It seems that lately there has been a lot of death. On the surface, that comment is a ridiculous observation as death is all around us. This is the first time though that I have been aware of, or sensed, death’s immediacy in my own world.
Last month a congregant died suddenly and unexpectedly. One moment he was shoveling show out of his driveway and the next he was dead. This was a shock to me personally as he was a fixture at the church that I currently serve. He and his wife were faithful attenders of not only all the services and special events, but of all of the courses I taught over a period of two and a half years. They were, and remain, favorites of mine and they were, and she still is, full of love for others and desirous to learn more about God’s word. The night before he died we had a party at the church celebrating him and the students who had gone through the one and two year courses I teach. It makes me happy to know that his last evening on earth was spent with a group of friends, at a church he loved so well, celebrating not only what he had learned but what God had done in his and his wife’s life.
A few nights ago, on a terrible wintery evening, a young priest-scholar was killed on his way home from church. He was a brilliant scholar working on his PhD and had recently begun pastoring a parish in Connecticut. I did not know him well but I was present at his ordination into the Holy Diaconate and had some interaction with him there and at an annual conference at Princeton he helped coordinate. The reason why I mention this is that his death touches the life of a good friend of mine, a parish priest here in Pennsylvania who knew him very well and was close with him. However, that is his own story to write which you can read here. I mention this because the nearness of this death to my friend makes it near to me because of that friendship.
Since these events have occurred I have been thinking a lot about death, not in a morbid way but on my own mortality. It finally felt real… that growing awareness of the one day where I will face that experience and I realized that I am afraid of death. I am afraid of dying and I don’t want to be afraid. Maybe what I am afraid of is not death itself but those last moments leading up to it. Will I fight for every last futile breathe or will I accept it in peace?
Death is an enemy. The Paschal refrain, “Christ is risen from the dead trampling death by death and upon those in the tombs bestowing life” echoes in my mind. Maybe therein lies the secret to not being afraid of death. Christ is risen. If I can hold onto that truth, that Jesus through his death and resurrection has caused death, to steal from C.S. Lewis, to begin to work in reverse. And like Aslan rising from the stone table due to the deeper magic unknown to the forces of evil so too I will rise on the last day, the first new day, in a body animated by the very life of God. And not only for me this hope is for those who are also afraid of death. If you, dear friend, are reading this, take comfort in the fact that those in Christ will share in this unspeakable joy and eternal life in God’s new world. This hope destroys the fear of death and as St. Paul wrote in Romans 8:11, “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you.”
Death is not a friend to be welcomed but a wicked enemy. It causes such a disconnect in us because we know that there is something inherently unfair in it, something very wrong. It is a robber, a thief, and a murderer. As I learn to deal with the impending deaths of family, friends, and acquaintances I pray that hope in Christ that I cling to will give me strength to not only bear their deaths, and as a pastor help those struggling with death, but to approach my own with faith in the loving merciful God who has promised us that death is not the last word. Christ has the last word and like he called to Lazarus he will call out to us, “Rise.”