we have to realise that it is never a fair exchange, and Emotional, Ethical or Soul suicide will be the real outcome of such bargaining.

In contrast, Jesus doesn’t bargain at all. Not even for his own life. Is this not the ultimate challenge for the Christ follower. To be prepared to be the one who pours my life out, instead of trying to get someone else to do it in my stead? There is a business in Port Elizabeth called Q-4-U (Queue for you ) For a fee, this company will stand in line for you so that you don’t have to have the unpleasant experience. It’s a bargain! It makes me wonder though how many of us look at the church and the clergy as “Serve- 4 U” or “Compassionate-4-U” or “Suffer-4-U”. Doesn’t “vicar” mean “in place of” or “substitute”? What a bargain!

DepressionHe said to Peter, “Couldn’t you watch with me even one hour?”

“I’m so sad, why bother with anything?”; “I’m going to die… What’s the point?”; “I miss my loved one, why go on?” During the fourth stage, the dying person begins to understand the certainty of death. Because of this, the individual may become silent, refuse visitors and spend much of the time crying and grieving. This process allows the dying person to disconnect oneself from things of love and affection. It is not recommended to attempt to cheer up an individual who is in this stage. It is an important time for grieving that must be processed.

I discovered during months of psycho-therapy that depression is the leaden blanket we pull over our souls when the anxiety of reality is too hard to bear. Is this what the pre-Psychology gospel writers are trying to portray with these disciples who cannot keep awake?

They had been in the Upper Room, they had seen Jesus offering Judas the reconciling, dipped bread. They had witnessed the refusal. They must have felt the tension, the apprehension the anxiety. How much easier to pull their robes over their heads and sleep. I thank God that in the moments when this life is overwhelming and I sink into the shadow world of depression, that Jesus is still awake and praying for me and every other one who at times find living their life too much to bear. May I in moments of clarity and calm, be prepared to sweat blood for those whose suffer mental anguish and illness.

Acceptance“Father,… yet not my will, but yours be done.”

It’s going to be okay.”; “I can’t fight it, I may as well prepare for it.” This final stage comes with peace and understanding of the death that is approaching. Generally, the person in the fifth stage will want to be left alone. Additionally, feelings and physical pain may be non-existent. This stage has also been described as the end of the dying struggle.

The final consolation, comes here in the Garden and also on the Cross. Father into your hands I commend my spirit. Those moments when we can breathe it all out and surrender ourselves to the reality of God’s consoling care. Soon enough the cycling chaos will whirl me up and down the spiral, but just for now, I rest in God and practice for the moment when my out breath will be all there is and what follows is not another in breath, but whatever the Spirit, who first gave me life, wills.

There’s no soul in safety, only shadows

John 12:1-11

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.

I was encouraged to always play it safe. Raised by post-war parents, a job was held onto for life, money was saved for a rainy day, and prodigal pursuits like gambling and extravagant shows were taboo. Of course my Calvinistic mother, from a very strict vein of the three dominant Dutch Reformed Churches that monopolised white religion and government, was even better at this than my slightly more profligate Methodist father. They used to love telling how their first marital argument was about Dad frying eggs in butter when lard had been good enough for the twenty one years of my mother’s life till then! Today, my cardiologist will not allow me do either.

This cautious Calvinism was simply a subset of puritan Protestantism and was how most of us lived through the fifties sixties and seventies. You must remember that South Africa was cocooned in Apartheid Nationalism, with no television, strictly controlled media, and prudish censorship laws that enhanced our fear of otherness and made us all (all hues and shades) quite governable and compliant.

In the world in which I grew up Judas would be speaking for all of us when he criticised Mary’s reckless extravagance. So coming to the passage as I do today, requires of me some reorienting of my formational values if I am going to understand why Jesus praises Mary and not Judas in the events John is recording for us.

