A friend recently asked to respond to the following statement:
Through the resurrection, Jesus conquered and disempowered death, but he also reclaimed death as a natural blessing to the rhythm of life and shows us that it is possible to befriend it. When we live inside the resurrection even death is reclaimed as friend.
As I pondered this proposal throughout the Passion Week and especially on Easter Sunday, this flood of thoughts came up for considertion and meditation:
I have the same reservations about calling death a friend. But I think it's worth taking a scalpel to this statement for a bit to see where we might explore the way Christ's work changed not only our relationship to death, but changed the nature of death itself. So I want to ask first, how is this not true, and then, how is this true, and finally, how we might approach dying and death afresh in the aftermath of the Resurrection.
So first, and easiest, how or why is this statement not true? The most obvious point is that Paul calls death an enemy, and in fact, the last enemy to be destroyed, which is to say, it will remain an enemy until the final day.
Second, the NT solution to death is not described as befriending it, but rather, solely as the resurrection. 1 Cor 15 gives a fairly entrenched perspective on both these points.
Third, even if we posit death as a natural falling asleep that opens the doorway into the victory and joy of Mt. Zion of Heb. 12, the reality of death in our experience is almost ALWAYS accompanied by diseases and accidents that are unnatural and clearly curses. See the following table on the top 10 causesof death globally:
|Ischaemic heart disease||12.8%|
|Stroke and other cerebrovascular disease||10.8%|
|Lower respiratory infections||6.1%|
|Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease||5.8%|
|Trachea, bronchus, lung cancers||2.4%|
Which of these experiences could I ever call my friend!? Heaven itself is my friend, but if these are the chief causes of death are the doorway to heaven, then what shall we say? Is death attached to cause of death, or is death attached to release from cause of death?
And yet perhaps it is not so simple. What in fact is death? I am working to free my mind from previous definitions and assumptions, in order to see a fundamental shift in the nature of death as a result of Christ's work. I'm not ready to call death a friend yet, but how might this statement be true? Three points bear considering.
1. How has my relationship to death been altered as a result of Resurrection Sunday? I need not move from enmity to friendship with death in order to make the basic NT assertion that death has apparently lost its sting (which is not to say, its grief ... a different issue). Death's sting was the fear that either we 'would be no more' or that we were consigned to the gloom of sheol/hades. Death's sting is the fear of death or 'death-anxiety,' common to humanity since we became conscious of death in Eden. Through our death-anxiety the devil held us in bondage and it is that fear of death and subsequent demonic bondage from which Christ has freed us. Heb. 2:14-15 (and maybe Jn. 14:1-6).
If death is an enemy, it is no longer an enemy I need fear. This suggests to me that death per se in the NT is not synonymous with the cause of death, the experience of dying, the moment of death or the grievous aftermath for the survivors. All of these remain most unwelcome, in want of God's compassion, comfort and/or healing.
Rather, in the NT death per se relates to destiny of those who are dead. That is, death and 'the grave' were synonymous, used in tandem (in the same manner as Hebrew parallelism). If so, then Christ has not only changed my relationship to death, but fundamentally changed the nature of death itself. Thus...
2. Christ, and the NT as a whole, handles this shift in the nature of death in two broad ways.
a. One approach is to say that death itself has changed. Death used to mean 'consigned to the grave' (whatever that meant) and then with Christ and Paul, came to mean 'with Christ in paradise' or 'present with the Lord.' Death as our destiny shifts radically with the harrowing of hades, the emptying of 'the grave', such that death-as-moment may remain a door from this life, but it opens into an entirely new reality to be embraced. If death-as-destiny used to be an equivalent for hades, it not becomes an equivalent to an ascent onto Mt. Zion. If that is the new death narrative and new death reality, and if that reality has become our reality (everyone dies), then there is this point of view where it can be embraced. Embraced, not as the thing that rips my spirit from my body (the moment), but embraced as the place of joy that lies beyond that moment.
b. But an even more prominent theme in the NT seems to be a denial of death altogether. This only confirms that the NT does not equate the moment-of-death with death itself. The NT treats death (or 'perishing') as something believers will not experience. The most dramatic example:
John 11:25-26 - Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
Clearly, Jesus acknowledges that we will experience dying, but also, that that our destiny is not and never will be death as 'sheol' or 'hades.' In other words, he maintains the old definitions of death and says, 'That's not going to happen to you!' That old death is not our friend. Not only do we not embrace it; we won't even experience it; we won't 'go there.'
I would suggest that is why Jesus usually does not refer to the moment of death as death. Rather, for Christ, he usually calls that moment is 'falling asleep.' He won't concede to calling it death because if he holds the keysof death and hades, no one is ultimately stuck there. Being stuck there is the problem that he forever ended. (Another way to see this is that we already died at baptism, and our new resurrected life has already begun).
I believe this is how the NT predominantly deals with death-as-destiny. But this still leaves us with the reality of our literal experience dying and the moment-of-death. Do we fight that? Do we embrace that? As the door of mortality to Zion is it a friend? Or as a grotesque curse of the fall, do we resist it to the end?
