The Church’s scriptures for today’s Sunday Mass are all about a vexing issue that has the potential to cause much consternation if spoken about by preachers- I am referring to death.
Death, though common and inevitable is not a topic that is open for discussion. It is too frightening, too upsetting, and has the potential to stir up religious convictions and as such is to be avoided in polite company. Reference to death is usually reserved to the occasion when it happens to someone we know, and in this regard, the discussion will usually turn away from the reality of death to a celebration of the life of the recently deceased. Thus, is discussion of the reality of death deferred, sublimated, and denied. In fact, NOT talking about death is often a dogmatic stipulation of the deceased person’s last wishes, a request that is attended to with the same care and solemnity that used to be reserved for the pious custom of having Masses offered for the repose of a person’s soul. (Fewer and fewer Christians will insist that Masses be offered for their souls, but what they will insist that family and friends pay attention to something other than the fact that they have actually died).
The Bible will have none of this and the authors of the Sacred Scriptures speak often of death- it’s mystery, it’s impact and it’s inevitability. The great saints and sages of the Church are the same- for them, serious consideration of Christian spirituality is always positioned by a generous sense of “memento mori”- a calling to mind of one’s mortality and contemplation of the reality one’s death.
Precisely what the Bible has to say about death is likely bizarre to people like ourselves who have been so immersed in modern culture.
Modern culture permits an understanding of death that is generous in its regard to its biological characteristics and psychological impact. Outside these categories, modern culture is silent, leaving us to fill in the gaps of our understanding with our own “faith based” opinions.
Further, modern culture has been particularly adept at dealing with the grim biological facts of death through technological intervention. We die very differently than our pre-modern ancestors and even our corpses are cared for in such a way that keeps the harder facts of biological death at bay. Add to this that modern zoning requirements now virtually assure that few if any Christians will ever have to walk through a church grave yard in order to get to their place of worship. Death, like the dead themselves, is stored elsewhere and at a safe distance. It’s distance lets us be distracted by other things.
Consider then how this morning’s first scripture, an excerpt from the Old Testament Book of Wisdom, kicks against our cultural methods of dealing with death by speaking of death not only openly, but in categories that transcend our own ways of speaking about death.
At stake in today’s scripture from the Book of Wisdom is not simply its biological reality or psychological impact, but its theological importance- what does the reality of death indicate to us about the reality of God.
Did God create death? Does God want us to die? Does God have any power over death?
The Book of Wisdom’s insights into the answers to these kinds of questions is strange to say the least.
Death is not something that God wants, but it is a reality that has been imposed on his creation as the result of a terrifying catastrophe caused by a wicked entity that the Bible calls the devil. This catastrophe has enabled the power of death to seize hold of all life and threatens humanity with not only death, but also the possibility of a reality even more terrifying than death- the reality of hell.
Yet, the Book of Wisdom insists that death is not the natural end of man or woman, for human beings are immortal creatures, whose life extends beyond the cessation of biological existence. God has granted humanity a life that endures even beyond death.
Today’s scripture from the Book of Wisdom insists that the wise man or woman takes all this into account when considering the mystery of human mortality.
Our Gospel for today is an in your face about death as our first Scripture from the Book of Wisdom.
Today’s Gospel provides a vivid description of not only the biological and psychological reality of death, but does so in a visceral way- by telling us the story of the death of a child.
In fact, today’s Gospel is an eyewitness account of how the Lord Jesus attended the funeral of a child. In terms of death, it’s reality and impact could not be any more harsh than to consider the death of a child. It’s hard not to flinch, but the Gospel will not permit us to turn away.
The Gospel wants us to take a long, hard look at death, and to do so in a way that is as raw and unsentimental as possible and so the memory of Christ’s encounter with the death of a child is recalled, and we are escorted into a place that few if any of us would ever choose of our own will to go.
This terrifying scene as presented in today’s Gospel is meant to evoke a sense of powerlessness in regards to death, a powerlessness that cannot be evaded by referencing platitudes or the distractions of sentimentality. Death is more powerful that any force we can muster against it. When we confront death with any power at our disposal, including one of the most powerful forces we can muster- that of a parent’s love for their child- death wins and we lose.
But it is not just the reality of death that the Gospel wants us to see, but also the revelation of God in Christ’s power over death. Today’s Gospel is not just about death, but is also about what God in Christ does to death.
The testimony of today’s Gospel is that God in Christ has power over death and his power is such that all it takes is a whispered command for him to overcome the power of death. Death has power over us, but it doesn’t have power over God in Christ.
Now, what does it mean to say that God in Christ has power over death?
It means that Christians believe that because of death, God has intervened in his creation in an extraordinary way.
What did God do?
God in Jesus Christ accepted a human nature and lived a real, human life.
In doing so, God in Christ, as St. Paul describes in his second letter to the Corinthians (today’s second scripture for Mass) made himself poor and small, but in doing so, God did not lose his power, but concentrated it in such a way that he could deal with the great afflictions humanity faces- sin, the devil and death.
God in Christ made himself capable of experiencing death and in doing so transformed death from the inside. God in Christ went into death so that when we die, we face not just an end, but we come face to face with him.
This is what the revelation of Jesus Christ is about. This is what the cross of Jesus Christ is about. This is what the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is about. This is what today’s Gospel, indeed today’s Scriptures for Mass, are about. It is the revelation of Jesus Christ that shows us that greater than the power of death is God in Christ’s power to redeem and to save!
The revelation of Jesus Christ is about how God intervenes to overcome the power of death. The Gospel testifies over and over again that God in Christ does for us what we cannot do for ourselves- he forgives our sins, deals with the machinations of the devil, and transforms death, and he does all this, so that the last word spoken to us is not the silence of a grave, but the whispered command of God in Christ, that as today’s Gospel testifies, tells us that death is not an end, but has become, in Christ, a route of access to him.