I write this two days before Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week, which culminates in Easter and the Resurrection. It’s also three days before the vernal equinox and the beginning of spring. Both are powerful images of the triumph over death. Jesus has conquered death for us all and we have survived another winter.
The last year has sadly been filled with deaths in my life. I’ve lost both parents, two good friends, and just yesterday I learned that a former beau has died. And I came very close to dying myself last fall. So while I wouldn’t quite say I’ve been obsessed with death recently, I have certainly spent a lot of time thinking about it.
From the perspective of the living, death looks like an ending. It feels like our relationship with the person we have lost has ended. It feels very final. It wasn’t by accident that we speak of losing people when they die. But Christianity teaches us that death is not final. The Hospice program speaks of death as a transition. But a transition to what?
Perhaps my favorite chapter in the Bible is 1 Corinthians 13. I’m probably not alone in that – it’s a very familiar passage. It’s the chapter that begins with “If I speak with the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a sounding gong or a clanging cymbal.” Verses 11 and 12 are the ones that apply here: “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”
What Paul says here is that we’re not yet ready to know. We won’t know until we die. So I have no idea what has happened to my parents and my friends. I don’t know what state they’re in or in what form they still exist. I’m not ready to know yet.
In Verdi’s opera La Traviata, the main character, Violetta, is suffering from consumption and dies in the final scene. As she begins to make her transition, she rises from her bed and says the word “Rinasce, rinasce” – “I am reborn”. Her final words are “Oh, gioia!” – “Oh, joy!” Reborn to what we don’t know, but reborn.
We are still in our childhood when it comes to understanding death. From this side of the mirror, all we can know is that the people we have lost are with us because they are a part of us. Because they were part of our life, they helped shape us, and they live on – at the very least – in the person we are because of their influence.
I am grateful for so many things about these people. I’m grateful that I had such good parents, who did the best they possibly could to raise and provide for their children. I’m grateful that I made it to 59 with both parents – something that is rare in my experience. I’m grateful that they taught me well and then let me go on with my life, trusting me to do the right things. I’m grateful for having had my friends in my life, and for the joy they brought me over the years. I miss their physical presence, but they’re still here with me. And I’m incredibly grateful that I’m still here.
So what do I do with that gratitude? What action does that call me to do? I can’t just sit around feeling grateful and not do something about it. I need to take that feeling and turn it outward to the world. How to do that is the next challenge.
What is it that you’re grateful for? What does that call you to do? How do you express that gratitude in your daily life? What can we do while we’re still in this state of living? That’s my challenge to you.
And, finally, as a small Easter egg on this page, I’m including a link to a beautiful recording of Joan Sutherland singing the great Easter aria I Know That My Redeemer Liveth from Handel’s Messiah. These are the words that are found on the arch at the entrance to God’s Acre in Salem, and they are a wonderful expression of faith in the things I’ve talked about here. Enjoy.