3. Dying as an inevitable reality that I accept:
Dying is not death-as-destiny. It's a process prior to death. And the moment-of-death is the final stage of that dying process. But I also suggest that we treat the dying process independently from the cause-of-dying. Thus we have:
a. Cause of dying = cancer, heart disease, strokes, car accidents, which we instinctively want to avoid, prevent, treat and cure. Cancer is never my friend, heart disease is never my friend, etc. We know this. We automatically oppose these enemies of humanity through medicine and prayer as did Christ whenever he encountered them. He referred to sickness and disease as oppressors and treated them as such.
b. Dying. I'll come back to it.
c. Death = the gloomy grave, sheol, hades from which we've already been rescued and need no longer fear. This too was an enemy, which the NT treats as a prison that he has forever unlocked. When the Son of God holds the keys to death and hades, what do we think he does with them!? This was settled that first Easter. As John Owen proclaimed, 'The death of death in the death of Christ.'
Now back to the original statement. It seems to me the author was not talking about embracing either the cause ofdeath, nor the defunct state of the grave as an afterlife prison. They seem to primarily be referring to acceptance of the dying process once it truly begins as a human inevitability. They accept it on the basis of the equally inevitable resurrection aftermath. That is, dying has been divorced from death, and has been married to our place before the throne.
If we are bound for Zion, then once the cursed cause of death, which we've fought in every way through medicine and through prayer, has done its work and we are now truly dying, then instead of fretting and thrashing against this reality, we practice acceptance and surrender in the 12-step tradition, so that dying itself becomes an occasion for Christ's presence.
The above thesis sounds right to me, but is not without its problems and anomolies:
a. Problem 1: Who can really know when the dying process has truly begun? How long do we fight death? How do we know when it's time to surrender? What if it's not time? And when it's obviously not time (e.g. when a child becomes terminally ill), why do most nevertheless die? Are we just too immature and faithless to beat untimely deaths? Or in saying so, are we not just escalating the grief by adding striving and shame to the mix? Or if we give in to premature death, are we not giving our assent to an evil and by befriending it, calling evil good?
This tension can be crazy-making, because the awkward transition from of a lifelong resistance to death into an acknowledgement and acceptance of this final chapter we call dying tears feels like surrender to the old enemy and recalls all the old fears. Who is wise enough to midwife someone through this transition?
b. Problem 2: In the NT, on rare occasions, Jesus and the apostles came to the rescue and opposed the moment-of-dying itself, at least temporarily, whenever they practiced a resurrection. Why did they bring these people back only to have them die again later? And if they had this power, why not at every funeral? Are we to suppose that no one is to pass away? That if we had the faith of Jesus, death would end on earth now? And why these resurrections? The text shows them resisting a premature death based in either the fact that they were children, or friends, or still useful here on earth. Yet at some point, there is a recognition that all will and must fall asleep.
4. I accept the reality of dying, but I surrender only to Christ - toward a new posture re: disease, dying and death.
Two thoughts came to me that ease my heart.
First, I don't surrender to death. I surrender to Christ's loving care.
Second, I don't wait until I'm dying to surrender to Christ's loving care. I can do it now.
What if we did not have to discern when it's time to surrender a loved one to the arms of Christ, because such surrender was already inherent in our lives and prayers before disease, before dying, before death? We never need to surrender to disease, dying or death because our surrender is always only to Christ. Christ is Lord and death is not.
Thus, we do not need to move from fight-mode against the disease into acquiescence towards death ... we might not need to discern when it's time to despair, because we never do. My healthy children are given into his care, my sickly mother is given into his care, my dying grandma is given into his care ... with an openness and expectancy that 'surrender to his care' is on the one hand, their very best chance at receiving a divine healing or a medical breakthrough, while on the other, we can enjoying the benefits of staying present in compassionate care and the felt sense of God's loving presence, even as we battle disease or experience the dying process.
In my experience, the tension between fighting for a healing and walking through the grief of dying can be unbearable and even double-minded. Those who want to maintain an atmosphere of healing often lapse into denial or approach healing faith through a sort of spiritual wilfulness that we mistake for authority. The one who is sick or dying may then feel emotionally abandoned or even refused permission to experience the reality of their emotional grief and physical pain. On the other hand, those who have despaired of healing or are afraid to pray boldly for fear of disappointment may also leave the sick or dying feeling a similar abandonment, left to fight their disease and despair on their own. Either brand of abandonment can be worse than dying.
In my experience, the first order of business seems to be presence. My presence to their situation, to their pain, to their needs. And God's felt presence throughout the journey, whether it is a healing or dying path. The way we practice this presence is through attention, openness, receptivity (think of Martin Heidegger's gelassenheitor Simone Weil's attention) to welcome the presence of Emmanuel into the whole experience. When we practice that presence, that is when we have seen the most dramatic healings (far more frequently than when I make my authoritative faith declarations). BUT ALSO, when I practice presence and The Presence, the dying need never feel abandoned. And even the unhealed don't lead the sick or their families into shame or striving. I need not flip-flop between fighting and despairing, because it's all about surrender to Presence. I need not focus on death as my enemy or as my friend. I focus on the presence of the living Christ with us through every experience.
The Painting is Frederic Leighton's 'The Return of Persephone'