– By Jonathan Kopke.
For a few years during my career at the UC Medical Center, my assigned parking lot was out behind the Hamilton County Coroner’s Office, and when I’d walk from my car to my office every morning, it wasn’t unusual for me to see another big black hearse backed up to the basement door of the morgue. But one morning, the hearse that was parked there had its hood up, and two men in black suits and neckties were trying to get it started with jumper cables. I’ve always wished I’d had a camera with me that morning. I could have snapped a picture and pasted it into my John Donne poetry book next to his Holy Sonnet No. 10:
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so.
For those whom thou thinkest thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.[i]
If we can spend just a moment in the Poetry Appreciation Corner, we’ll notice that in this sonnet, John Donne is speaking directly to death itself, as if death were a pathetic, would-be enemy. And there’s ridicule in John Donne’s voice when he taunts, “Those who you think you overthrow don’t die, poor Death, nor yet can you kill me.” And later in the poem, he insults death even more by charging, “You are a slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men, and do with poison, war, and sickness dwell.”
In 17th Century London — where he was in constant danger from the bubonic plague, typhus, smallpox, and cholera — how did John Donne ever find the courage to insult “poor Death”? And when more than 60,000 people in our own country, and over a quarter million more around the world have already died in the Covid-19 Pandemic, where could we ever find enough courage to sneer at death, “Nor yet can you kill me”?
Now I don’t know of anything that links John Donne’s sonnet directly to 1 Corinthians 15, but it can’t be a coincidence that they’re so much alike. In fact, in Verse 55 of that chapter, the Apostle Paul also taunts death, as if death were a pathetic would-be enemy. We’ve probably heard Paul’s taunt most often in the old King James Version:
O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?[ii]
It’s hard to hear the derision in such stately Elizabethan prose, but it’s really as if Paul is saying, “Okay, death, so now where’s your sting? Come on, grave, now where’s your big victory?”
We can hear it more clearly in Clarence Jordon’s “Cotton Patch” paraphrase:
Listen, I’ll let you in on a secret. Not all of us will die, but all of us will be changed. It’ll happen in a flash, like the batting of an eye, at the last bugle call. For indeed the bugle will blow, and the dead will live again — eternally — and we [those of us who are still alive at the time] shall be changed. For this decaying body has to be outfitted with immortality. When this outfitting takes place, then the Bible verse will come true when it says, “Death sure took a licking. Say, Death, what have you won? And Death, what happened to your stinger?” Sin is death’s stinger, and sin’s power is the law. Thank you, God, for giving us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.[iii]
Yes, unless that last bugle calls soon, all of us will die, one way or another. And no, dying probably won’t be pleasant. But here’s what empowers us to sneer at death anyway: On Good Friday, Jesus defeated sin, and on Easter Sunday, Jesus defeated death itself. Death has lost its stinger. Death doesn’t get the last word. Or as John Donne expressed it, “Those whom thou thinkest thou dost overthrow die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.”
Some weeks into the current coronavirus crisis, I happened to be praying one day for people we know who are in the greatest danger, and I had some kind of a momentary mental malfunction. All of a sudden, I thought, “I haven’t even been praying for my own parents!” And then it was a tremendous relief to realize a moment later that I don’t have to pray for my parents. Everything perishable about them has already been jettisoned. They’re already living in circumstances that Jesus called “paradise.”
And some day, along with all the saints who’ve gone before us, we who are in Christ will see “the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven like a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.”[v] We will hear “a loud shout from the throne, saying, ‘Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.’”[vi]
Or as John Donne put it at the end of his sonnet addressed to “poor death”: “One short sleep past, we wake eternally, and death shall be no more. Death, thou shalt die.”
3 SHORT QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION:
- Who are you praying for who is in the greatest danger, or has faced death during this coronavirus crisis?
- How are you praying for them?
- How can this reflection on the limits of death’s power help you pray for them? For yourself?
[ii] 1 Corinthians 15:55 kjv
[iii] 1 Corinthians 15:51-57 from The Cotton Patch Version of Paul’s Epistles by Clarence Jordon
[iv] 1 Corinthians 15:51-57 msg
[v] Revelation 20:2 nlt
[vi] Revelation 20:3-4 nlt