PASTOR’S PERSPECTIVE: “The only One to Escape the Grip of Death”
Edgar Allen Poe, in 1845, wrote a masterful allegorical story titled The Masque of the Red Death. In the book he focused on the futile attempt of mankind, in spite of status, wealth, location, or avoidance-to evade the ever-prevailing hand of death. In the context of the story there is an entire country face the plague of the Red Death, (Bubonic Plague). The Powerful Prince of the land invites a select group to safety behind the locked gates of his Castle. After several months he throws a masquerade ball in celebration of heir avoidance of the plague-so far! For the celebration he decorated the main seven rooms of the castle in single colors. There are rooms decorated in blue, purple, green, orange, white, violet, and the final one decorated in black, with red stained-glass windows. The rooms run from east to west, the direction of the rise and setting of the sun. Poe means for the rooms to show the progression of life from birth, blue room, to death, the black room, the black room also includes an ebony clock that rings hourly. Most of the rooms are locations of guests partying, dreaming, swirling with revelers, everyone avoids the black ominous room! At midnight a new guest appears in very ghoulishly styled clothes. He is pale and has a face like a corpse, with red spots revealing him as a victim of the red death. The Prince Prospero confronts this guest in the black and red room. After the confrontation the Prince dies. The other guests come into the room to attack the cloaked Stanger. They find no one in the room under the cloaked costume. Everyone then dies, and the Red Death has invaded the Castle. Darkness, Decay, and Red Death have at last triumphed! Poe uses his story to show the unfairness of the feudal system in allowing the aristocracy to abuse the peasantry. His major point is that all classes will fail in their futile attempt to evade and escape the pursuit of ever-present death, symbolized in the Red Death. A look at the mortality statistics seem to indicate that the truth is still one of one human die! It cannot be evaded or escaped.
One individual earned fame and fortune with his continued escape from the grip of death-Harry Houdini. Throughout his career Harry Houdini cheated death with several close calls. In 1911, while in Boston, ten prominent business men challenged Houdini to escape from the belly of a whale. He had to be shackled in handcuffs and leg irons sewn up in a whale’s belly. After 15 minutes he emerged, smiling, though he nearly suffocated on arsenic fumes that had been used to embalm the whale. A close escape from the hand of death. One of his best-known tricks was the milk can. He would be handcuffed and locked inside an oversized milk can filled with water. He always escaped. He later added the milk can being locked inside a padlocked wooden chest to add to the danger. Another dangerous act was to be shackled in a packing crate, with the lid nailed down, and the crate submerged in the New York’s East River, weighed down with two hundred pounds of lead. He escaped in 53 seconds, without cuffs, and when the crate was pulled out the lid was still nailed down, and the discarded shackles of Houdini’s were still on the inside! He often escaped from a straight-jacket while dangling from a building, or a crane. He made his escapes in full view of his audience crowded on the street below. Quite a death-defying feat! One of his most famous escapes was the Chinese Water Torture Cell. Shackled hand and foot he was lowered upside down into a tank filled with water. If he could not escape in two minutes he would drown. His assistants were instructed to break the glass of the tank if two minutes passed. The time never lapsed…he always emerged. The Buried Alive stunt nearly killed him. Houdini was buried under six feet of dirt without a casket. He struggled to dig to the surface and panicked when he was overcome with exhaustion. He had to be pulled unconscious from the grave! He later performed the buried alive trick in a coffin. One submerged in water, while in a sealed coffin. He made it out in one and a half hours. Another time he was straight-jacketed in a sealed coffin and buried in a large tank filled with sand. He escaped! With all these daring escapes many thought he would never die.
But on the afternoon of October 22, 1926, two McGill University students visited Houdini’s dressing room. According to reports, Houdini was looking through his mail, when one of the students, J. Gordon Whitehead, asked Harry if he could indeed withstand any blow to the abdomen, as the magician had previously proclaimed. Harry responded that he could, if given time to brace himself, at which point Whitehead hit Houdini four times in the abdomen, under the impression that Houdini had indeed braced himself for the blows. Throughout the evening, Houdini performed in great pain. He was unable to sleep and remained in constant pain for the next two days, though he did not seek medical help. When he finally saw a doctor, Harry was found to have a fever of 102 degrees and acute appendicitis. He was advised to go to the hospital for immediate surgery. However, Harry decided to complete his show as planned that night. By the time Harry arrived on stage, his fever had risen to 104 degrees. He was tired and in pain and his assistants often had to step in and offer help. Audience members reported that Harry missed his cues and seemed in a hurry. By the middle of the third act, Houdini asked his assistant to lower the curtain as he could not go on. When the curtain closed, Harry collapsed where he was standing and had to be carried back to his dressing room. He continued to refuse medical care until the next morning when Bess insisted he go to the hospital. Harry relented and had his appendix removed; however, it had already ruptured and doctors did not have much hope for his survival. On October 31, 1926 surrounded by his wife and brother, Harry Houdini died.
