Good Friday Reading: A Brief History of Death
The following was a reading Pastor Ricky Alcantar shared at our Good Friday service. You can also listen to the reading here.
A Brief History of Death (A Eulogy for Our Last Enemy)
Death entered the world like a knife?—?quick and silent and irreversible.
It came on the lips of the snake. It came in the words “And you will be like God.” It came in the woman’s reach and the man’s longing. They disobeyed and desired beyond God.
And on the edge of the knife humanity found everything severed. They looked up only to find their Father weeping. They looked at each other only to find strangers. They looked at themselves only to find shame.
And God saw, and God knew, and God could not ignore it. The moment sin entered the world, Justice answered.
So the decree rang out: Sin brings Death.
And if only humanity knew the poison that came in the knife: The tears of children abandoned by their father, the tears of husbands abandoned by their wives, the tears of refugees fleeing the bombs falling on their homes, the tears of a police officer killed out of hate. In everything that brings tears: Death.
If only humanity knew the searing pain that followed the knife: The hurt and pain of cancer and scraped knees, of broken backs and fibromyalgia, of common colds and Zika virus, of black plagues and AIDS. In everything that brings hurt and pain: Death.
If only humanity knew the poison that came with the knife: The wreckage of divorce papers arriving on doorsteps, the wreckage of unconscious bodies on a bridge in Selma, the wreckage of bombs in a subway in Brussells, the wreckage of falling towers in New York. In everything that wrecks and destroys: Death.
So it rose like a spectre over the expiring corpse of humanity, it grew and grew that old enemy, unstoppable, unkillable, inescapable. Death.
And so it was that the first man grew old and he died. And death followed him. Generation after generation it followed. The refrain: “and he died…and he died…” Verse after verse, every story ending the same way. “And he died…and he died…and he died…” Each verse like a nail in the coffin of humanity.
But in between death and death a small promise took root and began to grow: Something greater than death would live. This serpent who spoke death, this serpent itself would die. Something greater would come. Or Someone.
The chorus of death rose on the earth until it was drowned in a flood. The last chapter of humanity written, about to be closed. But instead, “To be continued…” But instead, mercy grew into a rainbow and the small promise took root. Wickedness was wiped away from the earth, but could not be killed. It was carried in the hearts of people. So they grew alongside each other: Death and the Promise.
In a pagan land God spoke the promise again. This time he promised a better country. So the pagan Abraham left, and the promise began to grow. Death still grew, wicked and poisonous, but the promise grew stronger alongside it now.
The promise grew and blossomed into a nation. The people multiplied. But Death came through the mouth of the Pharaoh. Tears and groans and wreckage surrounded God’s people and closed in.
So God sent justice down to Egypt. This justice that waited behind death for every person came early and walked the earth. It walked into Egypt and brought death. Home after home. Death after death. But it came to God’s people and stopped: it saw the blood.
Life is in the blood. Life lost means death is coming.
When blood is shed, life is poured out. Every hurt and tear and cut is a searing reminder: “One day it will all be poured out.” It was first shed in the garden, so God could clothe the shame of our first parents. It was next shed when the lie of the serpent was believed by one brother and he spilled the blood of his other brother. And God said “Your brother’s blood is crying up to me from the ground.” Spilled blood always cries, it cannot be silent.
But when Justice walked the ground in Egypt and came to God’s people it stopped: It saw the blood. It saw the blood of a lamb without blemish or spot. Justice stopped because blood had already been shed, so it passed over the house. It passed over and God’s people. And so God’s people passed through death to the other side of the sea.
Then the hope and promise grew and blossomed into a nation: a place where the wounds from the edge of the knife began to heal. The severed relationship between God and humanity stitched closer together. The severed relationship between families and brothers stitched closer together. Not healed, but hope filling gaps in the space in between.
And yet even there, blood was shed. Again. And again. And again. At the center of the camp there was a place the blood never seemed to stop flowing. The sins of the nation confessed and an innocent animal slain. The sins of a family confessed and an innocent animal slain. The sins of a man confessed and an innocent animal slain. And on each day the blood was shed, justice was held back that day, and the next, and the next. But still, it waited just behind death, it couldn’t be banished. Sin had entered the world like a knife and hurt could not be undone.
So the nation grew, its branches grew. And yet as it grew limbs would rot and fall because even there, even there, sickness grew inside it. It grew great, it became a place for others to find shade, to hear the promise whispered as the wind stirred its leaves. But in the end the sickness inside the tree spilled out and the tree fell. It seemed a bare stump remained. Silent and cold the wind blew as the tree withered. The area around it faded and the desert blew in.
Death, the last enemy, immovable, irreversible, could not be stopped.
But something stirred. From the stump something grew. In the arid desert the promise would not die.
It began with something unremarkable: another man was born. Just as every man before him and every man to come. Born in the desert, born into the tears and pain and wreckage. But in his veins there was no sickness, no whisper of the serpent. Because something else flowed in this man’s veins: divinity and humanity interwined. Humanity could not pull sin out of its heart, but this man’s heart was clean. Humanity feared justice, but to this new man justice was a friend. Humanity sowed death into what it touch, but this man sowed life. This was a new man.
