John 19:30

Dying into God

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John 19:30

Dying into God

The Rev. Charles Hoffacker

The Welsh poet Dylan Thomas remembered his father as a man robust and militant for many years.  But Thomas’ father, in his eighties, became blind and weak, and so his son addressed him in a poem that opens with these lines:

“Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

The poet goes on to declare that various classes of men—the wise, the good, the wild, the grave–all of them do not go gentle into that good night, all of them rage against the dying of the light.

Listen to these lines:

“Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

“Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

“Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

“Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

Wise men.  Good men.  Wild men.  Grave men.  Dylan Thomas will have all of them rage against the dying of the light, and not a single one go gently into that good night.

Certainly the poet recognizes two fundamental options.  There are those among us who slip into death.  And there are those among us who resist it with every ounce of their power, refusing and rejecting the dark that awaits them.

What does Jesus choose?  In the final moments, when the light fades for him, does he go gentle, or does he rage?

He chooses neither one.  Jesus does not slip away.  Nor does he dig in his heels all the way down.

John’s Gospel presents his last word as a scream of triumph.  It is finished!”

A sentence in English, a single word in New Testament Greek, this indicates not simply the end of something, but its completion, the goal accomplished, the purpose realized.

But what is it that Jesus announces as finished just before he dies?

It is his life, all that the Father sent him into the world to do.  It is the abundant result of that life: prophecies fulfilled, sin’s power broken, the world overcome.  All this finally and definitively realized.  The work of a lifetime.  The salvation of this world.  So Jesus goes out with a shout: “It is finished!”

The imperial death machine that places Jesus on the wood ends up with nothing to brag about.  The cross is not a defeat that must wait for Easter morning to be reversed.  It is already an instrument and sign of victory.

Jesus does not go gentle into that good night.  He sweats blood when he prays in Gethsemane.  Yet he has no need to rage.  It is finished.  It is complete.  Nailed to the wood, Christ is already triumphant.  He reigns from the cross.  As Jesus dies, he conquers.


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In the final lines of his poem, Dylan Thomas calls out:

“And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

He insists his father ought to shed fierce tears in resisting the death that awaits him.  The poet equates these tears with a paternal blessing: they are inspiration and example.  He equates them with a curse as well, a reminder of our unavoidable mortality.  Dylan Thomas sees his father, himself, and all of us sooner or later dying into death.  He has his reasons for doing so.

Jesus sees it differently.  He knows himself to be dying into God his father, and invites us all to accompany him when our time arrives.  He knows that he has come from God and will go home to God.  He has lived life unafraid.  Realizing this as he does, his life is complete.

For him the light is not dying.  It is becoming brighter.  The rage of bitter defeat has no place.  Nor is what prevails some gentle weakness, an evaporation of spirit.  Jesus triumphs.  Jesus glories like a young athlete who bursts the tape at the finish line of the race.

It is precisely there, in his death, that we begin to know him for who he is: the prince of life whose reign will never end, the one who calls us beyond our weakness and our rage to reign with him forever.

“It is finished!”  The life and mission of Jesus are complete.  But something else is finished also–in the sense of brought to an ignominious end, broken, destroyed.  And what is that?

As we began with a poet, so we end with a poet, this one also a preacher and a priest, John Donne.  Rather than issue a passionate call to rage, Donne engages in mockery and contempt that is almost playful.

Listen to these lines:

“Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
. . .
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
and death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.”

Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.

Copyright 2010, Charles Hoffacker.  Used by permission.