11 Apr 2023


Giotto di Bondone, Lamentation over the Dead Christ, ca. 1305, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua

The Lamentation over the Dead Christ on the wall of the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua is one of the most haunting representations of grief in Western art. Giotto situates Christ’s companions around His lifeless corpse after He has been removed from the cross. Each expresses grief differently: with hands joined in prayer, reaching out to touch the Lord, or waved about in horror; with faces streaming tears, disbelieving, desolate or resigned. Mary the Pietà in deep blue cradles her Son, supporting His head as she did when He was a baby. The Magdalene contemplates His pierced feet. John is bent double, inconsolable. Arimathea, Nicodemus and the holy women observe. The angels above are also deeply distressed.

If our Holy Thursday fear of death is natural, so too is the Good Friday grief it elicits. Death is a privation of good. Whether it’s the death of a loved one or the prospect of our own, it’s a downer. It’s bad enough when we have decades to prepare, but when it comes early—as in today’s death of a man in his thirties—it seems even worse.

Of course, death is not all grief. It can mean relief from suffering, or round off a well-lived life. We honour our dead, and treat their remains with respect. We acknowledge that each person makes their contribution for a time, but that none is indispensable. Still, as John Donne said, “any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”[1]

Death by disease, accident or natural disaster is a natural evil, but when it’s deliberate it is a moral evil also, and a grave one. In a fit of rage, Cain murders his own brother (Gen 4:8), a horror repeated countless times since. God bellows “What have you done? Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground… And you have brought a terrible curse upon yourself: you have made yourself a fugitive on the earth.” (Gen 4:10-12) Sacred artists have depicted Adam and Eve’s grief as they encounter death for the first time and nurse their dead son like the Pietà.

There’s a little Cain in all of us. Rivalry, resentment, a nursed grudge, an inner rage. The culture magnifies this. Politics and society can be very polarised and feed indignation. The social media can be vicious, the language extreme. Mobs are stirred up to demand crucifixion or at least cancellation. We talk about national conversations but there’s not much listening or persuasion, no room for different opinions and the good kind of compromise. Tolerance talk has been replaced by totalising ideologies and loyalty groups. It’s as if Herod, Pilate and Caiaphas still reign.

Such seething hatreds can then be scaled up to all-out warfare, as in the Russian invasion of Ukraine, where death is the punishment of choice and metric of success. Death is even cemented into law and policy. The cry “Crucify him” is aimed at the most defenceless: the unborn, disabled, elderly, indigenous, refugees. Later this year, “Voluntary Assisted Dying” will come into force in New South Wales, a public declaration that not all lives are valuable, not all deaths grieved, and reverence for life optional. Even nursing homes run by nuns will be required to host kill teams to terminate some patients. Yet as the Wisdom of Solomon puts it, only “the ungodly… yearn for Death as if it were a lover and enter a partnership with it” (Wis 1:12,16). Death, Paul said, is our last enemy (1Cor 15:26) and cannot be made our friend, even when it brings some relief.

Without the ‘taboo’ against killing, the weak and innocent are the first victims. Today’s Passion Gospel (Jn chs 18 & 19) has enough brutality and causes for grief to warrant an M-rating, from when the soldiers arrive and swords are drawn in the garden, till when the soldiers stand down and a spear is thrust through the Lord at Golgotha. Death comes to the Son of Man and so to God Himself. Last night Christ joined us in our anxieties about death, but knowing He has gone before us and given life and death new meaning lessens our fear. Today the Father joins our mourning following His Son’s death, and knowing that God grieves can also be a comfort. But can death really be overcome?

Giotto di Bondone, Kiss of Judas, ca. 1305, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua

In Padua’s Scrovegni Chapel is another fresco by Giotto, the Kiss of Judas. Amidst a mêlée of guards with clubs and spears groping and threatening, Peter cuts off the servant’s ear. Only Jesus stands tranquil in this drama, as He is embraced by a fierce-looking Judas. The traitor’s shimmering gold robe nearly envelops Jesus but His head stands out and He returns Judas’ stare with a look of pity.

Amidst the worst of human cruelty, fear and grief, we can seem, like Jesus in the fresco, to be enveloped by evil. But the divine spark of goodness that God breathed into us at Creation is never completely extinguished. Life is made for more life and for joy. And so today’s Passion narrative ends with Mary entrusted to John and the Church to Mary; with Jesus announcing His mission accomplished, as He gave up the Ghost of Pentecost; with hints of Paradise Regained in the mention of a Garden. To find out if Death is really the last word, and we are doomed only to fear and grief, or if there may yet be cause for hope in the One who has gone before us, we must visit the tomb tomorrow night. See you then!

[1] John Donne, “No man is an island,” Meditation XVII, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions (1624).