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Accepting the reality of death: Christ's message of hope and consolation
Death is a reality that can make us feel claustrophobic, so anxious about death that the process of day-to-day living becomes a veritable entombment in a sarcophagus of fear. Such a mode of existence is clearly not living. Seemingly locked within a room known as mortality our only way out is to face the inevitable.
In the 1984 motion picture Amadeus we have such a scenario portrayed for us, with Mozart writing a Requiem that is simultaneously killing him in the process, believing as he does that this task is a premonition of his own death. As anxiety builds, he is swept along by a wave of self-fulfilling prophecy, and eventually his already frail health succumbs to insurmountable fear.
Death will eventually over- take us whether we fear it or not so it is better to spend our life in good conscience and free from anxiety than in a labyrinth of existential questioning - most of which cannot be answered in this world.
Too much pre-occupation with death will eventually mean that the journey of life has been lived the less for having concentrated on the end-goal, while spending too little time enjoying the scenes which life's journey makes available to us.
The other extreme is to be avoided, namely becoming so reckless about living and dying that one's life is put at risk, as if daring Providence to intervene. Such recklessness is oftentimes inspired not so much by a fearlessness in the face of death but a hatred of life masked by ambivalence. But this is neither courage nor heroism but rather playing a game of Russian Roulette.
A balance must be struck: we should not be so focussed on the next life that we disregard the value of the present. Nor should we despair about losing this present life when we have no faith in the promise of a life to come.
The Eastern mystic, Evagrius Pontikos (AD345-399), provides a wonderful summum bonum for good living. According to Evagrius, 'A monk should always act as if he was going to die tomorrow; yet he should treat his body as if it was going to live for many years. The first cuts off the inclination to listlessness, and makes the monk more diligent; the second keeps his body sound and his self-control well balanced' (The Philokalia, 1979, Vol. I, p. 53).
Evagrius has captured beautifully the need for the pilgrim in this world to find a golden mean: to be very much in the world, but not of it.
No clearer example of this balance is there in Scripture than in the passing of Christ from life to death. God the Son longs to live yet chooses death ahead of a life devoid of its essential meaning and purpose. For Christ has come into the world to give up His life for our redemption. This He accepts.
But although the life is given up freely it is not done without enormous anguish. He could run, He could hide, but in both cases He would cease to be He Who Is.
The Passion of Christ is only that because it entails a tearing away from a life and people which Christ loves. The eventual choice He makes is ultimately based on choosing eternal life, and not death, for God is a God of the living. Even in the face of the body's decay there is the promise and hope of the resurrection - and of a new life.
Christ died, but this event, by God's grace, meant that His death became a bridge for us to cross, a bridge between two forms of living rather than a wall to end all hope.
Hence St Paul writes in Thessalonians: 'But we would not have you ignorant, brethren, concerning those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.
'For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel's call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God.
'And the dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words'.
It is critical to note in St Paul's passage, that even the great Apostle to the Gentiles does not expect his readers to believe that death is free of pain and separation. But above all he proclaims a message of hope and consolation.
Dr Andrew Thomas Kania, a regular contributor to AD2000, is currently studying at Oxford University.
Reprinted from AD2000 Vol 23 No 1 (February 2010), p. 20
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