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How lament and hope destroyed death and transformed our attitudes towards it

Andrew works at the intersection of theology, science and philosophy. He is Starbridge Professor of Theology and Natural Sciences at Cambridge University and is currently a visiting fellow at the Center of Theological Inquiry, Princeton.

Once we buried bodies outside cities, cast out from the living. Then we started burying loved ones inside them. For All Hallows Day, Andrew Davison explains how Christianity transformed attitudes to death. Part of the How to Die Well series.
Dozens of candles in cloured jars and holders litter the ground of a cemetry.
Commemorative candles at cemetery in Srebrniki, Gdańsk, Poland.
Ludomił Sawicki on Unsplash.

‘The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.’  

Seeing things two ways at the same time doesn’t mean ambivalence. Christianity has two things to say about death, and it says both forcefully.  They particularly come to mind during November, as the season of the year when we remember the dead. In this month we get the modern secularised rituals of Hallowe’en, but we also get Remembrance Sunday, when we think of those who fell in war; and on 2 November, we have All Souls’ Day, when ‘the faithful departed’ are recalled, and in many traditions, prayed for. 

Christianity’s two entwined attitudes to death are lament and hope. On the one hand, death is a shadow; on the other, a light has dawned that will banish that shadow.  Both aspects are in that line from St Paul:  

‘The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.’  

Death is our enemy; death is slated for destruction.  

Whatever a popular funeral poem might claim, death is not ‘nothing at all’.  That poem has been suggested a few times when I’ve been planning a funeral. It’s never stayed in the draft order of service longer than it’s taken me to ask the question ‘But do you really think that death is nothing at all?’  

Unlike our benighted predecessors, ancient and mediaeval, don’t we now understand that death is natural, just part of being the sort of creatures we are? 

I take the opposite approach to funerals. I do not treat death as ‘nothing at all’. I wear black vestments: I do not assume that mourners are ready, only a week or two into their bereavement, to skip to the bright hope of white as a liturgical colour. I make the liturgy solemn. I avoid circumlocutions like ‘he’s moved on’ or ‘she has passed’ (somehow popular at present). No: someone has died, and even if that came after a long illness or a long life, a death is a loss.  

The idea of death as enemy, though – ‘the most fearful of bodily evils’ (Thomas Aquinas) – might look out of date in the twenty-first century. Unlike our benighted predecessors, ancient and mediaeval, don’t we now understand that death is natural, just part of being the sort of creatures we are?  

It’s almost always a mistake to underestimate our forebears. They knew that we are animals, but also said that we are animals of an odd sort: we are ‘rational animals’. That left them with a conundrum (and here I continue to have Aquinas in mind). On the one hand, we are animals, and animals are mortal, so that makes death natural. On the other hand, Christianity also insists that death is a wrench, a disjunction, an affront.  

Reconciliation for this tension rests on that odd status of the human being, as a rational animal. We are animals, but also the sort of self-aware animals who are made for a relationship with God: suited for it, called to it. One model for that relationship, remarkably, has been friendship, with Moses as an example: ‘So the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend.’ That sort of relationship, that sort of seeing God face to face, would confer immortality on our naturally mortal bodies (‘when we see him, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is’). Thus, both parts of the conundrum are true: as animals, we are naturally mortal, yet our animality is called to a destiny beyond its nature. Our tragedy is not that we are animals, but that we are rational animals foolish enough to turn from God, and from the light of immortality.  


The message of the Incarnation and the hope of the resurrection turned something around for early Christians. They no longer found dead bodies frightening.

That’s the first half of our opening phrase: death is our enemy because, although mortal by nature, we were originally called to something beyond nature, but lost it. God was turned towards us, but we turned away. However, enmity, tragedy, and loss are not the whole story, and they are certainly not the end of the story. There is also death’s destruction. That’s what the life, death, and resurrection of Christ were about. If death is our enemy, then it’s a routed enemy, overcome, although not fully destroyed, until God recreates the world.  

