Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Death Shall Be No More: Reflections on the Fifth Sunday of Easter

Last Sunday’s reading, from the Book of Revelation (Rev. 21:1-6).

“And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea. And I John saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.
“And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new. And he said unto me, Write: for these words are true and faithful. And he said unto me, It is done! I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give unto him that is athirst of the fountain of the water of life freely.”

This beautiful vision of the new heaven and earth is a favourite of the Christian liturgical calendar, and is often included in the readings. It is read liturgically (during some years) on All Saints' Day (Nov 1), on the Feast of the Holy Innocents (Dec 28th), on this fifth sunday of Easter, and during the Burial Service. It’s included in this Sunday’s reading, probably, because it speaks of renewal: “Behold, I make all things new,” or in Latin, “Ecce, omnia nova facio.” But it’s included in those other feasts (one of which is concerned with the afterlife, and the other with a particularly tragic episode of martyrdom) and in the Burial Service, most probably, because it speaks of victory over death.

Death is the most basic and ultimate reality in our lives. It is the one thing that can’t be denied, nor escaped. All of us, as children, go through a particularly painful and traumatic stage when we realize, for the first time, that our lives are finite, and that we are going to die. Yet there’s no getting around it. And from the beginning of human history, the minds of thoughtful people, and the hearts and souls of sensitive people, have been captivated and tormented by the challenge of death. The great French scientist and mystic Teilhard de Chardin said, “We are not material beings leading a spiritual existence, we are spiritual beings leading a material existence.” But more then that, we are creatures of the infinite leading a finite existence: creatures who were meant for eternity, leading an earthly existence which terminates, inevitably, in the grave.

My priest back home likes to tell the story of one Cyril Alington, headmaster of Eton College, who was once asked by a particularly annoying and stupid parent, “So, Mr. Alington, in a word, what are you preparing my son for?” His answer was short and to the point: “In a word, madam? Death.” How true. Any worldview or philosophy- and there have been many- which seeks to evade the reality of death, is in the end futile and sterile.

There are many ways to deal with death that people throughout history have chosen. One of the most common- and from a Christian point of view, the worst and most opposed to morality and decency- is to see life as a contest of strength, in which death is the penalty paid out to the losers. Lots of warlords, kings, big businessmen, and other ‘successful’ people throughout history have taken this view: it’s one that appeals to the winners, not so much to the losers. Of course, it’s based on a lie: for if death is the loser’s hand, then all of us are losers in the end, and whether it comes for us in one year or after fifty, does it much matter? A much less immoral- but still incorrect- way to view death is as simply a part of life- the end, to be seen as neither good nor evil but simply a fact of the world. This was the path taken by people like the Stoics. Finally there are those who have seen in physical death the ultimate evil, and have tried to avoid it by any means necessary. This has really become popular, and feasible, since the invention of modern medicine that allows us to extend life longer and longer. But even before the invention of modern medicine, people _tried_ to extend their lives through all sorts of bizarre and sometimes creepy means. Through fruitless quests for the Fountain of Youth, through drinking rejuvenating tonics made from animals and plants, and through magical rites. Mr. Aldous Huxley’s book, “After Many a Summer Dies the Swan” portrays, witheringly to my mind, the ultimately unnatural and dehumanizing (in a very literal sense) logical outcome of the quest for earthly immortality.

The long and sad history of people trying to evade death through medical and magical means, nevertheless says something about our natures. It says that at some level we recoil from death, and crave to be eternal. And that in turn suggests that what we are seeking for actually exists, though at a different level than the prophets of 200-year life spans have been looking for. Though the people who strive to radically extend the human lifespan are doing something wrong, the thirst that they are seeking to quench is a real thirst, which suggests that it was intended to be really quenched in some way. If we found a fish suffocating on dry land, it would be reasonable to conclude that lakes and oceans existed, even if we had never seen one; if we found a keyhole in a door, it would be reasonable to conclude that keys really existed. Pascal said that ‘at the center of each heart is a God-shaped vacuum’, from which we can infer that God himself must exist, for why would the vacuum exist unless there were a real object for which it was striving? In the same way, the human thirst for eternity and immortality is a hint that beyond this life, eternity and immortality really do exist.

We don’t know what life would have been like in an unfallen world, but death as we know it is an expression of our fallen nature. In the Christian worldview it isn’t simply a good thing, a neutral thing, or a bad thing: it is all of the above. It’s a bad thing in that it separates two things, body and soul, that were never meant to be separated, and in that it causes the tearing apart of human loves and relationships. As it separates body and soul, so it also separates us from those we love, and from the world we know, and plunges us into the great void of the unknown and the unknowable. Death is a tragedy: we are told that when he saw the death of Lazarus, “Jesus began to weep.” We don’t know why, since he was even then preparing to raise Lazarus in just a few minutes; but perhaps we aren’t intended to know why. Like many other things, it’s a mystery.

But in a way, death is also a good thing, for as Christ tells us, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man should give up his life for his friends,” and the corollary of this is that a world without death would be a world without sacrifice, and therefore a world without love. This is how we know, incidentally, that Christ was really a man as well as God, because if he had not really lived as a man he could not really have died, and his sacrifice could not have been perfect. Death is the greatest limitation to our lives, and as the essence of our human nature is limitation, to seek to avoid death is to seek to make ourselves less human. Simone Weil said that death can be seen not just as a result of the Fall but also as an amelioration of it: “Man placed himself outside the current of obedience….consequently, labour and death, if man undergoes them in a spirit of willingness, constitute a transference back into the current of supreme good, which is obedience to God.” Death is one of the key moments in our lives when, if we accept it willingly and humbly submit to it, we can strip ourselves of the pride and rebellion that caused our separation from God in the first place. Original sin consisted in seeing ourselves as masters of our own destinies: submission to death is the ultimate expression of the idea that we are _not_ masters of our own destinies, and the ultimate expression of the sentiment of our Lord, when he prayed in the garden of Gethsemane, “Father, if it be thy will, take this cup away from me; nevertheless thy will, not mine, be done.” This is a sentiment that some of the most thoughtful minds in history have at some level perceived: as Shakespeare said, “Nothing in his life became him as the leaving of it.”

Yet we should remember that inasmuch as there are good things about death, they are only secondarily good. Death is a necessary part of life on earth, so necessary that Christ himself had to go through it; as he said, “whoever loses his life for my sake shall gain it.” But this is a result of our fallen world, and in the world to come, unfallen and perfect, there shall be no death, not now and not ever. “Death shall be no more….for the former things have passed away.” As long as this world exists, and as long as life exists on it, there must be death; St. Paul tells us that death will be “the last enemy to be destroyed.” But we have the promise that there will be a new world, not only without death, but without sorrow: “Neither shall there be any more pain….”.

We cannot achieve the fountain of life by ourselves, and merely to try, in this life, is immoral and irreligious. We are not intended to be immortal, and to try and escape from death is to try and escape from our human limitations, which is the essence of sin. But we are promised that what we cannot do for ourselves, God will do for us: “To him who is athirst for the water of the fountain of life, I will freely give,” and again he says, "Whosoever shall drink of the water that I give him shall never thirst...". The Latin version here uses the emphatic pronoun, ‘ego’: Jesus here is stressing not just that we will receive immortality, but that He Himself will give it to us. “Ex aqua quam ego dabo ei.....” In the end, no matter what we suffer in this world, no matter what the pain and sorrow of our life and the horror of our death, Christ the Lamb will recompense us. For he is truly the good shepherd, who will lead us to drink of living waters, and of him who is the Water of Life, and once we have drunk of that we shall never thirst again.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

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