A Reflection on Death
“Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I am.”
Lent is about death.
A very morbid thought, from one perspective. Few cultures, in the past, have feared death so much as ours. In America, we do anything we can to avoid thinking about it. It’s the unmentionable word. It’s uncouth and embarrassing. As one author explains, “We live in a death-defying society. We fight and resist death; we hurry through our mourning and rush to get back to normal” (Mary Catharine O'Connor). Today, death is looked at as our greatest enemy and is the chief source of anxiety. But in the Church we find a wholly different attitude.
In the middle ages, they coined the phrase memento mori (‘remembrance of death’), to describe one of the most important practices a Christian can take up. The Church Fathers talk about this again and again, urging us to dwell on death and everything it encompasses, because in a life in Christ, death no longer has the same hold on us. Jesus Christ has redeemed it. Death, for those before His resurrection, was a total finish: the swallowing up of life; the annihilation of meaning and purpose. For non-believers today it has the same gravity, and so we find our world becoming increasingly nihilistic. But in Jesus Christ, death is transformed. It is no longer the end but the beginning, like a cocoon or a seed, each in their own time creating a new life far superior to the former.
This doesn’t lighten anything about death. We have to mourn. Christ himself wept when His friend Lazarus was taken by death, and so, I think, gave us permission to weep when we encounter it. When you’re mourning, it’s important to know that that’s okay. We have to allow ourselves permission to grieve for a time, just as Christ grieved, and that’s part of the healing process. But our grief mustn’t be a grief in despair. We have to trust, if we can’t already see it, that in the darkness of death there is already the first gleam of light from the rising sun.
What is death, and what does all this have to do with Lent?
Every loss that we experience is a kind of death. Every child has known this from day one, since that first moment when one’s mother turns her back. The baby feels that life itself has withdrawn. Then, throughout our childhood and adulthood we encounter deaths – in our friends, our loved ones, our dreams and ambitions. Everything we cling to in this world lets go and vanishes, and the older we get, the more life slips between our fingers. Retirement, younger generations taking the reigns, disappointments in how things have turned out, fading beauty and a body slowing down…each and every one of these are real deaths too. Why is change so hard? Because change is death. King Solomon was a realist when he said, “I have seen all the things that are done under the sun…[it is] a chasing after the wind" (Ecclesiastes 1:14).
So what can we do?
The world’s answer is to avoid death, however possible, clinging to anything in reach even after it’s slipped away. But the Church has a different gospel, and this is the beautiful message of Lent.
Each year, through the season of Lent, rather than fleeing from death we enter into it.
It’s irony of irony.
Lent comes and the first thing the Church tells us is do is to eat less. Food brings us life, and so, when we give up meat and enjoy fewer meals, we’re denying ourselves of that life. We give up our pleasures a little here and little there because we know that in the end, as we age and draw closer to death, then life will take all of these things from us whether we’re prepared or not. The Fathers of the Church tell us to fast so that we can train ourselves for the bigger and realer fasts of life. The little deaths prepare us for the greater deaths. But rather than shirking from this, the Church takes our hand and walks us into it. This is what Lent is all about. We don’t need to be afraid.
Today, we’ve covered up the icons and crucifix on the walls. Everything is in mourning.
In the Epistle to the Hebrews, which we read today, we heard how our Lord and Savior Himself, like the goats sacrificed before, was sacrificed on a cross. Christ entered into the heart of death, and what happened? The whole cosmos reflected it. The sun and sky hid their lights and the world was cast in a shadow. This is what we get a glimpse into today, when the sun and sky in the faces of the saints is veiled: a passing vision of the world without Christ. The Church reminds us of that Death, but at the same time shows us it’s meaning and end.
The images of heaven that bring us such comfort have all been covered up. But, though we can’t see them, we know the saints are there. So, in the times of life when we can no longer feel God’s presence, we have to trust that He is there all along. The veil that looks so heavy is very thin after all. And when Easter Day comes we tear down these veils, just as Christ tore the veils of death and the brightness of His resurrection illuminates the world.
