One overarching theme concerning our lives of faith that has garnered little attention over the last two months or so is the ways that we, as Christians, relate to death. We’re researching best practices to reopen our churches, praying for those affected by the virus, performing works of mercy to help those in such desperate need in our community – all good, graceful, and Spirit-filled works that show Christians living out the best parts of our faith in this unsettling time in which we find ourselves.
I believe, however, that one of the main underlying fears that feeds much of the anxiety and trauma of these days is fear of death. It’s an interesting paradox, in a way. We do as much as we can everyday to keep death at arm’s length, yet we will all one day take our last breath here in this life. Death (and what the afterlife holds) is something that all religions deal with in some way or another. It will happen to you, to me, and to all those we know and love.
But we don’t like the idea of dying. In the modern world we are as far removed from the inevitability of death than we ever have been. Through modern technology and medicine, new ways of living and eating, and environmental movements that have made the very air we breathe safer for large parts of our populations, our life expectancy is longer than ever before. The sting of death is not immediate for many of us and when it does happen to people we know and love it often comes at the end of a long life relatively free of illness. Our finitude is almost an abstraction, something we know will happen but doesn’t affect us too much.
Until, of course, it does. What we’ve seen and felt in the last two months is a more immediate understanding of the possibility of death. The Latin term that has played such an important role in the lives of Christians in centuries past has much more meaning these days. Memento mori – Remember that you will die. This is not a morbid fascination with death; in fact, it gives us the chance to see the miracle of life every morning. If we truly remember that, yes, we will someday pass from this life, then the morning light is that much brighter. The conversation you have with a loved one is that much more meaningful. The sacrifice of Christ our Savior on the cross – confronting death head-on and gaining victory for us over a permanent death – now has so much more meaning. Our finitude is now reflective of the infinite God and the beauty of the afterlife to come. “Christ Jesus is the one who died – more than that, who was raised – who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us … For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, or powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:34, 38-39). Death is not something to fear because even our last breath cannot separate us from God’s love.
That doesn’t mean that we should behave in ways that puts ourselves or other people in danger. God’s hope for the life He has granted us is for flourishing and growing as disciples and followers of Jesus. God wants us to care for each other and make sure that life is as full of grace and joy as possible. But God also wants us to remember, in a good way, that we will all come to that moment in which we meet him so much more intimately than possible on this side of the veil. We have nothing to fear in this life and we certainly have nothing to fear about the afterlife – at the moment when our hands loose their grip on the loved ones with us, our lungs expel the final wisp of air, and our eyes close for the last time. We have our time here and it is full of blessings, struggles, joys, fear, and comfort. Enjoy every moment, knowing that we will never be separated from God’s love.
The last verse of Alexander Pope’s beautiful reflection on Christian death puts words to the final moment of our short lives here on earth. May this be what we all experience at the moment that should hold no fear.
The world recedes; it disappears!
Heav'n opens on my eyes! my ears
With sounds seraphic ring!
Lend, lend your wings! I mount! I fly!
O Grave! where is thy victory?
O Death! where is thy sting?
“The Dying Christian to his Soul”