St Paul's Cathedral, Springfield
Death is all around us. A little more than a month ago, this church was filled for the funeral of its own priest. On most mornings, it’s part of my routine to look at the obituaries in the State Journal-Register, and I know many of you do the same. Since nearly the beginning of Lent, the attention of the news media has been fixed on the fate of a Malaysian airliner with 239 souls on board. It’s a number that is surely impressive enough. But, as a number, it allows us to distance ourselves from the fact that we’re talking about 239 real people with real lives and real loved ones, and real stories—stories that ended sooner than anybody had planned on. Each one of those lives is precious—precious to those who loved them, and precious to God.
But while there have not been any other spectacular plane crashes since that aircraft went missing, there are still those who became sudden victims of the mudslide near Seattle, those who perished in yet another shooting spree at Fort Hood, and a busload of high school students in California on their way to a college visit who died because a truck crossed the center divide on a rural interstate highway. And this is to say nothing, of course, of all the ordinary and unspectacular deaths that are recorded on the obituary pages of newspapers large and small all across the land, all across the world. Each one of those lives is utterly precious to those who loved them, utterly precious to God.
Death is all around us. Even the little ones whose new birth in Christ we celebrate tonight, will some day suffer death. Death is our deepest fear. We fear death—and love life—so much that our first impulse is to resist it with any means available. Even an animal—a mouse being stalked by a cat, or an antelope being tracked by a leopard—even an animal, that has no conception of time, no particular plans for the future, will ferociously cling to life with every ounce of its strength. Yes, there are conditions under which we would wish for death. Those whose quality of life has been degraded by pain or weakness due to disease or age understandably often feel that death would be an attractive alternative to their suffering. But in such cases, death is the lesser of two evils. Death is never preferable in itself, but only as an alternative to something we consider even more horrible
So, what can we do? How can we respond to such a gloomy reality? Well, one possible response is good, old-fashioned denial. Most of us are very good at denial in general; some of us are virtual masters of the art! When it comes to denying death, 20-years olds who race motorcycles without helmets are probably at the top of their form. For the rest of us, however, denying the reality of death isn’t much of an option. I find myself at the age now when a sobering percentage of those who populate the obituaries are younger than I am.
So if denial doesn’t work, what else is available? Well, how about glorification? If you can’t beat it, celebrate it. If you’re a Star Trek fan, you know who the Klingons are, and are probably familiar with the motto of a Klingon warrior: “Today is a good day to die” —the implication being, to die in combat. One might also think of so-called “suicide bombers,” who consider themselves martyrs for a holy cause, with the deaths they cause, including their own, constituting a glorious offering to God, who is quite pleased by the whole thing. In the cold light of day, however, the only people who think death in combat is glorious are those who have never been in combat.
Another attitude we might take toward the unpleasant reality of death is simply to accept it. Death is completely natural, part of the organic cycle of the universe, just a part of life, etc. etc.
This view is commended by the fact that it’s realistic, to say the least. One could perhaps even say that it’s “scientific,” and thereby invest it with the glow of unassailable authority. It seems to be a mature, grown-up, attitude to take, and I know that many parents have attempted to explain death to their children along these lines. And for a while, I suspect, we may be able to talk ourselves into finding it comforting. Sooner or later, however—usually when faced with the imminent prospect of our own death, or the death of someone close to us, the knot in the pit of our stomachs returns, and we become that wildebeest on the Serengeti again, willing to do whatever it takes to escape the tenacious clutches of death. Acceptance is a nice concept, but is often flawed in execution.
My friends in Christ, Easter offers us an alternative. Easter offers us another way of dealing with the fear and anxiety that flow from the reality of death—an alternative to the foolishness of denial, the blindness of glorification, and the fatalism of passive acceptance. The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead transforms death. Easter does not deny the reality of death. Jesus was really dead—stone cold dead as a doornail. It was not a charade. It was not a trick. He died on the cross. His body was taken down from the cross, dressed for burial according to Jewish custom, and placed in a tomb. His body began to decompose. He was dead.
And Easter certainly does not glorify death. Death is the sacramental sign of the presence of Sin and Evil in the world. Death is a constant reminder that the “bad guys” have been in charge; the thieves have been minding the store. Death is ugly. Death is cruel. Death is bitter. There is no glory in it.
Most importantly, however, Easter does not accept death. Death is still our Grand Enemy. It is the font from which all human suffering ultimately flows. Even—or I should say, especially—when it puts on a kind and gentle mask by appearing as the bearer of relief from suffering, death is a fraud, because it is in reality the very source of that suffering that it pretends to relieve.
The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead transforms death. We might say that it domesticates death, it tames death, even as a skilled horse trainer “breaks” a wild stallion, and makes it do his bidding and channels its energy for his own purposes. St Paul tells us that death is “swallowed up in victory.” Swallowed up—that’s a very concrete and graphic image, is it not? So just what is it that “swallows” death? Here’s the really good part: What swallows death is death itself! When Jesus died, death died with him. When Jesus rose, death was left in the grave. What a masterful trick God played on our most feared enemy! It’s like tricking a snake to swallow its own tail, and then watching it choke itself to … well…death. Death chokes on death. Death is swallowed up in victory. Death becomes the gateway to the nearer presence of God, and eternal life in the joy of His love. “O death, where is your sting? O grave, where is your victory? But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
With our Easter faith, we will still try to avoid death and still cling to life. It cannot be otherwise, as life is what we, as human beings created in the image of God, are “about.” Life is what the gospel is about; life is what God is about. We still grieve and we still mourn—but with a difference: we are not “as those who have no hope.” Every Friday, those who pray the evening office from the Book of Common Prayer repeat a collect that has become very dear to my own heart. It begins, “Lord Jesus Christ, by your death you took away the sting of death: Grant to us your servants so to follow in faith where you have led the way, that we may at length fall asleep peacefully in you, and wake up in your likeness…”. Jesus does not take away death, either by denying it, or glorifying it, or passively accepting it. But he does take away takes its “sting,” by transforming it, taming it, making it work for him. He then allows us to “fall asleep peacefully” in him, and then—this is the really good part!—to “wake up in [his] likeness.” Alleluia and Amen.