Even a child recognizes when he’s naked and exposed. He’s startled by a thunderclap or a choked breath and wails for his mother to pick him up, hug him close, and offer him protection from his own mortality.
Death expresses itself in ways we don’t fully understand, menaces us with threats we don’t want to meet, and threatens to snatch away our breath with all that could and must be.
Death can make us feel like tourists or strangers traveling across the landscape of someone else’s life. We watch a baby cling to his mother in fear. We observe a man weeping over his grandmother’s casket. We notice someone as they search for an escape from a living diorama of relational and work-related chaos.
Death can make us feel like tourists or strangers traveling across the landscape of someone else’s life.
We would prefer there to be a middle ground; a place where we can stand with one foot in life and the other in death. At least then we would be able to see and comprehend both sides of the conflict. Then, we would be able to see death come to grieve a family. We would be able to choose whether or not to act, to run from death, to escape the brutal fear and excitement that death evokes in us. Then, we would be able to put on our armor, pick up a weapon, and charge at death, living and dying a hero’s narrative. That at least would be better than passively waiting for death to come and take us: aged, alone, unwelcome in a world that worships youthful vitality.
We can search for the meaning of death and be overwhelmed by the multitude of answers. We can meditate on the fact that we are conceived, born, live, die, and decompose the same as everyone who’s ever lived, but eventually, these thoughts will awe us. Death offers us no answer but the truth: “you were made from dust, and to dust, you will return” (Gen. 3:19).
Yet as quickly as death finds us and tries to walk shoulder to shoulder with us, snatching away all the small intimate moments that make life more than a broad swath of pain and confusion, another, greater Death comes to us. This Death is the big “D” death. The Death of death itself. Jesus the Crucified and Risen One.
The child cries out to Jesus, not death (and not even his mother). The Christ, not some greater meaning outside or within us, is who we yearn for after the thunderclap and choked breath. We cry out in the pain and confusion for Jesus, the Death of death, to march forward and conquer life’s extinguisher. And He does!
The Christ, not some greater meaning outside or within us, is who we yearn for after the thunderclap and choked breath.
Jesus is who the theologian and metaphysical poet John Donne was referring to when he wrote:
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think ‘st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell ‘st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.
For us, Christians, Baptized children of God, death is nothing to dread. Death dies eventually, unsurprisingly, because Jesus promises us in Baptism that:
“We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life... Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 6:4, 8-11).