Category Archives: Death

The Descent From The Cross

Thoughts on the painting by Peter Paul Rubens.

Descent From The Cross by Rubens 1612-1614

Reubens created The Descent From The Cross between 1612 to 1614, as the central panel of a triptych, where it can still be seen in it’s original location the Cathedral of Our Lady, Antwerp, Belgium.

One of the first things that struck me is that all of the figures in Rubens’ picture are fair skinned. It is highly unlikely that this would have been the case, though the two men, I take to be Joseph of Arimathea’s servants, leaning over the cross bar to Lower Christ’s body, do have that swarthy outdoor look about them.

The next thing that caught my attention is the colour of John’s clothing; red the colour of blood. The robe is very close in colour the the blood on Christ’s body, but this in itself I think is the wrong colour. Blood turns darker, almost brown as it dries.

All the characters in Rubens’ picture appear in one of the gospels, though not all in the same gospel. Nicodemus presence in this scene is only recorded in the gospel of John.

Another aspect of the picture that caught my attention is the title, The Descent From The Cross. Particularly the use of “Descent”.

Descent usually means to move down, fall or drop. What we see in Rubens’ picture is not just descent by moving down, but being taken down, or lowered. A physical act by a group of Jesus’ friends, family and followers, not of his own action.

If we think again of descent in a spiritual, instead of physical sense, it might have a different, allegorical meaning. The Apostles Creed tells us that:

He descended to the dead. (In some versions hell, instead of dead)
On the third day He rose again.

So it is possible that the title was a deliberate choice of words, to indicate that the picture is not solely depicting the physical act of taking Jesus down from he cross, so that he could be entombed.

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The Final Justice

Here in the UK, everyone accused of of a crime is entitled to a trial by jury. The jury consisting of 12 people. In my limited knowledge of the American system, there are also 12 jurors for criminal trials, but may be less for civil proceedings.

It seems to me that the biggest single difference in our justice systems is that (at the time of writing) 31 states have the death penalty available as a lawful punishment. There is no death penalty in the United Kingdom.

From this BBC news report (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-39535957), I discovered that it is a requirement for executions in America that “the law requires people with no connection to the crime attend each execution.” and that volunteers “are considered public eyewitnesses, and go to executions standing in the place of the general public,”

Sitting on a jury, if eligible, is every citizen’s responsibility in both countries, when required to do so in pursuit of justice in a free and democratic country. So, in countries like USA where the death penalty can be passed on a guilty criminal, why isn’t witnessing the ultimate punishment also a civic duty?

In a country/state where execution is a legal punishment, it seems to me reasonable that anyone who can be called upon for jury service, should also be able to be called to witness punishment where that is the death penalty? Obviously, not someone who was a juror at the trial of someone sentenced to execution.

If anyone who can be selected for jury service is also eligible to be selected to watch taking life by execution, I wonder how it might change public perception of having the death penalty?

Interview With Mary Magdalene

Christ and Mary Magdalene by Rembrandt

Something a little different from me, so I hope you like the audio post that follows this introduction.

As with all my posts, the script is entirely by me. With thanks to my friend Jenny, who provided the voice of Mary Magdalene in the recording.

I present a fictional news interview with Mary Magdalene, set outside Jerusalem on what is now Easter Sunday.

 

Fairy Tales 9: The Story Of A Mother

A reflection on the fairy tale by Hans Christian Anderson.

Introduction

Illustration by Vilhelm Pedersen

Illustration by Vilhelm Pedersen

The Story Of A Mother is described as one of Hans Christian Anderson’s New Fairy Tales, though it is notable that HCA himself calls it a story. It is quite adult oriented, with elements that children would have trouble comprehending, and some adults might struggle with. It deals with a child’s death and its mother’s desperate response to the tragic event. In the natural order of life, a mother does not outlive her child.

Hans casts Death not just as the loss of life but as a character, in a way that might help comprehension by young minds. This plot device has been used by later authors such as Terry Pratchett, in a few of his comic Discworld tales, and Markus Zusak in The Book Thief, where Death is not just a story character but in fact the narrator.

When The Story Of A Mother was written, child mortality was much higher than today, nevertheless any mother will suffer intense emotional pain if her child dies before her, both when it was written in 1847 and now.

The Character of Death

To readers today, The Story Of A Mother is set in the past, but to readers of the author’s time it would not be so clear when it is set, though it is equally relevant now as when it was written. Neither are we given any location for the story, which could be nearly anywhere. The only clue is the frozen bush with icicles hanging from it, suggesting we are well north or south of the equator, though as we don’t know the time of year, it might be winter.

