It would seem that this year for us is permeated by the end of life. Perhaps it is something that happens as we approach what we sincerely hope is "EARLY middle-age." Matt works day after day with families who are walking through the long journey that is the death of a child. And this year, Laura's dad received a terminal diagnosis after surviving a grim diagnosis 25 years ago. Around us our community and our friends and co-workers are experiencing the loss of loved ones. We spend a lot of time considering this space. Of course we do. Death has certainty.
One certainty of death is the physical body of a person that used to mysteriously work on its own no longer does. Whatever it was that started the heart to beat has stopped.
And then what?
Then Faith, Hope, and Love.
We do not know for certain what happens to the individual...to the Spirit, the Soul when the body stops working.
We have Belief and Faith and Hope based on our experiences and our faith tradition and on the Beliefs and Faiths and Hopes of many who have lived before us.
This week we celebrate the feast of All Saints. Now for those of us who grew up in protestant churches, dialogues about saints were pretty rare. Those of us who grew up in Catholic churches might have found ourselves overwhelmed the the numbers of saints, their stories and their legacy. The feast of All Saints evolved as the Christian churches response to an early world view that as the nights lengthened and the cold strengthened, evil walked the earth seeking destruction and havoc. Halloween traditions are deeply rooted in this understanding. But Christian communities believed that they had power over evil, that Jesus' resurrection was a triumph over death, and that each person was called to live in peace and love with their neighbor to ward off evil. And so, All Saints Day evolved as a celebration of those Christian martyrs that had died defending the faith. Over time and through the reformation, there was growing recognition that a "saint" was not a perfect or special person - that each of us as God's creation has the capacity to be a saint. And today, All Saints Day can be a time to remember those whose physical bodies have stopped working, but whose time with others permanently marked the face of creation. (And some believe that the best way to live out all that is encompassed in All Saints Day requires recognizing and celebrating some root traditions of Halloween [scary costumes and jack-o-lanterns], followed in quick succession by the celebration of the saints. So...maybe all of that Halloween stuff has its place. OK, commentary over.)
So the readings for this week explore some really different views of what might happen when the heart beats its last.
The Wisdom of Solomon is actually a "deuterocanonical text" - a fancy
word for an ancient writing that was accepted later than most of the
rest by the councils that decided these things so many hundreds of
years ago and as such is a bit of a rarity in the Lectionary cycle. It
is part of a body of writing in the Hebrew scriptures that begins to
articulate an emerging Jewish understandings of life and death and
afterlife that would have shaped the culture into which Jesus was born
and taught. The
section prior to the selected passage describes some "wicked" folks who
plotting to see if a righteous person would really see the protection
of God (interesting in light of the past few weeks spent reading Job).
They were planning to hurt the righteous man. However the
response of the writer here (2:21 - 24) says,
"Thus they (the wicked) reasoned, but they were led astray,
for their wickedness blinded them,
and they did not know the secret purposes of God,
nor hoped for the wages of holiness,
nor discerned the prize for blameless souls;
for God created us for incorruption,
and made us in the image of his own eternity,
but through the devil’s envy death entered the world,
and those who belong to his company experience it. "
This sets up a pretty clear understanding that death is the product of evil, and its experience is limited to those in the company of evil. But everybody knew that people's bodies stopped working, right? So the writer goes on to explain that righteous souls are in the hand of God, not to be tormented in death. Somehow they have been tested and punished in some way, but they continue on and at some point (in the time of their visitation) they will "shine forth." So those who are righteous and faithful will receive grace and mercy. It all sounds kind of familiar, eh?
The writer of the psalm seems to have a good grasp that death is a part of life and so he is working with how to best prepare for whatever is next. He asks, "who shall ascend to the hill of the LORD?" "Those who have clean hands and pure hearts" "They will receive blessing from the LORD". He does not talk much in this passage what "the blessing of the LORD" might be, but he does know it is something he wants to strive toward.
In John's Revelation we see a different hope / dream of how things work out after the last heart beat. As John recounts his vision, he describes a new heaven and a new earth that is unlike the present reality where death does not exist and Jerusalem is adorned and elevated. "First things" have passed away. In this, there is some hope that all of this mixed up crazy conflict driven-reality is just one creation. There is something that happens "next." If you spend time in a study bible examining this text, you will appreciate the multiple allusions the writer is making to core texts in the Jewish tradition. In particular, the writer is drawing heavily from Isaiah and the hope of a restored Israel. This is a text borne out of the deep teachings and traditions of the Jewish community and casting hope for an early Christian community that was caught in the chaos of Roman domination and the destruction of the roots of their ancient culture and beliefs.
In the Gospel of John we see the example of what so many hope for in the face of death, that it can be physically overcome and avoided today. And we witness the complication of human relationship as we face death. Jesus has chosen to delay his return to Lazarus, knowing that he is ill. When he arrives, he is told it is too late - Lazarus has already died. Mary chides him - if you had only done something sooner. We also see here that Jesus is really sad about the loss of his friend. Was he disappointed that he had not come sooner? Did he know what he would do once he arrived? If so, why the tears? Jesus has left an audience that rejected him pretty soundly. In the preceding verses, he has claimed that those who know him will never perish. And so, in some ways, as readers of the story, we kind of expect Jesus to do something dramatic for Lazarus. And he does. He calls Lazarus from the tomb, and Lazarus comes. Amazing. Breathtaking. Expected?
Our understanding of death is shaped by our experience and our Belief and Faith and Hope. And our understanding of death shapes how we here Jesus' command, "Lazarus, come out!"
What has been your experience of death? In what way has that experience shaped your Belief, Faith and Hope?
Creator, Sustainer, Comforter,
keep us from grasping for immortality out of fear
and enable us to grasp instead for today
that we are unbound and let go
for your work in the world.
© matt & laura norvell 2009 www.settingourstones.org
we want to share this with you and hope you'll share with the world; we simply ask that you let people know where you found these words. May Grace & Peace be with you.