Death is Swallowed Up in Victory

Blessed are those that mourn, for they shall be comforted.

Those who sow in tears, shall reap joy
He who goes forth and weeps, bearing precious seed,
Shall come again with joy, bringing his sheaves with him.

For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of the grass.
The grass withers, and the flower falls away.

Therefore be patient, dear brothers, unto the coming of the Lord.
Behold, the husbandman waits for the precious fruits of the earth
And is patient for it, until he receives the morning rain and evening rain.

But the word of the Lord endures for eternity, 
The redeemed of the Lord will come again
And come to Zion with a song; eternal joy shall be upon their heads;
They shall take joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall depart.

Lord, teach me that I must have an end,
And my life has a purpose, and I must go hence.

Behold, my days are as a handbreath before Thee,
and my life is as nothing before Thee.
Alas, as nothing are all men, but so surely are the living.

They are thus like a shadow, and go about vainly in disquiet;
They collect riches, and do not know who will receive them.
Now, Lord, how can I console myself?  My hope is in Thee.

The righteous souls are in the hand of God, and there no torment shall touch them.

How lovely are Thy dwelling places, O Lord of Hosts!
My soul demands and yearns for the courts of the Lord;
My body and soul rejoice in the living God.

Blessed are they that dwell in Thy house; they will praise You forever.

“You now have sorrow; but I shall see you again
And your heart shall rejoice, and your joy no one shall take from you.
Behold me: I have had for a little time toil and torment, 
And now have found great comfort.
I will console you, as one is consoled by his mother.”

For we have here no continuing city, but we seek one to come.  

Behold, I show you a mystery:
We shall not all sleep, but we all shall be changed
And suddenly, in the blink of an eye, at the sound of the last trumpet.
For the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible,
and we shall be changed.
Then shall be fulfilled the word that is written:
Death is swallowed up in victory.
O Death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?

Lord, Thou art worthy to receive all Praise, honour and power,
For Thou hast created all things, and through Thy will
They have been and are created.

Blessed are the dead that die in the Lord from henceforth.

Yes, saith the Spirit
That they rest from their labours, and their works shall follow them. 

So runs the text of Brahms’s Ein Deutsches Requiem, which I was privileged enough to see performed for the first time this weekend—a masterpiece that must surely rank as one of the great musical testaments to Christendom. Although Brahms’s own Christian commitment is open to some doubt, this text, compiled by Brahms himself from the pages of Luther’s German Bible, surely represents one of the most powerful affirmations of Christian faith in God and hope in the resurrection in the face of death.  Indeed, I have little hesitation in saying that as a response to the fear of death, it is much more authentically Christian than the traditional Requiem Mass, with its morbid meditation on “that day of wrath, calamity, and misery, day of great and exceeding bitterness, when thou shalt come to judge the world by fire,” and fearful pleas for mercy.  

Imagine my indignation, then, when confronted with these incoherent declarations from the concert’s program notes, courtesy of one Femke Colborne: “Brahms chose and assembled a selection of texts from Luther’s translation of the Bible. . . . [However,] the German Requiem is less overtly religious than a traditional requiem. . . . It deals primarily with the human suffering caused by death and the grief of those left behind, and although some of the texts deal with the hope of resurrection, there are no overt references to Christian dogma.”  Let’s leave aside for the moment the oddity of Requiem consisting entirely of texts from the Christian Scriptures and not being overtly Christian.  Let’s leave aside the question of how statements like “Lord, Thou art worthy to receive all Praise, honour and power, for Thou hast created all things, and through Thy will they have been and are created” contain no overt references to Christian dogma.  Indeed, let’s leave aside the point that not merely “some,” but fully half of the words of the Requiem’s text deal with the doctrine of the resurrection.

I’m particularly intrigued by the stunning claim implied by the last two clauses of that extract from the program notes—that the hope of the resurrection is not a Christian dogma.  It would be hard, in fact, to imagine a more Christian dogma than that of the resurrection of the dead.  Indeed, it was of course this doctrine, more than any other claim of the early Christians, that was a scandal and nonsense in the ancient world.  No Greek, no Roman, no barbarian or mystery religion, indulged in such an absurdly optimistic doctrine.  Perhaps it is a sign of just how thoroughly the Christian revolution has transformed the human consciousness that we now take for granted its most distinctive claims.  Indeed, perhaps Mr. (Mrs.?) Colborne could be forgiven his mistake, given the prevalence of a curiously vague and humanistic fascination with the idea of “resurrection” in Brahms’s German Romantic contemporaries, such as Mahler.  And to be sure, a vague and syncretistic hope in “resurrection” is a widespread theme in the post-Christian Western consciousness.

But I suspect that what Mr. Colborne really had in mind was that Brahms’s Requiem was less fixated with the idea of wrath, judgment, and hell, than a traditional Requiem Mass, and that since it didn’t talk about these things, there was no overt Christian dogma.  After all, we all know that what religion, and especially Christianity, is really all about is judgment and hellfire and all that.  Christianity is there to make us afraid of death, of a wrathful deity who will torment us if we don’t do what he wants.  Things like hope and comfort in the face of death, confidence of joy in the hereafter, etc., all that is quite natural and commonplace, not Christian at all.  Thus does Mr. Colborne betray the benighted ingratitude of modernity.  For of course, in the ancient world, it was clear that the precise opposite was the case.  Any pagan could’ve told you that death was fearful and terrifying, that we would probably face a wrathful deity and more than likely suffer torments after death if we fail to placate him.  Ancient religions may have disagreed about many things, but one thing they could agree on: joyful hope in the face of death, confident in a gracious God who had triumphed over death and would restore you to bodily existence, was delusional optimism.  And yet, so thoroughly has this delusional optimism triumphed, that we now take a vague and watered-down form of it (having quietly substituted the immortality of the soul for bodily resurrection) for granted, and dismiss Christianity as having nothing to offer but a return to morbidity.  



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