The aspect of time is further thrown into doubt when the clock stops after Death, as the old man who the mother does not recognise as Death when she first meets him, takes the child while the mother has fallen asleep for a beirf moment. It is only when she rushes out of her house in search of her child, and encounters the “woman in black garments” who says “Death has been with you in your room” that she knows who the old man was.

The stopping of the clock might signify the death of the child, the tick having represented the heartbeat. I prefer to think of the stopping of the clock as the suspension of time for the mother, like ‘time stands still’ for her until the point in the story, when she begins to grieve for her child, instead of her desperate attempt to get it back.

This aspect of time stopping is reinforced later when death encounters the mother in his “hothouse”, and asks “How have you been able to come quicker than I?” The mothers answer is brief, direct and would be understood by any mother. She replies simply “I am a mother”. This simple powerful statement explains the trials the mother bears and the challenges she overcomes, including the literal ‘crying her eyes out’, making herself blind, to get to Death’s hothouse whilst attempting to rescue her child.

As well as the ambiguity of setting of location and time, the characters we meet are all somewhat ambiguous too. None of the characters, except Death and God are named. We do not even know the gender of the child. Even God as referred to in the story could be a god of many religions, not necessarily Christian, though HCA was himself a Christian in more than name. These ambiguities in the story tends to make race, creed, colour and culture irrelevant and the underlying message equally appropriate to almost anyone. Any mother would be deeply wounded by her child’s death. The age of this story does not make it less relevant or powerful today, whenever “today” might be for the reader.

We are told by HCA that Death acted only on God’s will, yet the Death we meet seems to have a mind of his own, and that he apparently had some feelings for his ‘victims’. Whilst God instructs Death what to do, Death says to the mother “I do only what he commands”, it seems Death was allowed to use his own initiative how to accomplish the tasks he is given. But should we believe Death’s statement, when we see later that he lies to the mother?

It is apparent that Death is not without some degree of feeling or emotion and at least some degree of curiosity. He fished the mother’s eyes from the lake and, when returning them to her, said “they gleamed quite brightly”. If he were emotionless like death is more usually imagined, the gleam would have meant nothing to him. He might have taken a moment’s passing interest in the eyes but would have felt no need to fish them out of the water.

Death’s feelings are also shown when the mother threatens to “tear off all your flowers, for I am in despair”. Were he unfeeling, he could just have frozen her hands again with his cold breath and taken the flowers from her. Instead, he plays on her emotions, pointing out that what she has threatened would make another mother just as unhappy as she is. It is necessary for Death to feel and understand emotion himself, to be confident that his words would have the desired effect on the despairing mother.

For all that Death demonstrates some feeling, he is not beyond practicing some deception even though he is God’s servant. After returning the mother’s eyes to her, Death shows her the fate of two flowers, the two she had been holding and threatening to uproot in herb desperate attempt to get her son back. He tells her that one of the fates she sees is that of her son, but this is a lie. The lie misleads the mother but in doing so allows her to accept the demise of her son, and so begin grieving for him, instead of the desperate, hopeless quest to recover him. At this point when, if the mother returned home, she would wind the stopped clock, re-starting it as time re-starts for her with the acceptance of the inevitable.

It is interesting that Death’s character is shown as a gardener. However in modern terms he might be better described as a nurseryman, who only cares for the tender seedlings and young plants until they are ready to be planted outside of the greenhouse, or “hothouse” as in the story, into a garden. The Catholic church believes in an intermediate state after physical death, called purgatory, thought to be a time of purification for those who will ultimately ascend to heaven. With Death as a nurseryman tending the young plants, I suggest that it is analogous to purgatory. Death looks after the young plants until they have grown sufficiently mature and strong to no longer need the protection of his greenhouse, and can be ‘planted out’ in God’s ‘garden’.

Another facet of Death is his curiosity, that shows up in his response to the mother’s plea “Let my child be free from all that misery”, and “Forget my tears”, when he says “I do not understand you”. If he were simply a dumb servant, he would not need or want to understand the mother’s reaction, he would simply carry out his master’s instructions. Since we know he is serving God’s will, we might think of Death not as an antagonist, in fairy tale terms, but as a helper.

Prima facie Death’s actions and treatment of the mother might appear callous, like the antagonist type character as seen in other tales, though he is perhaps not, as I have shown, unfeeling. He is not however an antagonist in the classic sense. Death has no animosity toward the mother or for the child, he is simply carrying out God’s will.

Death might even be seen as a helper to the mother. He returns her eyes, restoring her sight, and helps her to resume her life when she finally accepts the death of her beloved child and begins to grieve.

Conclusion.

