|A bit of unintentional black humor made its way into the news some days ago, in an account of people panicking at rush hour on a commuter train in southwest London outside Wimbledon Station. Rail power lines were cut, disrupting train traffic for nearly twelve hours. The cause? Some sort of evangelist had stood up in one of the carriages and began to read aloud from the Bible.
In our neuralgic society, nervous about terrorism, we might empathize with the passengers, especially if the preacher was shouting. In New York our urban protocol is simply to avoid eye contact with people like that. But the first offense was the police description of passengers “self-evacuating.” As neologisms go, this conjured up some pretty frightful images; one expects better from the land that gave us our glorious English language. The bigger problem is that the unhappy passengers “self-evacuated” because the evangelist intoned “Death is not the end.”
In a more tranquil moment of human history, these words would be a consolation. In paraphrase they were the comforting motto of Mary Queen of Scots. T.S. Eliot used the words in his Four Quartets, and the crooner Bob Dylan made it the title of one of his most popular songs, but it caused none of his fans to self-evacuate.
The utter non-finality of death, the promise of life everlasting, is Good News for those who will listen. But for those who translate the meaning of life according to their limited narcissistic vocabulary, the good news of eternal glory is no more vital than ramblings in the Qur’an or Upanishads.
Saint Thomas More said that to be a real Christian is always to be surprised by the Resurrection. The essence of human response to the Resurrection is astonishment: it was not expected. That should be the psychology and flushed complexion of every encounter with Christ. It explains why the first words of the Risen Lord were not formulas for physics or cures for cancer, but “Peace. Don’t be afraid.” Awe, as holy fear, casts out the ignorance of servile fear. In the same vein, Saint John Vianney said that if we really understood what happens in the Mass, we would die, not out of fear but out of love. So one hyperventilating woman who jumped onto the tracks outside Wimbledon, was not altogether wrong when she said that the Bible the man was carrying was a bomb.
Perhaps it is because people do not love enough, that they panic when someone says that death is not the end. Our Lord said something more radiantly harsh than that: “And fear not them that kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul; rather fear him that can destroy both soul and body in hell.” Some who first heard that adored him, but a great many self-evacuated.