Harry had planned for that day. He intended to be the first to escape the grip of death and come back from the dead by communicating with his wife Beatrice, (Bess). He made a pact with her that after he died, she was to hold a seance, on the anniversary of his death for ten years. He promised to come back from the dead and contact her with some code words they often used in his acts. That is how she would know it was him. During the first year after his death she would retire to the privacy of hear room every Sunday between noon and 2 pm. She would sit there in front of his photograph with a candle she kept burning for ten years. For the next ten years Bess held an annual seance for this contact from her husband. None came! On the tenth year, at the Knickerbocker Hotel in Beverly Hills, California she held what would be the final seance. Nothing happened for the last time. At the end of the seance, Bess Houdini said that it was her personal and positive belief “that spirit communication is not possible in any form. …The Houdini Shrine has burned for ten years. I now, reverently, turn out the light, it is finished. Good night Harry!” The world’s most famous escape artist could not evade or escape the grip of death. The only one to do that, as He promised was Jesus Christ. After three days, like he promised, he rolled the stone away, and walked back into this world alive for evermore…for everyone to see, and for history to record! It was affirmed not by scientific proof, but by eyewitness testimony. It still stands or falls on the individual’s faith in this testimony. It is still a matter of faith.
One of my favorite writers, Frederick Buechner points out this important truth about the resurrection. “Now the truth is the first Christian sermon was not delivered by a man. The first Christian sermon was delivered by a woman. The sermon was delivered by a former prostitute named Mary Magdalene and it was five words: I have seen the Lord. Let her tell them the truth and the truth is, the dangerous truth is: I have seen the Lord. Ever since that sermon … the one five-word sermon … the world has never been the same. It is perhaps the most historic and dangerous oration ever delivered. But the truth is every Easter is historic … Easter brings with it this preposterous idea that a man of flesh and blood … crucified before a hostile crowd … dead three days in a tomb … this man has been raised. The tomb is empty … and he is roaming around. He is with us until the close of the age. If we were to take the time to unpack this … it would be at the very least unsettling. Many of you remember the movie several years ago, starring Tom Hanks, called Cast Away. It’s about a man, Chuck Noland, who works for FedEx – charged with making sure things run on time. He’s on his way to making plans to be married to his sweetheart Kelly, but on Christmas Eve he is called to fix a problem halfway around the world. He travels by cargo plane across the Pacific, but the pilot gets hopelessly off track and ends up crashing far off course and Chuck is the lone survivor and ends up on a deserted island – without hope of anyone finding him. He survives there for four years. Finally, he makes a homemade raft and sets out onto the ocean and is finally discovered by an ocean liner. Now the most compelling moment in the movie for me … is what happens to his fiancée Kelly when he returns. For four years she had lived with the knowledge her Chuck was dead. For four years she had struggled to “move on”. For four years she tried to rebuild her life without him in it. She had married and had children. She had adjusted. But now the “dead man” had appeared. Now he was in the same room with her. Now he was talking to her. Now he was touching her. And now her whole world had been turned upside down … because a dead man had come to life. The truth can be a dangerous thing. That’s what resurrection will do to you. It is an unsettling – and for some, a dangerous idea”. On another occasion he wrote on the resurrection these words-
“I have no idea what happened except, as I say, what really matters is not so much what happened there as what happens now — what happens in your life and my life, what happens in the world, what happens the next five days, five years of human history. Is God making himself known in some powerful and saving way among people, even [people] who don’t give a hoot about God? Is this still a reality which is part of the madness and self-destructiveness and darkness of the world? That’s what really matters…
The essential message is that nothing, no horror can happen that can permanently, irrevocably quench the presence of holiness that is always there “underneath the everlasting arms.” No matter what dreadful things take place, that remains the heart of reality. There is that wonderful thing from the British saint, Julian of Norwich: “All shall be well, and all manner of things will be well.” That somehow remains true no matter what. That’s, I think, the message of Easter. Yes, this hideous death of Jesus, a good man abandoned, as it would seem, by God. Yet the best has come out of it, which is this nourishing current of hope and new life that still flows in spite of everything. There must be a God. How else could it happen? Why else would it happen?
Martin Luther said once, “If I were God, I’d kick the world to pieces.” But Martin Luther wasn’t God. God is God, and God has never kicked the world to pieces. He keeps reentering the world, keeps offering himself to the world — by grace, keeps somehow blessing the world, making possible a kind of life which we all, in our deepest being, hunger for.”
We must focus on the life-changing power of the reality of the resurrection. The entire Christian faith stands or falls on whether it is historical fact. On one occasion Auguste Compte, the French Philosopher was talking to the Scottish essayist Thomas Carlyle. Compte declared his intention of starting a new religion, based on reason alone, for this new age of reason. He said that it would completely supplant the religion of Christ. He said it would have no mysteries and would be as plain as the multiplication tables, its name would be positivism. “Very good, Mr. Compte”, Carlyle replied. “very good. All you will need to do is to speak as never a man spake, live as never a man lived; be crucified and rise again on the third day, and get the world to believe that you were still alive. Then your religion will have a chance to get on”. That is why Christianity is still vital and relevant today 2,000 years later!