In the Gospel, we read about another veil pulled down on the world. Christ reveals Himself to the Jews as God-incarnate, they in turn reject Him, and so He vanishes from their midst.
The Jews spoke for all of humanity which rejects God, and the veil that fell over their eyes was the veil of closed heart. “So they picked up stones to throw at him,” it says, and “Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple.” No one becomes an atheist, agnostic, or an apathetic Christian because he can’t find enough evidence. We lose our faith in God when we lose our desire for God. We choose this life instead and all the things around us, and so it makes sense that we can’t find God anymore. The noise we create keeps us from hearing God. The pleasures we revel in keep us from wanting Him. God’s vanishing is another way of saying we’ve lost our ability to see.
And so, we cover up our icons today to remind us…this is what happens to our souls when we forget God. Our hearts get covered up and we loose our vision into heaven. We began Lent fasting from foods. Now we are even fasting with our eyes. What next? On Good Friday, we gather for mass and join Jesus Christ on the cross. The vestments are black. The altar is stripped. The tabernacle is emptied. What else is left?
But we all know, don’t we? Christ sleeps in death for three days when he breaks out from the dungeon of hell and triumphs over death once and for all. Our Eastern Orthodox brethren chant the song:
“Χριστός ανέστη εκ νεκρών, θανάτω θάνατον πατήσας, και τοις εν τοις μνήμασι ζωήν χαρισάμενος.”
"Христос воскрес из мёртвых, смертью смерть попрал, и существующим в гробах, Жизнь даровал! ”
“Christ is Risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.”
How does God conquer death? He enters into it! How does God destroy pain, suffering, loss, and sadness? He plunges within it and then comes out on the other side.
Why does God allow us to suffer and lose so much in this life? Why does He allow the mother to turn her back to the baby? Why does He allow the young man and woman to fall short of his and her ambitions? Why does He allow us to grow old, to watch the world change, to lose our health, our loved ones and everything we spent our lives doing?
It is only in death that we can find life.
Christ trampled down death by death. He entered into the darkness of Hades to destroy that darkness so that we could follow Him into an eternity of Light.
Anyone who says that we Christians shouldn’t grieve at death hasn’t read the gospels. Christ Himself shed tears of blood as he prepared for Golgotha. The cross was real. It was heavy. It hurt, just like all of the change and loss in our lives. But that pain wasn’t the end, it was the very door to the true beginning. The message of the cross is that Jesus Christ is with us in the very heart of all of our sadness, and that He will take us with Him through death into Life.
“ [God] has given us a new birth into a living hope,” St. Peter writes, “through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading...In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer…so that the genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed” (I Peter 1:3-7).
In our Gospel reading today, just before vanishing, what does our Savior tell us?
“Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I am.”
When we look at the veils around us in this room, and when we look at the changes and losses in our lives, we can remember this, that even in the darkest place, Christ your God is the God that IS. “I am that I am,” He promised Moses, and HE promises you and me.
I want to conclude with a short verse from the works of the Scottish poet, George MacDonald. A message about Lent and the life that comes through death.
"’I will not be tortured to death,’ I cried; ‘I will meet it half-way. The life within me is yet enough to bear me up to the face of Death, and then I die unconquered’…Towards this I now went…out into the tumbling chaos. I could hardly keep my feet against the wind and sea...I stood one moment and gazed into the heaving abyss beneath me; then plunged headlong into the mounting wave below…A blessing, like the kiss of a mother, seemed to alight on my soul; a calm, deeper than that which accompanies a hope deferred, bathed my spirit. I sank far into the waters, and sought not to return” (Phantastes).
And so, we too, are invited to plunge into our Lord and Savior’s death, trusting to Him everything that we have and are, with the faith that He will raise us up from this death into His resurrection, where “there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4).
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.