From Andrew Root –
“I think it is true. I think death does wear a helmet. We too often think of death as only the end, as only the last moment, but death puts on its hard hat and goes to work much earlier than the last moments before we stop breathing. Death is at work in the lonely longing of friendless fourth-graders, in the failure of a husband and wife to communicate, in the depression and defeat of another failure to figure out what we are going to do with our lives. Death wears a helmet, not only because death collides with us before our last breath, knocking us around from our beginning to our end, but also because death has constructed places for itself within the very structures in which we live. Death is experienced not just in our individual feelings, not just in the action we do or neglect to do to each other, but in the very institutions and bureaucracies that organize our lives. Death wears a helmet because death is found in the structures of society…he is wearing a helmet with official institutional logos on it. He seems so honorable, so in control…He is wearing a helmet, but he is a gangster, intimidating me to toe the line or else feel it where it hurts…And the monster, behind his perfectly shined helmet, just smiles while my anxiety of pretend need keeps me existentially committed to the structures as the way they are.” (Andrew Root. The Promise of Despair. [Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2010], excerpts pp. 126-128.)
Death wears a helmet – what an image! I’m a huge Star Wars fan. Darth Vader is my absolute favorite villain – with his cape, his deep James Earl Jones voice, and that intimidating mask and helmet. I love the way he simply squeezes his thumb and index finger in the air and his victim sitting on the other side of the room or across a screen chokes and dies. His helmet looks like the image of a skull, hard, lifeless, yet it is he who squeezes the life out of others. I love his line, “I find your lack of faith disturbing,” even though his life is anything but faith – it is fear and intimidation that rules him. Anyone who does not meet his expectations feels the fury of his wrath and tyranny – no exceptions. I love light saber duels but have come to notice that only Vader talks to his opponents as if playing with his prey.
Death wearing a helmet – it is an image that seems so ridiculous. Why would Death need a helmet? What would Death need protection from? What will Death do, die? Yet we give him that helmet. Death goes about his business insulated, protected, and even lifted up as the ideal in our movies and in the wider culture. The action hero kills the villain. Even Vader is slain. Yet we still fear his squeeze around our necks. So we accomodate Death to loosen his grip. We look the other way when we see injustice, we try to insulate ourselves from pain and suffering, we chase after the illusion that if we play our cards right, we can cheat Death at his own game. But the deck is stacked, and the house always wins. But maybe, Death invites us, not this time. So we play the game. We protect Death, fearing what might happen if challenge its reign. We give Death a helmet, and as Root describes, we put our logos all over it; from schools, to governments, media, and even the church. Talk of church survival permeates many of the meetings with other pastors I attend. It seems that we even want to cheat Death if only we get the right cards. Then maybe our churches and their institutions behind them can thrive. But Death wearing a helmet accepts no appeasement even if it promises us such things. Root’s image of Death as a gangster seems like an accurate description of its grip upon us. Sooner or later, we all get choked by the dark side.
But maybe Death needs a helmet. Do you remember what happens when Vader’s helmet comes off? He dies. Gasping for air, we see how weak Vader has really been; the mask and the helmet that surrounds it is not the source of his power, it is the reason for his weakness – and it takes the son who removes it to reveal the prisoner stuck inside – and Vader is no more.
I’m not saying Luke Skywalker is the image of Christ. He is far too whiny for that. Luke is driven by fear for much of his story line (much like we are), until he faces Death – Darth Vader – face to face. Once the helmet is gone – Vader is gone too, and Death dies on the floor. We cannot defeat death, we know well that the squeeze is on and we are running out of breath – but to stare at Death right in the face – to see Death gasping for air, breaks his tight grip of control around our necks. For the first time, we can breathe deeply – seeing Death face to face with his helmet on the floor.
Christ pulls the helmet away from Death, and the mask falls, shattering into many pieces. The helmet is not taken off by force; not by a cloaked version of Death’s own violence. To think of Jesus as an action star is to betray the very nature of his mission. No light saber duels or anything cool like that – but handing himself over to Death’s firm grip and an unjust execution. Death can’t believe it. How did he ever score so big a prize? Such a victory! The cross is a trophy to add to his collection of suffering and destruction displayed on his mantelpiece. Nothing can get in his way now – all will fall, all will perish, all will die, to be consumed by Death himself and the feast will be grand. There on the cross – with the Son of God dead upon it – squeezed and breathless like the others. But how to be sure? Is he faking? Is it real? Could it be a trap? There is only one way to find out – so Death removes his own helmet, pulling off the hard and abusive shell that has kept him imprisoned, to see it with his own eyes. The mask falls away, and yes, yes it is true. Death has won! Christ is dead! Evil will rule eternal! He looks at us with a mighty glare, ready to consume us. But behold – the mask in pieces can no longer be restored, the helmet no longer fits back together, and Death himself starts gasping. His strength rushes out of him like a long sigh, as Death now falls to the ground. Panicking, searching for air, using every last ounce of strength for one more breath, reaching for his broken helmet; Death now looks into our eyes knowing his reign is at an end.
Faith is lived in Death’s last moments; as his helmet rests there useless, never to squeeze us again. There Death’s eyes are fixed on the Risen Christ who is sitting on the broken helmet. Jesus sits there calmly, motioning for us now to leave.
We go from this place with a lasting image – Jesus Christ sitting on Death’s helmet and holding his hand; already thinking of the funeral.
“Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. (1 Corinthians 15:55-58)