Some things we can explain and we still do not feel any better about them. Most parents have dealt with this question from a child in some form or another after the death of a pet, a close encounter with a dead wild animal, or a family member. We want to give answers that are both satisfying and comforting, but there are none to be found.
We may share common clichés that express deep faith in God and resurrection. They are useful when properly administered, which is easier said than done, but they do not make the missing go away.
One view of the benefit of death is expressed by Mark Twain's "Pudd'nhead Wilson": "Whoever has lived long enough to find out what life is, knows how deep a debt of gratitude we owe to Adam, the first great benefactor of our race. He brought death into the world." As a Christian, which Mark Twain was not, I believe that he had some things backwards. Having said that, given the present state of affairs (and the present state of affairs will never change), moving out of this life is something that we all will do.
A millennium and a half before Mark Twain, Ambrose of Milan (bishop during the tumultuous years of 374-397) said something more positive about the necessity of death and connected it with Adam and the difficulty of life as well. He wrote this in an essay called "On Belief in the Resurrection" soon after the death of his brother Satyrus.
"And, indeed, death was no part of man's nature, but became natural; for God did not institute death at first, but gave it as a remedy. Let us then take heed that it does not seem to be the opposite ... Death was no necessary part of the diving operation, since for those who were placed in paradise a continual succession of all good things streamed forth; but because of the transgression the life of man, condemned to lengthened labor, began to be wretched with intolerable groaning; so that it was fitting that an end should be set to the evils, and that death should restore what life had lost. For immortality, unless grace breathed upon it, would be rather a burden than an advantage."
While we may not agree with the details of what Mark Twain and St. Ambrose said (yes, I just connected them concerning Easter), God's grief-stricken words at the expulsion from the Garden of Eden give some credence to such a view. "Behold, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, lest he put forth his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever!" (Gen. 3:22, RSV). The sentence is incomplete, as though God does not want to finish the sentence perhaps with the words, "like this."
What might "like this" be? Listening to the deceiver who placed doubt in their hearts? Not listening to the limits that God placed on them? Breaking their close relationship with him, expressed by hiding from him when they heard his approach? Seeing their vulnerability "nakedness" and being ashamed of what God had made? These brought with them a price to be paid -- toil, pain, loss of equality, enmity. And because of what doubt, broken relationships, and shame bring to us God gave us the grace of death so that we would not live forever in a state of enmity with him.
This is not to deny the anger we feel at untimely deaths, the pain of which I know from personal experience. This is to confirm that we live in a world that is not the same as the one created by God because of those same failings of Adam and Eve that we all have in some manner.
On most days, because of my own personal circumstances, this world is not such a bad place. But this is not true for those who desperately need people to love them and find none. It is not true for those caught up in war or unrest or failed states. It is not true for those who are well and truly trapped in hellish conditions.
This Sunday we celebrate the resurrection of Christ -- firstborn of the dead. Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians reminds us, "What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power." (I Corinthians 15:42-43).
He is Risen! He is Risen, indeed! The painful grace of death is followed by the glorious grace of the resurrection. May we all work to make this world more like the kingdom of God as we look forward to the full consummation of all be brought back to the creator of heaven and earth. He is Risen! He is Risen, indeed!
Sean Niestrath lives and ministers in Madisonville. You may contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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