Christians can be so excited about the prospect of death’s destruction that they forget that this destruction is still a promise, and we still live under its sway. For now, the hope and the sadness lie woven together.  That is why we read in the New Testament about ‘not grieving as others do who have no hope’. I don’t take that as a blanket injunction against grieving (death is still our enemy, after all), but as standing only against the kind of grief that has no hope (because death’s destruction is assured). Again, here are the two strands, woven together. We also see that two-sidedness in a funeral prayer used by Eastern Orthodox Christians (and at the funeral of the HM Queen Elizabeth II), the kontakion of the dead. Its final lines put place wrenching tears right next to the church’s great word of praise and celebration, ‘Alleluia’:  

All we go down to the dust; 

weeping o’er the grave we make our song: 

Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia. 

This duality in Christian attitudes to death shows up in how Christians treat the bodies of the dead. We probably take burial practices for granted, but the idea of treating the bodies of the dead with utmost care and dignity was a point that Christianity really belaboured. Christ, for instance, had given a list of six good deeds in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, sheltering travellers, visiting the sick, and visiting prisoners. It would be a bold decision to add to any list draw up by Christ, but the church did it, adding a seventh ‘act of corporeal mercy’: burying the dead. 

Christianity is definitively the religion of the Incarnation: of God taking up human flesh. Bodies therefore matter. Talk of casting off the body, as if the body were just some old cloak that the soul has outgrown, is not something Christians say. We are bodily creatures, so Christian hope is for the resurrection of the body. (So also – I should add for completeness – is Christian doom also bodily. Those who die at enmity with God and the good, the faith insists, turning down the offer of reconciliation, face the consequences in the resurrected body.) 

The message of the Incarnation and the hope of the resurrection turned something around for early Christians. They no longer found dead bodies frightening. In the ancient world, bodies were to be buried outside the city, cast out from the human community. Christians changed that, and started burying their loved ones inside the city. Bodies were to be treasured, not feared. The bodies of their heroes – those who excelled in virtue, and especially the martyrs – were brought right into their churches. Before long, no altar (the communion table) was quite proper unless it was built over the body of a martyr or other saint, or at the very least contained some part or relic.  

Veneration of relics has not been so common in the Church of England (the church to which I belong) since the Reformation, nor in the wider Anglican Communion. Slowly, however, it has edged its way back. In 2002, the cathedral where I’m a canon, St Albans, received a shoulder blade of St Alban, England’s first martyr, the gift of one of the dozen remarkable Romanesque churches in Cologne. That bone gets considerable honour on the weekend closest to his feast day (22 June). Relics are also familiar in the church in Philadelphia where I currently celebrate the Eucharist once or twice per week. The altars are usually at least lightly decked with relics. During Eastertide, they groan under the weight of them, including some impressive whole-bone affairs. Only in Advent and Lent – penitential seasons – do the relics disappear to the sacristy, replaced with statues of the prophets in Advent.  

It’s easy to grow accustomed to relics after a while. I should remind myself of their strangeness. Defying any trend in religious thought down the ages to denigrate the body in favour of the soul, here the body is holy, recognised as the site of God’s great works. Here, dead bodies are no longer to be feared. They are the most precious things the church owns, and threaten no contamination. Or, rather, if they suggest any contagion, it is a contagion of the good.  

Care towards the bodies of the dead reflects both poles of Christian attitudes to death. On the one hand, Christians have preserved the bodies of the dead with great care because death is an affront. Death is the enemy that falls upon us all, even the most holy among us. Lamenting that loss, we keep bodies safe until it is reversed. And there is also the other side of the Christian attitude to death: alongside lament there is hope in death’s destruction.  

