How Death is Good(ish)

None of us is getting out here alive, you know.

And that’s a good thing.

Sorry, but that’s the line of thinking I tend to take in my favorite season. I love this time of the year: when the thin panes of glass separating my controlled world from the wild wet outside fog over and I, wiping them clear with my sleeve, reveal a world suddenly illuminated by waning light leaping across trees set ablaze from within as though the I Am were inhabiting their branches, calling me to step lightly on this holy ground.

Autumn is the season of my inconsolable longing, when the very death causing the poignancy is itself the reminder of life – life as it was and new life to come. But it is important that neither Summer – life at its apogee – nor Spring, when it begins anew, draw me quite like this time, when the co-mingling allows me to seemingly inhabit two worlds at once.

And since I see life through the lens of the Christ Story, it is this time when I hunger most for the Life of Christ; when I most easily see the Eternal bubbling under the earthly, revealing the whole thing as part of a whole.

Autumn is when I am reminded that death is the key to a truly Christian conception of the world, when the paucity of both the religious and secular worldviews are laid bare. For if the religion of my childhood was preoccupied with hoping to avoid life so we can die and “get to heaven,” the pendulum swung far to the other side later, as my growing secularism left me hoping to avoid death so I might enjoy life here and now.

Yet the irony of both is that neither fully revealed Life or death.

The true revelation of the Christ Story (and the reason I just can’t quit it, no matter how hard I try) is that in its light I come to see death as not merely the passage from this world to another, but the very transposition of life – saturated by suffering as it is – into a sacrament of the depths of Life — what Jesus called the Kingdom. Rightly understood, it shows us that His suffering and death was for the life of this world, and not rest from it; that Christ – and therefore Life – is found in the wholeness of the human experience, including death.

Now by “sacrament” I mean something physical, some part of this world (a noun, really, be it a person, place, or thing) that holds the potential to transpose our current life and reality – if even for a moment – to true Life and Reality, to the time of the Kingdom, when a human being can fulfill that ancient calling to bear witness to the Divine barely contained within the frame of this bent and broken – and beautiful – world. A “sacrament” is the window between the worlds, conveying eternity into this present moment, not by miraculously making an ordinary object suddenly holy, but by shifting our sight so that we might see it was all holy all along.

A “sacrament” invites us to ask the paradigm-shifting question: if that could be holy, then what about . . . .

The Kingdom, then, is not life lived eternally someplace else, but the Life of eternity breaking into this place.

So it is in autumn, surrounded by the slow, breathtaking dance of death descending upon the world, when I am forcefully reminded that while yes, baptism, Eucharist, and all the rest are sacraments, life itself is sacramental, a revelation of the presence of the Divine among us, in its joys and peace as much as in its sorrows and failure. Looking through the window of my controlled world onto the beautiful disaster of nature’s fall into winter is a reminder: in the very midst of my pain, when I am confronted by the deep frustrations and disappointments of life, I am reminded of the opportunity (whether I choose to seize it or not) to refer my experiences to Jesus, the “man of many sorrows, well acquainted with grief.”

I don’t refer to Him because I sadistically desire someone else to suffer in order to assuage my own grief – I rejected such voyeurism about the time I saw The Passion of the Christ – nor is it simply because solidarity is the cure-all for pain. Don’t get me wrong, I myself have publicly stated (and still believe) that two of the most powerful words one human can say to another are me too. Nonetheless, “solidarity” is only worth so much, because in the end, both of you are still suffering, both are still dying. I remain haunted by the words of Elie Wiesel, upon seeing yet another group of fellow Jews hanged in the concentration camp:

Behind me, I heard the same man asking:
“Where is God now?”
And I heard a voice within me answer him:
“Where is He? Here He is–He is hanging here on this gallows. . . .”

The piercing question Where is God now?, followed by the dead answer, Here He is–He is hanging here on this gallows. . . . are of a piece with Christ’s cry of dereliction upon the cross: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? followed by the echoing silence surrounding Golgotha as the gathered Jews — disciples and Pharisees alike — see yet another countryman strung up by an unstoppable oppressor.

No, I do not refer my pain to Jesus’ because His suffering somehow makes mine bearable. But because the gathered threads of my life have led me to believe in the Christ Story as a frame for Reality, in which even mysterious death has a place. Death may be the final enemy, but if there is truth in the Gospel, then Christ has filled even that with Himself, making it a part of the Good News, robbing it of its sting and triumphantly exposing the myth of redemptive violence for the sham it is.

If The Christ “Is life, and that life was the light of Man,” then He fills death as well, making both windows between this life and Eternal Life: neither some extended existence beyond death nor this life drawn out beyond measure, but a grateful thanksgiving for the very gift of Life itself – the good and the bad – given to me in order that I might see God in both, in all. “For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God” (I Cor. 3:21-23).

So as leaves flutter slowly from above a canopied path like so many gold and crimson snowflakes, I am arrested by the flash of beauty testifying to a life lived fully and a death given gratefully: offering thanksgiving for the trees displaying their God-given “treeness” in allowing their leaves to fall in “trust” they will burst from their barren branches again.

Autumn is not my favorite season because the march of living things to winter’s death provides solidarity with my future death, nor because it reminds me of a far-off spring when life will again spring forth anew, but because both are true at the same time. Because the wholeness of life suffused by the Divine is in and of itself beautiful. Crisp, streaked with brilliant colors, clear as the bright stars just before dawn, it’s air pregnant with the mingled scents of life and death — testament to this existence precariously balanced between the two Trees of Life.

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