Life within Death
June 28, 2015, based on Wisdom 1:13-15; 2:23-24; and Mark 5:21-43
Fr. Matthew Kemp
“God did not make death, and he does not delight in the death of the living.”
As you all probably know, my father passed away just a few weeks ago. And as happens when a family member dies, we had to deal with the uniquely modern institution known as the funeral home. This particular funeral home was not too different than any other: the exterior looked dignified without going overboard; the interior decor was warm, hospitable, and above all tidy; the staff was solemn but pleasant. Our daughter Theodora had never been in such a place before, and apparently took it to be a hotel, because she asked us where the elevator was (this being her favorite architectural feature). When we walked back to the car, however, she pointed to the building and asked, “Is that Grandpa’s house?”
To the eyes of a three-year old, a funeral home (as the name might imply?) looks like some sort of lodging for the living, not a place at all associated with death. And as I thought about this, I was reminded of what the Russian Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann observed over 50 years ago: “We live today in a death-denying culture,” in which “there is a strange conspiracy of silence concerning the blunt fact of death.” The warm and pleasant funeral home is simply one example of this. We might as easily look to the hospital, where the default position is to use every means possible to prolong life, only to remove the body routinely, hygienically, and quickly after those means have failed. Consider even the terms we use in how we talk about someone who has died. We say that they have “passed on” or are “at rest,” or simply “are no longer with us.”
The church tends to respond to this cultural denial of death in two different ways. One way is to embrace it. After all, death was not God’s plan for humanity, as today’s reading from the Wisdom of Solomon notes. Should we not instead focus on life, health and vitality? The result, however, falls somewhat short of the fullness of Christian witness. Instead of presenting the death and resurrection of Christ, the ministration to the sick turns into mere crisis counseling, and the funeral is reduced to a “celebration of life” for the deceased, as if death is just the reception of some kind of lifetime achievement award.
Or at other times the church goes to the other extreme. This attitude assumes that death and infirmity are in fact the “normal” state of things, and shifts the focus to “the life to come” which takes place in some “other world.” Death is even seen as a good thing, as it delivers us from the pain and suffering around us and transports us to God “in heaven.”
In today’s Gospel, however, we see Jesus confronting death in a way that avoids both of these extremes, neither ignoring it nor sentimentalizing it. Jesus is faced with a little girl on her death bed, who succumbs before he reaches her. Along the way he is met by a woman with a persistent ailment who also seeks healing from him. Consider Jesus’ options. On the one hand, he could have denied his power to both. On the other hand, he could have offered it casually, distantly, anonymously.
Instead he goes with the girl’s father, all the way into the room where she lies dead. And he calls forth from the crowd the woman who has been cured by touching his robe. He faces the realities of death, illness, and suffering, and he publicly calls attention to them. He makes it very clear that these things are real, and that there is no escaping them, no matter how much we might try to keep them hidden.
But he does not leave the matter there. He allows the woman to be healed of her hemorrhages. He raises the girl to life and health. This does not mean that they will never have to suffer illness or death again. What it does mean is that those things are not part of God’s plan for humanity. Death and disease are neither the normal state of things nor a means of escape. They are enemies to be vanquished. In healing the woman and raising the girl, Jesus has given us signs of the kingdom of God, and promises of how God will restore all things in the end.
Yet as profound as such miraculous manifestations of God’s power may be, we know that Jesus is still not finished. He will go willingly to the cross and face death for himself. He will defeat it and rise victorious from the grave. And in doing so he will transform death forever, redeeming even what is contrary to God’s plan so that it may be used by him to accomplish our salvation.
Alexander Schmemann wrote of it this way: “Christianity is not reconciliation with death. It is the revelation of death, and it reveals death because it is the revelation of Life. Christ is this Life. And only if Christ is Life is death what Christianity proclaims it to be, namely the enemy to be destroyed…The horror of death is, therefore, not in its being the ‘end’ and not in physical destruction. By being separated from the world and life, it is separation from God…It is when Life weeps at the grave of the friend, when it contemplates the horror of death, that the victory over death begins.”
If we are to follow Christ’s example, then the church’s response to death should be neither to shrink from its devastating horror, nor to pretend it is really something good. Rather we must proclaim the reality of Christ’s victory over it, a victory hinted at in the Gospel we heard today, a victory made present to us week after week in the Eucharist, a victory so profound that even the horror of death pales in comparison to the power of God revealed in Christ.
And it is for this reason that we can face our own death with hope, because we have already, in this world, received the new life that comes from Christ’s victory. As Schmemann put it, “If I make this new life mine, mine this hunger and thirst for the Kingdom, mine this expectation of Christ, mine the certitude that Christ is life, then my very death will be an act of communion with Life.”
A few days after we left the funeral home, I stood with my family at the columbarium at my parents’ church. And there I led my father’s Committal from the Book of Common Prayer. The service included the following words which express precisely this kind of communion with Christ our Life–a communion which cannot be diminished even in death:
All that the Father giveth me shall come to me;
and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out.
He that raised up Jesus from the dead will also give life to our mortal bodies, by his Spirit that dwelleth in us. Wherefore my heart is glad, and my spirit rejoiceth;
my flesh also shall rest in hope. Thou shalt show me the path of life; in thy presence is the fullness of joy, and at thy right hand there is pleasure for evermore.