I am of course grateful for the deep shifts that my training and reading in the disciplines of ministry have brought about. These changes of view help me be ready to explore the passage. Allow me to name two:

  • It was at a preaching school as a probationer minister almost twenty five years ago, that our leader Rev Vivian Harris, played a cassette tape of a lecture by a Lutheran minister, whose name has been lost in my memory. The speaker was exegeting the Parable of the Sower and was commenting on how this was NOT a parable about the soils as we had come to understand and preach it, rather it was a parable about the extravagance of the sower who didn’t seem to care where he was casting his costly and carefully prepared seed. My mind was expanded.
  • The second discovery comes from a book whose title I do remember. It was, Journeying Within Transcendence: A Jungian Perspective on the Gospel of John. by Diarmuid McGann. It was in this book that I discovered how important it is to read the passages of the Gospels carefully and prayerfully. The discipline of Lectio Divina is unequalled here as helping me to do that. McGann brought home to me the fact that the Gospel writers and John in particular seldom say anything without it having significance.

So to the passage.

John makes a point of locating the event “six days” before the Passover. Why? There seems to be a hint at the beginning of creation. God created everything in six days and rested on the seventh. If the Passover/Last Supper is the culmination of the New Creation of Jesus, then what is happening in Bethany could be the proto event of this new creative “week”.

In the Genesis creation story the first creative act is the dichotomous duality of light from dark. Is this the same in the little home of the two sisters whose names MARtha and MARy originate etymologically in bitterness? [Martha’s name means “Who Becomes Bitter; Provoking” Mary: name means in Hebrew: “Bitter, as in a bitterly wanted child“] At the Passover meal the eating of bitter herbs is a reminder of the bondage of Egypt, yet the bitter sisters are the ones who bless not out of bitterness but out of abundance. Martha serving the meal, and Mary bringing the evening to a climax by the extravagant anointing of her Lord. At an immediate level of course this could be because of the gratitude at the raising of Lazarus, but one feels there is a more transcendent reality hovering, as the Spirit always hovers over the chaos of human suffering. Those whose names signify bitterness, are not the ones who display bitterness. No, the bitter named women are the feast givers and fragrance spillers. It is the man, the treasurer from Kerioth, the only Judean [read superior Judean], who displays bitterness in his criticism of Mary’s extravagance. , “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?”

Now dear John, cannot seem to help himself from editorializing. His unfortunate comments about “the Jews” later in the gospel became the excuse for Anti-Semitism from the middle ages onwards! Here his editorial wants to guess at Judas’ motives. (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.). “Hey c’mon John, you know better than to guess at another’s motives! It is the cause of so much conflict in the world. We don’t know why Judas said what he did. But Jesus rebuked him for it, that is clear!

“Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

The Passover is beginning. The duality is emerging. Light is separating from darkness. Six days from now at the Passover meal Judas will leave and it will be night. (As soon as Judas had taken the bread, he went out. And it was night. John 13:30) The darkness will be complete. For now, though, there are only shadows on this act of pure love.

I want to circle back to “Why the extravagance?” l do that because there is another family member whose name is significant. Lazarus means, “God is my help

Is it not true that only when we have been helped by God, that we begin to understand how to live extravagantly in honouring Christ wherever we may find him? The bitter sisters discovered that nothing was too much to offer in praise of God, after Jesus had restored their lives to them (literally because Lazarus death would have left them as women, destitute in that society). When Jesus has become the reason for our very existence, we have a different sense of values and what worth really means.

A dear friend and recovering alcoholic describes his journey into following Christ, not as some intellectual, or social pursuit. “Oh no”, he says “I had to find something that would give me a reason not to commit suicide at the end of every day” That is to know you have been helped by God.

The bitter named sisters and the God helped brother are transformed into generous and faithful followers of the one who gave them a reason to keep on living every day. The Passover lamb who kept the Angel of Death away from their little home is the Jesus whom they praise with food and ointment without counting the cost. What is a year’s wages when you have been given life in all its fullness? There is no bitterness here. The bitterness has all shifted to Judas.

Judas the cautious, Judas the pragmatic, Judas the frugal; was always playing it safe and secure. Convincing the committee with pragmatism and good fiduciary governance.

Too bad he was staring at the balance sheet so intently, he never noticed the shadows that were beginning to swallow him.

Oh, I forgot to mention what the name of Judas means.

It comes from the Hebrew root, “God be praised