Last month, some of you may have read in the New York Times, a great Protestant New Testament scholar by the name of Marcus Borg, died at the age of 72. By all accounts, despite his total immersion in biblical theology, he was a very human, kind, gentle, loving and compassionate man. His widow, incidentally, is an Episcopal priest. His contributions to our understanding of Jesus and his times were enormous and will be a guiding influence in modern Christianity for decades, if not centuries, to come.
But how often it happens that out of the voluminous teaches that extraordinary minds like Dr. Borg leave us, there stands out, above all the rest, some simple statement that even a child can understand. One of those from Dr. Borg caught my eye and remained with me as I prepared this homily this past week.
The topic was the afterlife – “heaven,” as most people refer to it. Dr. Borg wrote, “So, is there an afterlife, and if so, what will it be like? I don’t have a clue. But I am confident that the one who buoyed us up in life will also buoy us up through death. We die into God. What more that means, I do not know. But that is all I need to know.”
My dear friend, Australian theologian and author, Michael Morwood, has said words very much like Dr. Borg’s. He wrote: “God is not present in some places and peoples, absent in others. Our death will not mean travel somewhere else. (I add “…to an imaginary heaven or to an imaginary hell”). Rather it will be a transformation into a completely different way of living in God – the God who is always present in creation. We live in God and we die into the love that is God, and nothing can change that.”
As we’re so fond of saying, “Let’s face it”: no one knows what happens after death. The beloved Cardinal Joseph Bernardin said several years ago, when the question was put to him by a young man, that he didn’t know any more than the young man himself did. Not even Jesus is of much help to us in this regard, assuring us only that these mysteries of life belong to the God he called Father.
But notice, in particular, that one small sentence of Dr. Borg’s: “We die into God,” and almost the same from Morwood, “We die into the love that is God.” Of that they are sure. Borg admits, and I’m certain Morwood would agree, that the full meaning of that belief statement escapes him, but that the little he does know is all he needs to know.
It is, after all, a matter of personal choice. We are free to believe or not to believe, according to whatever seems more likely and plausible to us.
I choose to believe – although, like the theologians, I don’t have the foggiest idea of what the afterlife will be like. Believing in a life that awaits us beyond death gives me courage to live life here on earth with all the energy and zest that I can give it. It helps me to accept present failures and disappointments and limitations as mere potholes in an otherwise smooth road. It keeps reminding me that there lies ahead a total sharing in the life of the creator of the universe, an experience that will satisfy me beyond my wildest aspirations and desires.
It is Lent. We are on our way once again to Easter, the quintessential celebration of life! Let’s not waste the opportunity to think often and deeply about who we are, and who Jesus is, and how we have been granted the grace to view just enough of what lies ahead to fill us with eager anticipation!