Among the clumsy things that we say to try to comfort one another when somebody dies, there are a number of phrases that insinuate, either explicitly or implicitly, that death is a good thing, even a godly thing. ‘It was his time.’ ‘She lived a good life, so this was probably for the best.’ ‘He did what he had to do here, so the Lord called him home.’ People mean well when they say these things, but these pithy phrases are almost universally unsatisfactory to hear if you are the person bereaved, and with good reason. They offer a view of what happens in death that is very different than the one offered by the Christian revelation. While most of us spend the better part of our lives trying to forget that we are all going to die one day, the moment inevitably comes when we must face the reality of death head on. And when that moment arrives, the common wisdom says that we are supposed to “work through it” by making friends with death, as if death is not an alien force in a world that was made to be filled with the life of God.
Death Pretty Much Sucks
“The wages of sin is death,” says Paul, and in that sense alone we can say that death is natural. It is the natural consequence of the poisoning of our nature that took place at the fall. But that is not the sense in which the word natural is generally employed by those who wish to soften death’s blow. Pop spirituality asserts blithely that death is the natural end to things, the low ebb of the circle of life in which our ravaged bodies are returned to the ground and our weary souls are sent off to “a better place.” What this vision fails to capture is the harsh reality of death’s relentless ability to swallow our dignity. Death does not simply escort us over the bough into a higher plain of existence. It rips us apart, fundamentally destroying and disintegrating what God made to be an integrated whole, the human person, body and soul as one. It weakens and cripples us, robbing us of our faculties and even our most basic independence as we slide backward into nothingness. If you have ever been with someone as that person dies, you have witnessed this firsthand. Old or young, rich or poor, happy life or sad, all are swallowed up mercilessly by the beast.
Don’t Fear the Reaper?
In his book Holy Dying, Jeremy Taylor attempted to give many reasons why those who are facing death as Christians can take comfort. Nonetheless, Taylor adds, “I do not say it is a sin to be afraid of death: we find the boldest spirit that discourses of it with confidence, and dares undertake a danger as big as death, yet doth shrink at the horror of it when it comes dressed in its proper circumstances.” It is no sin to call death out for what it is, a horror, an unnatural occurrence, an evil. We should not be ashamed to say that we do not want death, either for ourselves or those we love, and that we hate it and intend to fight it with every fiber of our being.
But, whether it is natural or not, death is certainly inevitable. We are sinners, living in a world corrupted by sin, and there is no way to escape the fact that death will be our end. So the question is, what do we do with that? From where is our help to come?
The Glory of Death
There is glory in death, but it is Christ’s glory which is not to be found in any particular action on our part. Holy Dying encourages repentance and confession to a priest, both of which are good for the soul and especially important for the sinner as he or she nears the time of death, but our ultimate hope, in death as in life, is found not in us but in Jesus Christ who has defeated death by dying and rising. Our comfort is in our Baptism by which we have been united to Christ in His death, and “if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him” because “We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him” (Romans 6:1-11). We cannot defeat death, no matter how hard we rail against it, and so our hope must be in Christ’s promise to us that His defeat of death can be given to us as a gift, that we can receive the fruits of His labor which He chooses to freely bestow upon us.
One of the finest prayers in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer is found at the conclusion of the liturgy for Good Friday. It begins, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, we pray you to set your passion, cross, and death between your judgment and our souls, now and at the hour of our death…” There is a simplicity to this that is absolutely necessary for us to recover if we are going to counter the culture’s notion of death with something brighter and sweeter than what pop spirituality has to offer. We need not wax poetic or descend into complicated theological constructs when we sit with those who are preparing to shuffle off this mortal coil. We need to be plain and simple, telling them that we know that what they are going through is horrible, and that we know that they are scared and perhaps doubtful, and that all of that can be cast onto the cross with the simple words, “Lord, have mercy.” He will lift it all in the end and He will even make us holy through our sufferings. For the Christian, no suffering is in vein.
Death is undignified, particularly when it is drawn out, but even in the midst of that suffering God can redeem us, so long as we understand that death is a punishment and not a secret friend. It is something to be endured, not something to be loved. It is the rightful punishment of the law which we must endure, even as the Gospel of Christ’s death on our behalf assures us that it does not get the last word. As Taylor puts it, “We have nothing else to do with the terrors of the law, for, blessed be God, they concern us not. The terrors of the law were the intermination of curses upon all those that ever broke any of the least commandments once or in any instance; and to it the righteousness of faith is opposed.”
The Death that leads to Holiness
In the 1662 Burial rite, the priest proclaims that Christ “shall change our vile body, that it may be like unto his glorious body.” Death is horrible for everyone, but for the Christian it is a horror that can be overcome, not by our solemn patience but by His grace showered upon us. In that context, every suffering is still a horror, but it is also a kindness, because Christ is in it, allowing what is wretched in us to burn away while holding fast to what is of God within us, that we may be lifted up and given new life. And so the only prayer that the sinner needs is “Lord, have mercy.” It is a prayer that can be shared, both by the person dying and the person grieving. It is a prayer that casts all our hopes and fears onto the cross of Christ. And if the Gospel is true, it is a prayer that Christ has answered, not by making friends with death but by vanquishing it once and for all. We need not make friends with death. We need only to be friends with Christ that we might share in His victory.