Christianity, at its wisest, has not skipped through lamentation too quickly, but neither has it given lamentation the final word. Day-by-day funeral practice probably connects most clearly with the sadness, although the hope is woven through. The place of relics in many strands of Christianity (although by no means all), swings more towards an emphasis on death’s defeat. It rejoices in having among us, in all those slivers of bone, fragments poised towards Resurrection, when ‘death shall be no more’. 


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Red radical: the tales behind the Santa we see today

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

A determined, fiery, culture warrior lies behind the iconic image of Santa. Graham Tomlin unwraps a tale or two and find some serious theology.
A Lego Stanta figure strolls across a table holding a wrench
Artem Maltsev on Unsplash.

There is one figure in our cultural memory who pops up at this time of year without fail. It is the unmistakable figure of Santa. 

Santa Claus, AKA Father Christmas, Sinterklaas in Holland or Kris Kringle in the USA conjures up a definite image in the mind’s eye. The Santa of popular imagination with elves, red suit, bushy white beard flying in a sleigh towed by reindeer was shaped more by the famous Coca Cola adverts of the 1930s than anything else, and may seem to have very little connection with the birth of Christ. There are, however, strong connections between Santa and the Christian celebration of Christmas.  

Santa Claus is a linguistic development of St Nicholas, who was a real, fiery, determined Christian bishop of the early 4th century. Many of the stories about him date from later centuries, and some, no doubt, are legends developed to enhance his reputation. Yet he clearly made a deep impact on those who encountered him. On the principle that there's no smoke without fire, while some of it may be fiction, these stories may also contain a grain of truth.  

A group of enterprising Italian sailors from Bari in southern Italy made a daring raid on the city, scooped up most of St Nicholas’ skeleton and carried it off home. 

Nicholas was born around 260 AD. His parents, or so the story goes, died of the plague while he was young, leaving him a reasonable fortune. The other thing we know about his youth was his profound and strong Christian faith. This shaped his mind from early years, and led him, like many young Christians at the time, to enter the demanding spiritual boot camp of the monastic life, and then in time to becoming the Bishop of Myra, a city in southern Turkey known today as Demre.  

Christianity at the time was deemed a dangerous religion, subversive of the unity of the Roman Empire and in 303 AD he was one of many Christian leaders imprisoned under the wave of persecution initiated by the emperor Diocletian. Not only did he survive the rigours of a brutal Roman jail, but he encouraged other Christian prisoners to stand firm, who, like him, emerged more determined than ever. He died around 335 AD and within a few hundred years had become one of the most celebrated saints of the mediaeval era, with numerous accounts of his life spreading around Europe.   

In the 10th century the Russian emperor Vladimir visited Turkey and was so impressed with the stories of St. Nicholas that he pronounced him the patron saint of Russia and he remains a hugely venerated figure in Russian Orthodoxy to this day. In 1087, when Myra had come under Islamic rule, a group of enterprising Italian sailors from Bari in southern Italy made a daring raid on the city, scooped up most of St Nicholas’ skeleton and carried it off home, where with great fanfare, a large basilica was erected around the resting place of the bones of St Nicholas – an attraction which enhanced the status of the city no end. It became a pilgrimage destination for numerous medieval Christians (which was what the sailors had in mind) and the edifice still stands on the very spot to this day.

He was promptly sent home for stepping out of line, but it did his reputation as a hero of orthodoxy no harm at all. 

There are two stories of St Nicholas that get us closer to understanding why he became such a key figure in our Christmas celebrations.  

While he was still a young man, so we are told, he heard of a local family who were falling into poverty. A father who was badly in debt desperately needed money to pay off loan sharks, otherwise his only option (as happened in many families at the time) was sell his three daughters into slavery, or in some versions of the story, into prostitution. St Nicholas, aware of the teaching of Jesus that good deeds should be done in secret, resolved to do what he could to help. He wrapped up a bag of gold coins and secretly dropped them into the window of the house to the relief and delight of the poverty-stricken family. Nicholas performed this act of generosity three times for each of the three daughters, and on the third occasion threw the bag of gold coins so far into the room that it fell into a sock hanging over the fire to dry - hence stockings on Christmas Eve. On that occasion the father caught Nicholas as he tried to slip away, and thanked him profusely. Nicholas insisted he tell no one, which the man assured him he would not. Obviously, he didn't keep his promise. 

