2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2
Robert Frost's poem "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" is famously a meditation between the busyness of the town, which is the world, and the mysterious, snowy wood, which represents the unknowable depths of our endless rest. We are caught between two worlds — a place of miles and miles of promises and labors and another, quiet place of mystery, which is well beyond this world's claims. The one who stops by these woods can see the town in the distance with its lights and noise and chatter; standing before him for these brief moments, are the woods, mystical in their darkness and hissing sound of crystals brushing past lifeless leaves that have yet to fall. He beholds the essence of our situation. And the peace he feels unto his soul confirms the truth of this moment.
Death is the single most important aspect of all life in our post-Edenic world. St. Athanasius wrote that after Eden the blueprint encoded within each living thing flipped from eternal life to eternal death. We might prefer to say that the blueprint within the acorn is the mighty, towering oak. But that is the way we talk around, and avoid, all such things, so powerful is death's fearsome hold upon us. The blueprint encoded within each acorn is a blasted stump, rotting into the ground — a poignant ruin of the colossal oak. Indeed, withering finitude was the blueprint of every living thing after Eden. The plan set within each living this is death, but we cannot stand to think of it. Today, not even funerals ask us to contemplate death but rather feature a little, decorated box of hidden ashes in the background with portraits and photo albums, and anecdotes in the foreground. We even hear boasting stories of how naughty the decedent was, and "you only go around once!" The Roman Catholic Church, to name one institution, has shut down this whole, chattering carnival in its funeral Masses.
Death is not about this world, so tawdry in comparison to Heaven. Death is our royal and precious invitation to put this world behind us and to join our most noble loved ones in the perfection of another world. This is God's heart and His dearest hope for each of us. So great was the shock of God's person touching our lifeworld with the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, that the blueprint of every living thing flipped from death to the hope of eternal life.
I say hope because eternal life is a gift most certainly given with no credit attaching to us. But attaching to us is its loss. We may refuse this empyreal gift, and many billions of people have refused it and will. It is offered to us in the same goodness and generosity and love with which it was first bestowed in Eden. And yet the equally divine gift of freedom — freedom to accept the life and love of God or to reject it — is as alive today as it was in that primeval garden pure.
That God should bestow this gift with the longing of a mother who prays for her children is a mystery. That it should be so commonly discarded is a greater mystery still. And this helps us to understand God's third divine gift, which is the remembrance of death. It is fixed in our seasons, in our lifespans, and in the fullness of human history. And He pins us to it in the rising and setting of each diurnal sun. He has crafted our nature so that we are called upon to contemplate death, even enact it, every day. Before electricity, humans turned in just after sundown, around eight. And then we lay down to imitate death. I have slept so still and so quietly that people have actually wakened me up because they thought I was dead. And this is the mystery. Why should it be that our nightly hours of refreshment should be deathlike in appearance? Why should we not be refreshed in some other way? Or, most mysteriously, why should we need refreshment at all. Dolphins rest one half of their brain while the other half takes over all operations. You see, they never stop swimming. Sharks are also in constant motion. In fact, their situation is the opposite of ours; if they were to stop, they would die. The answer to this question is that God has tethered us to a little drama of life, death, and resurrection, each requiring eight hours. (And sleep researchers have found that there are very few people who are able to stray very far from eight hours of sleep for very long.) God wants us to remember death, for that is the most important event of our lives, and He wants us to understand that we might hope for a resurrection. Why else should this drama even exist? Indeed, He has fashioned our twenty-four-hour day to frame these three eight-hour periods with a demarcation at noon to center it. Our lives, you see, begin at the sun's zenith and end at sunset while our resurrection is celebrated at glorious dawn. Did you know that that is why our greatest holy day is called Easter? And why our journey to toward death is always to the West?
Do you see that the whole Creation strains to remind us of death, for even the most catastrophic event of human history is erased from our memory and treated today as if it were a fairy tale. The fall of humankind in Eden was a sort of nuclear holocaust. An entire lifeworld was annihilated in a moment with every succeeding generation made ill with an incurable disease called death. And the nuclear winter from this cataclysm continues to our own time.
Did you know that every day in every town and village of this world, a quiet snow of nuclear fallout settles upon every mother's son? In our way of talking around and banishing this fact, we have dismissed it with a simple name, as if we really understood it. We call it dust. We even have household products to deal with its ceaseless falling and settling and accumulating. But do you know what dust is? Dust is all that remains of life, all life, now reduced to its smallest, indivisible components. It is ancient, and it is no respecter of persons, for every previously living thing might be found in dust. Prince Hamlet in Shakespeare's play muses that in the paste used to fix a leaking barrel we might find the particulate remains of Alexander the Great, or the dust of Julius Caesar in mortar to fill a crack in a wall. You see, the drama of our own lives is filled with a cloud of witnesses that makes our world more personal than we often realize. The snow of death, the death of our world, and of civilizations before us, falls all around us — in every home, in every city and town, upon every life on earth. Abandon your house, and see how quickly it will pile up. It is God's reminder of the one thing we must never forget.
Please join me in a holy contemplation, reading the final sentences of James Joyce's short story, "The Dead":
A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again... all over Ireland.
It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly on the Bog of
Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon
every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on
the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned
softly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their
last end, upon all the living and the dead.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.