Where his hands worked on the earth sight was restored, limbs straightened, minds made whole. Where he walked the earth severed relationships were healed, outsiders brought in, outcasts made family. Where he spoke hope grew, it took root in the hearts of his hearers, it grew in the hearts of sinners and Centurions, of prostitutes and pagans, in the hearts of the helpless and hopeless.
The crowds grew, and hope grew, but so did the sickness of sin and death. Whispers that echoed the serpent grew in back rooms, hatred grew, and the serpent was pleased. In the man Jesus humanity saw the God they had rejected at the first. In the face of goodness and divinity humanity chose perversity, clung to the bankrupt promise of the serpent and sharpened its knife.
In another garden this man Jesus faced death. He could see it clearly now before him. It had no claim on him, but he could see now that his road lead through the heart of death. And in the face of death his sweat fell like drops of blood. But still he did not turn away. This last enemy must fall.
So this new man felt the edge of the knife:
Pain and hurt and wreckage. His own people taking him under cover of darkness, perverting justice, shouting for his condemnation. And the anger coursing through the veins of humanity came in full force?—?the force of humanity’s unfiltered hatred for is creator?—?in each blow, in each thorn pressed into his head, in each lash of the whip, in each nail driven through his flesh.
This new man offered up his own blood:
Divinity and humanity intertwined and poured out. This blood?—?perfect, pure, unspoiled, untainted, undefiled. The first like it ever shed on the earth. And as it fell the earth shuttered. As it fell the sky darkened. As it fell justice wept.
Then this new man took not just the knife into himself, but the hand behind it; not just the hurts of sin but sin itself.
He flinched and cried out as he took it all on himself: the first longing and reach for the fruit and all that followed it. The sins passed over by justice in Egypt he took on himself. The sins passed over because of blood in the temple he took on himself. Every sin of every person with the promise in their hearts crawled onto him, into him, through him.
And this new man became an abomination:
Across him flashed the murder of brother against brother, the slavery of one man against another, the theft of a poor man’s land, the theft of a poor woman’s husband, the fist raised at God himself, the seething envy, the restless lust, the hateful anger, of person after person, of generation after generation, all of it on him now.
This sin, the source of countless tears was on him now: the tears of a woman who comes home early to find her husband with another man, the tears of a child as their parents strikes them in anger, the tears of soldiers over their commander.
This sin, the source of countless hurts entering the world on him now: the body racked with pain from chemotherapy, the child clutching a broken hand, the young man beaten because he was black.
This sin, the source of wreckage strewn across the world: the wreckage of bullet holes through Juarez streets, the wreckage of bombs in a crowded marketplace, the wreckage of nations against nation.
This man did not just take the edge of the knife, but the poison behind it, the hand behind it, the whispering serpent behind it, the sin behind it.
“Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthan i— My God, My God, why have you forsaken me”
And God turned his face away. And Death rose like the horror it was, filling the sky. And this new man turned to face it. Justice came unfiltered, screaming down, gathering speed as it fell. Wrath came unfiltered, screaming down, gathering speed as it fell. The serpent, screaming in victory,gathering speed as he fell.
And Death, that last enemy followed them.
And the earth shook, and the skies flashed, and the universe trembled.
“Telestai?—?It is finished”
Justice and wrath exhausted, spent, empty, fell aside. And the man Jesus grabbed Death with both hands and fell.
Down. Down. Into the dark.
And earth mourned. And Justice, its work finished, wept.
But the serpent was screaming in terror at what he could see. Because the drops of blood on the ground around the cross were bringing life. Because where they fell death began working backwards. Because where they fell justice was no longer feared. Because where they fell wrath was exhausted forever. Because the man Jesus had taken all the serpent could give, and had broken the serpent’s back.
Now in the desert the rain was falling and where it fell new life began to grow.
They took the man Jesus’ body away, and laid it in the tomb. And it lay there for three days. But on the third day the tomb was opened and the man was not inside.
On the third day something broke out into the world. Something that had been growing since the beginning. Something growing each heart and each generation: The promise.
On the third day the promise hidden became the promise made visible. This promise fulfilled in one man, but held out for the world. This promise running through the heart of sin, and the serpent, and wrath, and justice. This promise laid out the path back to the garden.
This promise clearly unkillable, unstoppable, unbreakable. This promise was always a person: the man Jesus. And Jesus lives.
But still we wait.
The tomb is empty. The promise is bearing fruit, but it grows alongside the poison of sin and death. This promise is fulfilled and yet unfulfilled. This promise holds still more out for the world: pointing to the day when sin will be not only broken but thrown away, when the serpent will be not just defeated but destroyed, when justice will walk the whole universe and rejoice.
Today, the empty tomb speaks a promise to every tear: one day soon you will be wiped away. Today, the empty tomb speaks a promise to every pain: one day soon you will be healed. Today, the empty tomb speaks a promise to every piece of wreckage: one day soon you will be made whole.
And the empty tomb speaks a promise especially to the last enemy:
One day soon, you Death, will die.
 For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead.  For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.  But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.  Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power.  For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.  The last enemy to be destroyed is death. 1 Corinthians 15:21–26