A friend told me once that she was most afraid of failing to die well. It was a glorious warm and sunny day and in the middle of it, just out of the blue, she says she’s worried about death.
We live in the shadow of death. Like winter, we know it is coming. We must be ready. An ominous chill, the harbinger of death, the first frost settles on the green leaves of summer, stealing life, sapping strength, leaves turning, withering, falling in the autumn rain. No power on earth can turn back the hands of time. A casket stands by an open grave.
It’s not simply that life has an end, that death has the last word. It’s not simply that death brings us to the end of ourselves as well.
The certain knowledge of mortality can leave us fatalistic, helpless in the hands of a mechanized universe, sending us – young and old alike – spiraling into an existential despair. “I feel like a wet seed wild in the hot blind earth,” cries a young girl in William Faulkner’s first foray into the “apocryphal” rural county of Yoknapatawpha, Mississippi – As I Lay Dying – in which the opening scene concludes outside the window of the girl’s mother, Addie, who lays dying, listening to the rhythmic work on a coffin being fitted for her. “My father said that the reason for living is getting ready to stay dead,” Addie says later – and how can she think otherwise? The inevitability of nature’s demands overwhelms her as they do her young daughter, helpless in the hands of blind nature whose processes go on regardless.
It’s a hard thought that from the time we are conceived in our mother’s womb, the grave awaits us. We live in the shadow of death. “My heart is in anguish within me,” says the psalmist, “the terrors of death have fallen upon me” (Ps. 55:4). A Latin phrase that appears in late medieval English poetry – Timor mortis conturbat me (“The fear of death disturbs me”) – shows up in the Catholic Office of the Dead: Peccantem me quotidie, et non poenitentem, timor mortis conturbat me. Quia in inferno nulla est redemptio, miserere mei, Deus, et salva me.“Sinning daily, and not repenting, the fear of death disturbs me. For there is no redemption in Hell, have mercy on me, O God, and save me.”
Our world is filled with the dying, all around us, to the right and to the left. Never more potent is the Gospel than when it is preached at graveside or at a funeral where the believer and the non-believer, the visible and the invisible church all must gather.
Ernest Hemingway, who killed himself with a double-barreled shotgun at the age of sixty-one, wrote in For Whom the Bell Tolls, “He knew he himself was nothing, and he knew death was nothing. He knew that truly, as truly as he knew anything.” In his short story, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” an old man comes to a Spanish bar night after and night and sits alone in a pool of white light until the wee hours of the morning till closing. Why doesn’t he leave until we kick him out? the young waiter asks the older as they watch him drink. He had come to the end of himself and found emptiness. Death. Nothing had meaning. The older waiter who shares this view recites the Lord’s Prayer substituting “nada” – nothing – throughout: “Our nada who art in nada, nada be ….”
But Paul’s Epistle to the Romans is clear. There is no excuse for the existential fatalism or nihilism of a Faulkner or Hemingway. If there is death, there is life. And if there is life, then that life must have its beginning, its first cause, its primum mobile or first mover, God. The creature must have its creator. In Blade Runner, movie director Ridley Scott has Replicants, supra-human androids whose lifespan have been predetermined, go in search of their maker and when they find him – disappointed at his very human frailty – they discover that he is helpless to reverse the genetic processes that he engineered to ensure their mortality. He is at once their creator and their murderer. As his internal system shuts down, the last of the renegade Replicants turns to his human hunter in a truly memorable scene, the rain pouring down all around them, and says, “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time… like tears in rain… Time to die.”
A flawed creature in the hands of a flawed creator. Is that the story of our mortality?
One wonders at the many versions of the Pietà that Michelangelo sculpted so painstakingly. The first and most famous Pietà stands in Rome. The dead body of Jesus, taken down from the cross, lies draped lifelessly across his mother’s lap. Mary’s face is an enigma. We are moved to remember what the man Simeon had said to her at Jesus’ birth: “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed” (Luke 2: 34-35).
Jesus was dead. He was buried. He lay in the grave for three days. If you have not considered it, consider it now, for the glory and the majesty, the raw power of the resurrection cannot be borne upon you more if you do not. See Him first in the grave as the women had done before they had brought spices for his tomb on that first day of the week more than two thousand years ago. Then know how it shook the foundations of their reality as it must ours, the foundations of death itself to hear the angel’s announcing, “He is not here, for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay” (Matt. 28:6).
