Thou know'st 'tis common. All that lives must die,
Passing through nature to eternity.
That was Hamlet’s mother trying to console him for the death of his father (whom was murdered by his stepfather Claudius). Her efforts were not successful. His stepfather then took a turn with him, trying to make him see that the "death of fathers" is quite natural and indeed "a common theme":
You must know, your father lost a father;
That father, lost, lost his….
But that was no consolation for Hamlet. There is no such thing as death in general, or common death. Death is always particular. Compare your own father's death with a death you read about in the papers: they seem quite different. You could philosophise with ease about the other death, but your own father's death plunges you into silence. That is because you have deep feelings about the one and less deep about the other.
Many of the things we say about death have no heart in them. They are no consolation to the bereaved, and it would be better to remain silent. . A Zimbabwean friend told me that in her country when you visit a bereaved family you do ‘kubata maoko’, which is, to hold hands in silence. You cannot do it by post or over the phone; you are there in person. You offer your presence, not your words of comfort (it is easy for you to feel comfortable). How much more sensible than the embarrassed mutterings we go on with!
Christian awareness of death is not a theory about death in general. It is shaped by a particular death: the death of Jesus. It is the death of one man, yes, but more; his disciples of every time and place are part of the picture. Its meaning does not evaporate into generalities. “If one has died for all, then all have died.” (2 Corinthians 5:14). In a mysterious way we have died with him when we were baptised in his name. When we look at his death we see ours, and when we look at ours we see his. St Paul quoted an early Christian hymn, “If we have died with him, then we shall live with him” (2 Timothy 2:11). His living and dying and rising are the energies that shape Christian identity.
The story of Christ's suffering lies deep in the spirit of anyone who has ever been touched by the Christian faith. Its image, the cross, is visible everywhere. To suffer is to know by first-hand knowledge. “People who have not suffered, what do they know?” said Henry Suso, a man who suffered more than most in a century (the 14th) that suffered more than most.
God's mercy did not protect Jesus from suffering, nor Mary, nor any of his disciples through the ages, nor your parents or relatives whom you remember especially in this month. We cannot expect that it will protect us. It would be protecting us from life, and that would be no mercy. This ‘knowledge’ of the meaning of suffering is not book-knowledge or factual knowledge; it is experience that continues day by day and is never finished. It is this first-hand knowledge alone that is able to open us to new life.
We are not alone in our suffering. “The Passion of Christ belongs to us as fully as if we had suffered it ourselves,” wrote St Thomas Aquinas. This is a statement of extraordinary depth and power. It means that we do not cower before the Father in guilt and shame; instead we stand before the Father in the person of Jesus, the Beloved Son. The Father can see no difference between us and Jesus.