A famous French bishop of the 17th century wrote, “Human beings are as quick to bury thoughts of death as they are to bury the dead.” I think that’s true. But not so of the Christian churches: they stand out as realists and speak of death without hesitation or embarrassment.
In the gospel passage proclaimed today, we heard a familiar story of death.
In it we hear Jesus calling his friend Lazarus back from death to the same life he had been living since his birth. But later on, so we believe, Jesus himself was called out of death by God to an entirely different and radically superior order of life — a life of total union with God. This “resurrection” of his was really an act of creation by God, which appears to be the reason that our celebration of the Easter Vigil includes excerpts from the creation account in the Book of Genesis.
Are we not to understand that just as God created the universe in a fantastic burst of energy that continues to evolve in our own day, so was Jesus’ resurrection an even more astonishing creation of energy which is immune to death and corruption?
The world thinks of death as the end — and mourns it. Christians believe that death is the new and eternal beginning — and they celebrate it.
What do we suspect happens after death? The imagination of most religious people goes to thoughts of heaven or the beatific vision. Why not instead simply think of God, the mysterious reality that has brought us into existence, that loves us wildly, unconditionally, and welcomes us beyond our inevitable death into new life of perfect union with God?
If you were to ask me what my own personal feelings are toward my coming inevitable death, I would tell you that, on the one hand, I feel sad at having to leave the only life I’ve ever known and all the good people I’ve shared it with. On the other hand, I would tell you I am excited about what I shall discover on the other side of death. I have always been curious about the secrets of the universe — is space limited or infinite? How does light travel so fast? Who — or what — is God? How did human language come into existence? What is it like to live in unconditional, perfect love? What will I be when all the limitations I possess are taken away and I blossom into the full person I was created to be?
St. Paul, whetting our appetites for the life to come, said that what God has prepared for us has never even entered the human imagination!
That said, I’d have to admit that I do have some concern over the manner in which I will die. Not, I hope, as the result of a long and painful illness. Not in the rubble under a bombed building or in a fiery crash. But I’ve never brooded over that because I know I can and must trust that the loving God who has sustained me all these years will also sustain me in the manner of my dying.
Joseph Sittler, a Lutheran pastor, now gone home to God, wrote some years ago, “What life behind death might be, I have no notion. The only life I know is the finite one that I live before dying. Something continues, but what that will be I’m perfectly willing to leave in the hands of the Originator.” (He spelled that word Originator with a capital O.)
Simone Weil, mystic and scholar, wrote, “It is not my business to think about myself. It is my business to think about God. It is for God to think about me.”
And best of all, Jesus: “I am the resurrection and the life.”