The Story Of A Mother presents two universal themes that can be understood in any culture, the death of a child and the lengths that a mother’s love will drive her to for the sake of her child, sometimes taking desperate measures to her own detriment, We find a third lower theme coming in toward the end when the mother finally accepts the inevitability of her situation and begins to grieve for her child.

Most readers would probably assume that the god referred to is the Christian God. There is no explicit statement to this effect, letting a reader to interpret the tale in relation to their own deity.

A Good Death?

Is there really any such thing?

IMG_0085How do we we deal, or don’t deal with the only sure thing in life; death. Well for the most part, here in our comfortable, prosperous west we do not. We leave it to someone else; the doctors, nurses, care workers and ultimately the undertakers, although most of them seem to prefer to be called funeral directors these days.

We sometimes hear about ‘a good death’ or giving someone who is dying their dignity. I suspect that much of the time what we really mean is, making it more palatable for the living who must deal with the dying person. Let us face it, the dying person almost certainly does not care about dignity and in some cases, just wants to be free of pain. In these situations death can be a kind of healing, although few people see it this way, especially those of no religious belief.

I am not afraid of my own death, I never have been. I might well be afraid of the manner of my death if, when it comes close and has become foreseeable, it is to be painful. And I am afraid for my wife if I should die before her. I would cope better alone than her but I am not afraid of death itself.

Having said I am not afraid to die, my next assertion is entirely my personal opinion for which I have no objective evidence and little anecdotal evidence; I think that more people of no religion are afraid of death than people who have a faith. Regular readers will know I am Christian, and this influences my opinions.

Both my parents died some years ago. Mum in her 90s after a stroke and Dad twenty years ago in his 60s, from pancreatic cancer. Both of their deaths were in hospital and I was not present at either, as I live 80 miles away.

After Dad’s death, I saw his body at the undertakers and immediately wished I had not. Although the undertakers had done a fine job on Dad, he was not as I wanted to remember him. That image haunted (no pun intended) me for a long time, before I was able to see him again as he was before the cancer took him. Consequently, I never went to see Mum after she was laid out, so I found it much easier to remember her as she was before the stroke.

Immediately after the stroke, Mum was admitted to the stroke recovery ward in the hospital and, for a while, seemed to make good progress even though she was over 90 years of age. One piece of news I gave her that seemed to perk her up was that, although I have no children and Mum had no grandchildren by my brother either, I was to become a Godfather. Sadly she did not survive to see that day.

Later, Mum was moved from stroke unit to the elderly care ward. It is my belief, though of course I’ll never know for sure, that once she was moved to elderly care, she lost hope and gave up. She died in the elderly care ward.

Perhaps there is no good death, but just maybe there is a good time to die. Mum passed away on her wedding anniversary to Dad. It seemed an appropriate day from which my brother and I took a little comfort. Knowing Dad’s punctuality, I never knew him to be late for anything, my brother and I could imagine our parents’ reunion, “About time too, where have you been, keeping me waiting for 20 years”.

To every thing there is a season, and a
time to every purpose under the heaven: 
A time to be born, and a time to die
– Ecclesiastes 3: 1 – 2

Judas Macbeth

The connection between Judas Iscariot and Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

I’ve been taking a look at the story of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. I’m no expert. It wasn’t an in-depth look. I did however notice some similarities between the biblical character Judas Iscariot and Shakespeare’s fictional Scottish King.

The first aspect that struck me was that in the actions of both these men there was an element of prophecy. In Judas case, Jesus had predicted his own betrayal by a disciple. Macbeth’s rise and downfall was predicted by three witches, but Macbeth didn’t understand the prophecy of his downfall for what it was. Ultimately it was the flaw in both of these men’s character that became the cause of their downfalls.

In both cases, there was an element of a good man being betrayed by an unscrupulous man. Jesus was a sinless man betrayed by a disciple. King Duncan of Scotland was betrayed and murdered by  Macbeth who usurped his throne. Duncan had been a good and just king. The main difference seems to be that Macbeth did his own dirty work when he murdered King Duncan, Judas didn’t. The Romans crucified Jesus after Judas betrayed him to them.

Macbeth, it seems, could have become the King of Scotland without intervention to hasten his ascension. It was Lady Macbeth who, on hearing the witches prophecy, was led by her greed for power to persuade and manipulate Macbeth to hasten his rise, by murdering King Duncan. Macbeth was too weak to stand up to his wife, but it seems when he tasted power he could not let it go, it had to be taken from him.

Judas’ hunger was not for power but for money. Thirty pieces of his silver was his price for betraying Jesus. We don’t know if Judas betrayal of Christ was on his own initiative, or was he subverted, like Macbeth was by his wife? Judas had no power, only money which eventually his conscience led him to discard. He ultimately committed suicide.