This post isn’t some profound or scholarly explanation. It’s just about a simple Christian meditation on death.
Skulls are a deeply Christian symbol. They represent the truth that we are mortal. We will die. From dust to dust. The Masonic tradition uses these symbols in private meditation with both stoic/Greek ideas in play as well as Christian ones. For them the idea (unless they are Christian, and there used to be little if any animosity between Masons and Christians at least Protestant Christians) is that change is good. This connects to stoicism where the embracing of “facts” is the key to happiness.
The real Christian idea behind the skull is not the embrace of death as a positive change but the courage we have in the face of death because of the cross. As Paul wrote many years ago Jesus conquered death. And as John remembered years later Jesus told his disciples that those who follow him will never die…though they die. Christians embrace death not as a friend or comfort but as a defeated enemy. Death is an evil. It is lamentable. Paul says we mourn with hope. He does not deny that we mourn but tells us to mourn with hope.
Saint Francis is often depicted with a skull. His life is sometimes thought of as representing a “second Christ”. This is because of all the post biblical saints Francis’ life is the most cruciform. The brilliant Bonaventure recorded that Francis was mystically crucified. This is the famous first (and only officially recognized by the Roman Church, I Padre Pio’s is recognized through his canonization) instance of stigmata. But the idea comes from Paul when be says I bear the wounds of Christ in my body. Years later the wounds were still visible in Francis’ dead body. The description available has been interpreted by at least one historian as being actually caused by a specific disease from Francis’ time that he would have contracted through his ministry to the poor. To me this explanation is more beautiful because it is more like Christ. Francis came from wealth and gave it up for the poor. And if his ministry to them gave him the wounds of Christ…well that’s how Jesus got those wounds in the first place. He took our sin upon himself, our sickness. He left the “wealth” of paradise with His Father and became one of the sick ones. Paul uses this hymn in his Letter to the Philippians:
“who though he existed in the form of God
did not regard equality with God
as something to be grasped,
but emptied himself
by taking on the form of a slave,
by looking like other men,
and by sharing in human nature.
He humbled himself,
by becoming obedient to the point of death
– even death on a cross!
As a result God exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee will bow
– in heaven and on earth and under the earth –
and every tongue confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord
to the glory of God the Father.”
The anabaptists emphasized the bitter Christ. That to follow Jesus required pain, death to self, and struggle. The Psalms are full of dark hopeless emotion. The Christian faith is full of death. The earliest followers of Jesus in Rome would wait in the toilets in order to save abandoned babies (that was where they were “aborted”). Becoming a Christian makes you sadder and happier. It makes your pleasures sad and your sadness purposeful and joyful.
So I wanted to try to meditate on death as a Christian better. I realized that my temperament was much more sensual than typical Protestantism. I like to have my senses stimulated. I like incense. I feel close to God and feel His covering in darkness, symbol, and art. The Nordic Christian faith means a great deal to me. I’ve done much simple religious art based on Norse Christianity. I will start publishing some pictures of those things on here but first I’m going to explain my skull meditation.
I bought a small plastic skull off Amazon and wrote certain scripture references on it with a sharpie.
You take the skull in your hand and look at the back:
Now from noon until three, darkness came over all the land. At about three o’clock Jesus shouted with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
This is the cry of derelection. I start here because it is the darkest moment of scripture. It is also the most historically reliable due to its embarssing dark nature. It is the foundstion of the good news: Jesus represents all humans fundamental cry of pain before God. We all feel distanced and estranged and orphaned. Jesus became these things for us.
Next turn the skull left:
“A good reputation is better than precious perfume; likewise, the day of one’s death is better than the day of one’s birth. It is better to go to a funeral than a feast. For death is the destiny of every person, and the living should take this to heart.”
Death brings humility. We must embrace our mortality. We will die. Wisdom says this fact must be embraced and that happiness that ignores this is wistful and insincere.
Then turn the skull left and up:
“They brought Jesus to a place called Golgotha (which is translated, “Place of the Skull”)”
Here we arrive: we are on the skull with Jesus. Literally symbolically.
Then look the skull in the face:
“Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”
“Therefore, to sanctify the people by his own blood, Jesus also suffered outside the camp. We must go out to him, then, outside the camp, bearing the abuse he experienced. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.”
We can look Death directly in the face with courage and hope. Because Jesus has conquered it. And we must look Death in the face so that we may follow our messiah bearing his reproach and participating in his salvific work through pain and sorrow.
Then turn the skull right:
“He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death will not exist any more – or mourning, or crying, or pain, for the former things have ceased to exist. And the one seated on the throne said: “Look! I am making all things new!” Then he said to me, “Write it down, because these words are reliable and true.””
It is finished. The skull looks to the right which represents the future symbolically so it becomes a sign of hope for resurrection. The skull will not remain a skull, it will become covered in living flesh again some day. And the symbolism of scripture written on a “head” should become obvious to us: the truth must become etched onto our mind.
This is a simple way to place yourself fully and sensually within the story of the good news. Not to pay myself on the back but this meditation is deeply moving and wholly antiseptic to the spirit of this age where death is hidden and Christ is denied. The only medication for the modern sickness of soul we all have is the truth embodied by the cross.