Mika Waltari’s book entitled The Dark Angel describes the night of May 28, 1453. This was the night before the fall of the city of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks. It was the last Christian service that was held in the giant church of Hagia Sophia. Everyone who was present for the service was sold into slavery or killed the following day. It was a miraculous moment, for in that moment Roman Catholics and their theological enemies the Greek Orthodox were present. These were the two groups who had previously had violent even deadly confrontations because of the words of the Nicene Creed. But on this night they laid down their differences and received Eucharist together for the first time in a long time, and for the last time.[i]
We rode together to the church as day was fading behind the Turkish camp and shedding a last gleam of blood on the green domes of the churches. … In my heart I knew that for the last time a doomed Byzantium was gathering to dedicate itself to death.
…In the presence of death, all quarreling, suspicion and hatred disappeared. Each and everyone bowed his head before the inscrutable mystery, according to his own conscience.
In the presence of us all the Emperor confessed his sins in the phrases that centuries have hallowed. The Latins [meaning the Romans] joined with him in murmuring chorus. … Tonight no one was disturbed by these divergences. All proceeded as by tacit agreement, and the Greeks in their relief wept more loudly than before, because their faith was no longer condemned.
There were so many in church that the bread would not go around. But each one willingly shared with his nearest neighbors the morsel he had received, so that all who came might have at least a crumb of the sacred Body of Christ. Whether the bread were leavened or unleavened [as they had argued before] made no difference now.
During the service, which lasted several hours, we were moved by a strong and radiant ecstasy, more wonderful than any I have known in any church.”
The Rev. Dr. Paul Zahl, who introduced me to this passage said of it:
“In the presence of death”: that is the key phrase. In the presence of death, the animating purpose of church that night became, and still becomes, clear: mystery, tolerance, compassion, even ecstasy and out-of-body feeling. No vertical status, no hollow “cant”, no empty ritual (but real ritual, which means something to people), no judgments and no opinions. Rather, practical aid in time of need, mutual support, forgiveness, and encouragement.[ii]
In the presence of death only a few things matter: the love of God and the love of family, friends, and neighbor.
In the presence of death every nonessential prerequisite washes away and only the essentials are left.
In this moment of powerful recognition of the finite nature of life we are able to see clearly our unity.
We are able to see ourselves more clearly…perhaps as God sees us – transparently presented naked before him with all of our messy feelings of inadequacy and failings laid out before us.
The brutality of honest reflection reminds us of our complete and utter dependence upon God alone.
The shield of projected blame upon our neighbor falls to the ground as we are mindful that nothing, that nothing in the presence of death, can avert its eye from our predictable human condition.
Jungian analyst James Hollis reflecting on Thomas Nashe’s A Litany in Time of Plague recalls:
Brightness falls from the air.
Queens have died, young and fair.
Dust hath closed Helen’s eye.
…and then writes, “It is not so much that death shocks or surprises us…but that there are, finally, no exceptions, no exemptions. As Job found to his dismay, we have no signed contract with the Party of the First Part, and all things fall. Brightness itself falls. Even queens, young and comely, are no exception.”[iii]
You are dust and to dust you shall return.
In this moment of clarity, in the presence of death, we are united seeking comfort from one another, forgiveness from one another, encouragement from one another; and from God.
We see plainly that all of this – churchy business - is really only meant for one profound thing…to link us to God and to one another in an open and honest relationship.
And what happens?
What happens in that moment…in the presence of death? In the presence of dust and ashes and dry bones?
What happens is that God reaches out to us, his frail and little people, huddled in mass, mumbling trifles of repentance, some going through the motions out of obligation, others fearful of letting anyone know the truth within us…and God reaches out towards us and whispers amongst the prayers spoken from parched and trembling lips …”I love you.”
I love you.
I forgive you.
Forgive one another.
I love you.
[i] Mika Waltari, The Dark Angel, Translated by Naomi Walford (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1953), 322ff.
[ii] Paul Zahl, PZ’s Panopticon, (Charlottesville, VA: Mockingbird Ministries, Inc., 2013)65ff.
[iii] James Hollis, The Archetypal Imagination, (College Station, Tx: Texas A&M University Press, 2000) 3ff.