Come, see the place where he lay.
The painting on an oblong canvas was by Hans Holbein the Younger circa 16th century. In the year 1867, it hung in a small gallery in Basel. There was a man standing frozen before it. His hands were cold. His face white with shock. He had climbed onto a chair to have a closer look at the depiction of Christ before him and it had held him transfixed for so long his wife feared it would be the prelude to an epileptic seizure, a rare occurrence but one he was prone to after many years in the czar’s prison camp. Coaxed away from the life-size depiction of the half-naked corpse in a long narrow box, flesh discolored, mouth distended, eyes gaping blankly, a pierced hand with the greenish tinge of decomposition, Dostoevsky was led into another room where he slowly recovered. Later he said to his wife, “A man can even lose his faith from that painting!”
“Yea, though I walk through the shadow of death I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me” (Ps. 23). Our Savior walks with us where he once walked as a man. Can we wrap our mind – our hearts and souls – around this for even one minute? The incarnate God, immortal and invisible, the triune God and Author of all creation, sent His Son to us, incarnate God – vere Deus, vere Homo – truly God and truly man, Jesus Christ. He walked to his death on the cross. For our sakes. “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).
“I preached as never sure to preach again, and as a dying man to dying men,” wrote Richard Baxter, the great 17th-century Puritan minister. And so should we each time we speak of Jesus, for He warned us that death is not the end. No one in all of Scripture preached more than He did of hell’s unquenchable fire and torments for those who do not believe in Him, in His life and in His death.
My faith is born in the charnel house dust of this knowledge: that Jesus truly lived and he truly died. Then I can truly, consciously, meaningfully live in the light of the knowledge that he really rose from the dead. From death no traveller has returned. Only Jesus.
This is not natural revelation, it is the revelation of God who is otherwise incomprehensible, and it is revelation through the word of God received by faith alone.
The poet was right after all. “Love is as strong as death” (Song 8:6). Only God’s love could win the victory over death.
It was Easter week 1919 in Jaroslavl, Russia. The best Communist orators and top-ranking political leaders in the district summoned the people to a discussion of religion. Donald Lowrie, author of The Light of Russia (1923), recounts how official after official attacked the tenets of the Christian faith.
First a skillful speaker discussed the “Christ myth”. He explained that simple people had once been easily misled by priests into belief that Jesus was something more than a man, that He had worked miracles, had even risen from the dead. Now while Jesus deserved honor as the first Communist, He was simply a man, and an enlightened and revolutionary people should put “away all their old superstitions about Him. “Long live the Communist Internationale” – and he was fairly well applauded by the people. The second speaker was a Jewess who attacked the ancient stories about the birth of Jesus. When she closed with a statement that Mary was simply a woman of the streets, and nothing more, the applause was somehow less vigorous.
Now it came the turn of the senior priest of the town to present his case. He rose, made the sign of the cross, stood a moment silently facing the crowd and then pronounced the age-old Easter greeting: “Christ is risen.” Without a moment’s hesitation the crowd swayed toward him in reply: “He is risen indeed”. “Christ is risen”! the priest repeated, and the answer came almost before he had pronounced the words. A third time he said it, with” thunderous response from the people, then, waiting a moment, he asked simply, “What more is there to say? Let us go to our homes”, and the anti-religious meeting adjourned.¹
“Christ is risen!” What about the Paschal greeting or Easter Proclamation that prevailed then and prevails today makes us brave death from fiend or foe, that makes the hearts of the faithful leap for joy in an Iranian prison cell being kicked and beaten or a Pakistani town watching your home being burned by a mob or on the shore of a Mediterranean beach kneeling before sword-wielding executioners, but that it touches the deepest part of us, the immortal core of our new life in the resurrected Son of God!
“Christ is risen!” “He is risen indeed!”
Simeon told Mary that a sword would pierce her heart, as it pierced Dostoevsky, as it pierces us when we see our loved ones laid in the grave, when we ponder the dead form of Jesus laid in the tomb. Zechariah had prophesied that his newborn son, John the Baptist, would one day “go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:49).
Yes, death is coming for us all. But so is Christ Jesus, when he returns. Soon.
Maranatha (1 Cor. 16:22). “Our Lord has come. Come, Lord!”