In a week marked by Halloween and All Saints Day, it seems very appropriate to write about death. Over the last few weeks, I have been pondering the place of death in Christian worship. How do Christians represent death in their worship? There is a strong temptation to produce soft representations of death that hide the pain and sadness so often associated with it. And there is the opposite temptation to regard death as the un-representable; as an absurd element in God’s good world for which Christians cannot adequately give account. I sympathize with these views because death is not something I (or perhaps anyone) enjoy talking about, but I also wonder if these views are symptoms of a problematic orientation toward death in contemporary Western society.
My thoughts on the place of death in Christian worship have been spurred on by two recent experiences.
First, on a recent trip to Rome, I visited a church dedicated to St. Andrew (Sant’Andrea della Valle, built 1590-1650). On entering this church, I was dumbstruck by a larger than life painting of St. Andrew tied to his cross. This painting was immense and dramatic enough to leave anyone impressed. For me, it was particularly striking because I also attend a church (built in the 19th century) dedicated to St. Andrew. At my church, we have an image of St. Andrew above the altar. I can see him in my mind standing, nonchalantly, against a cross that might serve equally well as a hockey stick. The Roman St. Andrew, on the other hand, meets his death on a cross that is (at least) two stories tall.
Second, last Friday, Ben Quash spoke at the seminar of the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts (ITIA). He offered a fascinating paper on the very curious inclusion of Job in Vittore Carpaccio’s painting The Dead Christ (above). Christ lies dead at the center of the painting as many gather around him, and closest to him, sitting against a tree, is Job. In Carpaccio’s painting, everyone is acting in response to the dead Christ. I am most intrigued by Job, and this contemplative figure leads me to ponder the mystery of Jesus’ death.
Reflecting on these two experiences prompts me to think more about how death is represented in Christian worship. The death of Jesus is a common, though I think underplayed, theme in contemporary Christian worship. But what about the death of martyrs and the experience of death in general? Let me suggest two reasons why representations of death should play an important role in Christian worship
1. Death probes our deepest fears, anxieties and insecurities. In his book On the Incarnation, the early church father Athanasius argues that martyrdom points to the power of the resurrection. He is at a loss to understand why Christians would give up their lives for the gospel if it were not for the power of the resurrection. While martyrdom is no proof of the resurrection, his main point remains: Death is surely something that many fear. But only those who no longer have a reason to fear death can really look death square in the eye. By representing death in our worship, Christians can rejoice in a God who overcomes death through Jesus.
2. Death exposes our deepest loves, desires and fulfillments. It is for this reason that death gathers a community around itself. At the ITIA seminar, Ben Quash made this point when reflecting on his time working in a hospital. The experience of death, he pointed out, has a way of generating profound encounters and forging strong bonds of family and friendship. While the death of Christ is the heart of Christian community, our common experience of death is woven into the sinews, veins and ligaments that bind the body of Christ together.
Do you think that death should have an important place in Christian worship? How should Christians represent death in their songs, poetry, painting, drama, etc.? In your own experience, is death marginalized or placed in the center of Christian worship?