In the drama of Holy week and our Lord’s Passion there are many players and forces at work that are worthy of our reflection as we begin to move toward Easter. There is one, however, that touches almost every moment of the story but is rarely brought into focus on its own. I am speaking of death, death itself, unmodified by the traditional phrase “Jesus’ death on the cross.” I am not thinking just of Jesus’ dying and the meaning his death gives to our faith. I am talking about death itself, what St. Francis referred to as “our sister Bodily Death.”
Sister Death is the rudest of God’s creatures, skulking around the edges of life’s joys and labors, crashing in at the most inopportune times, ruining everything and leaving the debris of grief in its wake. That is what happened in the lessons we have heard today. We know that death will be the result of Jesus’ palm-studded entry into Jerusalem. It is what is in the back of the minds of the authorities who saw Jesus upsetting their fragile applecarts. It was the word that came after “Hosanna” in the voice of the fickle crowd. It is what Jesus feared in Gethsemane and what the foolish disciples said they were willing to face on his behalf. It foiled Judas’ plot and pushed him over the edge. Death was how Pilate resolved the political conundrum of the day. It is the starkest reality behind the symbol of the cross. And it is the only thing besides birth that we all have in common.
Yet we hardly ever talk about it perhaps because, like Jesus, it scares us or because we see it so often in the hands of people we do not admire like Pilate or the Temple authorities, the Taliban or drug dealers. Maybe its rude intrusions make Sister Death like that relative we all avoid and never mention. For whatever reason, we turn our heads, cover it up with euphemisms like “passed” and “lost.” But it is very real, a part of the Gospel story and part of our story. Take a few moments with me on this Holy Day at the beginning of Holy Week and look Sister Death in the face.
Consider the old question, What happens when we die? Of course you know that I do not know the answer to that question any more than you do, but I think there is something that can give us a good idea, and that is by reflecting on the last time we died. You may reasonably wonder what that is about since you would swear that you are alive and have not died. But consider the process of birth.
The life a baby has in the womb is the only life it has ever known and, from the baby’s perspective, it is a good life. Food is readily provided and temperature controls are in place. When necessary, the child can ease discomfort with a well-placed kick against the walls. The child is unaware of any shortcomings to this life and, if left to his own devices, would not choose to leave. If we had any way of communicating with the child about the world beyond, our words would be incomprehensible because the terminology of the womb is so limited. How can you describe love or friendship—to say nothing of birthday parties and bicycles—to one who lives in a warm little world where neither effort nor reward are factors? The unborn child certainly could not be coaxed from its world.
So instead of coaxing the child to leave, forces well beyond her understanding or control intrude on life. The fluid suddenly and dramatically drains away. The walls of the child’s world become inexplicably hard and aggressive. They begin to move and squeeze, an experience unimaginable in its force or in the terror it must engender. The world becomes smaller, restrictive, confining until in a rush the child is pushed into such bizarre realities as temperature fluctuations, breathing and food that hide behind a complex system of messages and responses. From the child’s perspective that experience is death—being forced from the world she knows into one that is beyond imagination. The baby knows it as death. We, of course, call it birth, which is what our faith tells us is the other name for Sister Death.
So what happened to Jesus on the cross is the same thing that happened to him in the manger. And it is what will happen to us. We will be forced from the only life we have known, the one we have more or less mastered and do not choose to leave. But this life will turn on us just as the womb turns on a baby and we will be forced from the known into the unknown. We will call it death because, like a baby being born, all we can know is what is lost and we can have no notion of what is being gained.
Is death as intimidating as Jesus found it in the garden at Gethsemane? Yes.
Can it be as cruel as it was in the hands the Gospel’s politicians and soldiers? Yes.
Is it as mysteriously powerful as the cross would indicate? Yes.
Is it the rough road to new life that we experienced at birth? Yes.
Is it part of God’s plan? Yes.
Can we trust God even at the time of death? Yes. Yes. Yes. Amen.