Paul Collins. Where, O death is now thy sting?

If I had a say in who were made saints there are three people I’d immediately nominate, and two of them are not Catholics! My first choice would be Dorothy Day and, thank God, she has begun the slow process to sainthood. The other two are John Wesley (1707-88) and Charles Wesley (1703-91), the founders of Methodism.

A truly Christian man, John Wesley set out in 1738 to evangelize ordinary working people who were largely abandoned by the established church. For fifty years he travelled all over England on horseback, riding up to 5000 miles annually, preaching thousands of sermons, often three a day, to enormous crowds. When churches were closed to him, he preached, like Jesus, in the fields. His brother Charles was the greatest hymn writer in the English language. We still use many of his hymns today.

One of his finest is Christ the Lord is Risen Today. The hymn originally had eleven stanzas, but was without the ‘Alleluias’ we use. The verse I love most reads:

Lives again our glorious king,

Where, O death is now thy sting?

Dying once, he all doth save,

Where thy victory, O grave?

For me this expresses the core of Christianity, the total victory of life over death. ‘Where, O death is now thy sting?…Where thy victory, O grave?’ The Preface for the Requiem Mass expresses it succinctly, ‘Lord for your faithful people life is changed, not ended.’ As a priest I found it easy to preach on Good Friday for the events of Jesus’ death are so dramatic and within our range of experience: a good man killed because it suited the politico-religious establishment. We know about political prisoners, torture and murder.

But the Resurrection is different. Here we deal with something beyond our experience, and I never found it easy to preach on Easter Sunday. As I often do I turned to Gerard Manley Hopkins. He has a poem That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the comfort of the Resurrection.

This complex sonnet was written in July 1888, just eleven months before he died aged 45. Depressed by his surroundings in Dublin, he goes out on a blustery, midsummer day and recaptures his love of nature. He describes the cloudscapes calling them ‘heaven-roysters’. He feels ‘the bright wind boisterous’ which dries the mud from ‘yestertempest’.

Then he remembers Heraclitus with his vision of nature as a constant fire, a ceaseless conflict of opposites, flux and change; nothing is permanent and the only certainty is death. In this context humankind is ‘in an enormous dark / drowned’ as ‘million-fuelèd, / nature’s bonfire burns on.’ ‘Death blots back out,’ he says and ‘vastness blurs and time / beats level.’ His initial joy seems overcome by death.

But then he stops himself. ‘Enough! The Resurrection…Away grief’s gasping / joyless days, dejection.’ He realizes that it is the way of nature that everything must die, as Christ died on the cross in order to be transformed by resurrection. Death is the process through which all creation passes. ‘Flesh fade and mortal trash Fall to the residuary worm; world’s wildfire leave but ash.’

But in the resurrection all is transformed:

In a flash, at a trumpet crash,

I am all at once what Christ is, / since he was what I am, and

This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,

Is immortal diamond.

The image of a diamond suggests something that fire can’t destroy. The diamond’s structure is hard, permanent and lasting. And that, Hopkins says, is what we are. Since he (Christ) ‘was what I am’, so ‘this Jack, joke, poor potsherd’ can become what Christ is – truly alive. This is his hope.

I think that hope is more significant than faith and love. Hope is rooted in imagination, in the ability to grasp other possibilities, to conceive of other options. It helps us escape a monochrome, paranoid world. While we all have imagination, we need the artist to give it expression. As Shakespeare says in A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

And as imagination bodes forth

The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen

Turns them into shapes, and gives to airy nothing

A local habitation and a name.

That is what Charles Wesley does. In simple and evocative language he gives the resurrection ‘a local habitation and a name.’ ‘Where, O death is now thy sting? Life triumphs over death.






Paul Collins is an historian, broadcaster and writer. A Catholic priest for thirty-three years, he resigned from the active ministry in 2001 following a dispute with the Vatican over his book Papal Power (1997). He is the author of fifteen books. The most recent is Absolute Power. How the pope became the most influential man in the world (Public Affairs, 2018). A former head of the religion and ethics department in the ABC, he is well known as a commentator on Catholicism and the papacy and also has a strong interest in ethics, environmental and population issues.

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5 Responses to Paul Collins. Where, O death is now thy sting?

  1. Jane Anderson says:

    A brilliant piece pointing to the “more than” of Easter. Ditto your thoughts on hope. Sometimes, when faith and love have been stripped away, hope is the only thing left for envisioning a brighter future. Happy Easter Paul

  2. Thanks Paul,

    I came upon John and Charles Wesley’s Church in or near Shoreditch in London. I’d always been curious about Methodism but had read only a little. I haven’t read that much more but I now have a picture of John Wesley sitting looking back at me at my desk – serious. A man with a strong heart and mind who did immense good in the world.

    The words that spoke most powerfully to me were “The Covenant”.

  3. Greg OConnor says:

    I would like to receive yourweekly newsletter

  4. Lynne Newington says:

    How lovely to read the plaudits of John Wesley being reared on his hymns that I was…….as with The Old Rugged Cross [sung by a boy soprano I know lifting you to another realm].
    The Salvation Army never discriminated….

  5. Edward Fido says:

    An interesting and appropriate Easter reflection. Thank you Paul. I believe the Wesleys saved England for Christianity at a very dark time for the Church of England. Their influence, like that of the Oxford Movement, on Christianity in the Anglophone world and beyond is incalculable.

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