Monday, August 05, 2013

On Death

It has been a summer of death. A friend committed suicide. An acquaintance died of cancer. A newborn child of friends succumbed to an infection. The deaths of those of Christ's faith in Egypt and Sudan and Nigeria and Syria.

It is at these times that I'm sorely tempted to question, to doubt, and to get angry with God: why are You so far off? Why should this continue to happen? How long, o Lord? I don't want to naturalize or domesticate death, either, even though those are the reactions I tend towards: "it happens" or "we all have to go," etc. There is not something wrong with death, there is everything wrong with death. It is, as the Apostle Paul puts it, the "last enemy" (1 Cor. 15: 26), but its end is not yet.

Ever since Adam, all things must die. I don't take that passage as a divine threat ("if you eat the tree, I will kill you..."), but as a divine warning ("if you freely choose to eat the fruit, these are the consequences...avoid them!"). As far as I can tell from my reading of St. Athanasius, this is the patristic way of reading the text. We were created ex nihilo, from nothing, and so there is always the danger that to nothing (or in Adam's case, "to dust") we will return. To have life is not something biologically or physically or even spiritually inherent in us, rather it is the gift of God, of Himself, to us. To have life is to share, somehow ontologically, in the Life who is God. Due to Adam's rebellion we have been cut off from that Life. Yet, even though our first parents necessarily were exiled from the Garden (to have access to the Tree of Life while under the dominion of sin and death would have been a worse existence than non-existence), God was not and is not content to leave us there. This seems to be the import of Jesus' words in John's Gospel: "The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly" (10:10). Christ undoes what the thief did in the Garden. This doesn't mean, though, that we are promised a middle class existence. Such a life, as many have found, is paltry and ultimately vacuous. The world, when disconnected from her source of Life, is empty pleasure and pain. The created realm only becomes what it was created to be when it becomes entwined with the Life of God, when it becomes a sacrament. The Life He is promising is the Life that He Himself is. The Life that is not confused or divided, but is union and distinction of the divine and the created.

I am powerless before Death. I've suckled too much at the teet of sin, the "stinger" of death, as St. Paul calls it (1 Cor. 15:56). But He is not. He has risen from the grave, trampling down death by death itself, and bestows His Life on us now, allowing and enabling us to live outside of the tyranny of sin, and bestows Life on us in the future, when all things shall finally be made right. But what about now? What about those who have died too soon? Or innocently? Christ wept at the physical death of His friend Lazarus (Jn. 11:35); we mourn with those who mourn, but not without hope -- Christ is risen from the dead. It is not the end, nor the answer, nor the paradox. It is defeated and we shall see that with true and clear eyes someday.

In the meantime, let us pray and mourn. Let us ask God "how long?" as the Psalmist instructs us. Let us fight against death by turning from sin. Let us all cling to the One who is Life, in whom no death can finally exist.

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