It is this kind of story that gives rise to the idea that Nicholas was a picture of radical generosity. Ever since then, depictions of St Nicholas are recognisable by his carrying three gold balls, representing the three bags of gold coins – and the same symbol found its way to hang outside many a pawnbrokers’ shop, after St Nicholas was adopted as their patron saint.  

The other story relates to the famous Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. Although historians debate the question, there is some evidence Nicholas might have been present at this Council at which the Nicene Creed was written, the Creed that describes the heart of Christian faith for most Christian churches to this day. The Council centred around the controversial teaching of Arius, a priest from Alexandria who had taught that Jesus, although the best person who ever lived, the pinnacle of creation, was not in any significant sense divine, as the Council eventually discerned he was. The story goes that Nicholas was so incensed by the teaching of Arius that at one point he strode across the room in which the Council was taking place and struck him on the face. He was promptly sent home for stepping out of line, but it did his reputation as a hero of orthodoxy no harm at all. A heretic being punched by Santa Claus is an image to conjure with.  

The stories of St Nicholas give us the impression of someone who does not just do generous acts, but who has become generous. 

So why did St Nicholas become a person of such radical generosity? Were these two stories, however apocryphal some of the details may be, strangely linked? 

At stake in the debates at Nicaea was the question of whether Jesus Christ was just an illustration, a good example of what human life can achieve, or whether his radical love and self-sacrifice was in fact an expression of the heart of God, the very heart of reality itself. That is the core insight at the heart of the Nicene Creed – that when we see Jesus, we see God. The compassion, courage, grace, generosity, the anger at evil of the world, the deep compassion for those who struggle with life that flows out of him at every moment – all this is not a brief moment of light in an essentially dark world, but is the very nature of reality itself. In other words, Jesus Christ represents God giving to the world, not just a gift, but giving Himself.  

That kind of belief seems to have animated the soul and the mind of Nicholas, and if you believe that generosity is what lies at the very heart of things, its not surprising if it starts to seep out into a life full of generosity. Alongside the gifts to the struggling family, Nicholas is said to have argued the emperor into a tax cut for the people of Myra, and secured extra shipping of grain for his people during famine. The stories of St Nicholas give us the impression of someone who does not just do generous acts, but who has become generous – it’s the difference between the lucky tennis player who plays a good shot every now and again, and the pro who plays that shot nine times out of ten. That is virtue – where a person is generous almost without thinking about it, because it has become second nature.  

There are, of course, differences between the Santa of popular memory and St Nicholas. It’s hard to imagine Santa punching anyone, whereas St Nicholas had the fierce, determined faith of the early church, a faith so compelling that it took over the entire Roman empire. Then again, Santa gives gifts to children who are good but not to those who have been bad. He is a moral arbiter who rewards those whose good deeds outweigh their bad ones. That is about as far removed from a Christian understanding of grace, as depicted in the stories of St Nicholas as possible. In Christianity, divine generosity is not a reward for goodness, but is the wellspring of it. The God that Nicholas learnt about from his earliest days gives first and asks questions later. Generosity inspires gratitude and generosity as a response. 

St Nicholas became associated with Christmas partly because his feast day, December 6th, was near to the annual feast, but also because of this theme of radical generosity. Christmas is the time when Christians recall God’s greatest gift – the gift of Christ given to people of dubious moral standing like us. Not because we deserved it but despite the fact that we didn’t. It’s why we give gifts at Christmas, not to win favours from others, but for the sheer joy of it. We give as an act of gratitude for we have been given, before we even asked for it – just like three helpless young women, and their desperate father, in need of help.  

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