Death, where is thy victory? Death, where is thy sting?
We may be tempted to think in more morbid moments that death has the final say on life. Against this, the Gospel cries: no! Death may be terrible, but the love of the Lord which we know even now persists beyond the grave.
Reading: Isaiah 54.1-10.
Yesterday, we celebrated the funeral of our brother Isidore, in Leicester. A number of us could not be there in person, but every one of us held him in prayer; every one of us, in this way at least, attended on his burial.
Looking at things soberly, even philosophically, we might be inclined to say that death is life’s one certainty. Death is the end in store for all of us. If we reflect on our reading, who is the truly barren, lifeless one, whose tent must ever be enlarged, spread out to right and left to make space for more – is it not death? Is not the city of the dead surely the largest of all human cities? Think how many bodies lie under the earth, and the bodies above shall seem a mere handful. Death doesn’t only seem to outdo life in quantity. Death is not just the terminus in time of every life’s span, but the event which gives seriousness, gives point to each life. In the stories of the ancient Greeks, the immortal gods are cruel, selfish, lascivious; they live care-free and irresponsibly. Humans cannot afford to live like this, because we are going to die; responsibility, moral sense, empathy and concern for others all come to be in confrontation with the reality that our lives are limited and we are going to die.
Against this (admittedly noble) conception, Christianity cries: no! Death does not have the final say on our lives; death is not the one certainty – in fact, it is an accident, a sign of things gone wrong; it was never meant to be at all. It may indeed seem to turn the world upside down with abandon – ‘the mountains may depart, the hills may be removed’ – but love is stronger than death, and the love of the Lord outlives the grave. Horrendous though it be, death is really just a blip: ‘a brief moment’ when the Lord hides his face, a moment in which we must come to terms with the truth that we are the ones who have turned away from God; but his steadfast love is everlasting, his covenant has turned us back.
Christian hope in a life after death is not a matter of holding a hypothesis. Philosophers have concocted proofs of the soul’s immortality: but that is not the basis of our hope. Nor is our hope founded on facts of past and future far removed from us: the Resurrection of another man two thousand years ago, and some sort of cosmic event at the end of time, as if these were realities confined to the distant past and a future still out of sight. Our hope is very near to us: it is nothing other than the loving mercy of God which we have come to know here and now, in Word and in Sacrament. We took part in Jesus’ Resurrection when we rose up from the waters of Baptism, and we celebrate his Resurrection at every Mass; we all of us pray as children of the Father in whom the seed of the new life is already planted. The same loving relationship in which we stand to God now, will see us through even the passage to the grave. For he is God of the living, not of the dead, and those who appear dead to us, marked with his sign and seal, are alive in his sight.
At baptism we went down into the waters; at our burial, our bodies descend into the grave. Death too, if we live in readiness for it, is simply the opportunity of a new encounter with the Lord, through the darkness. Let us pray that our brother Isidore may pass through that darkness to the Lord’s light, and for ourselves, that we may always seek beyond this twilit world the true light of heaven.
Image: Fra Angelico, Christ in Limbo, from the Museum of San Marco: Wikimedia Commons