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The Meaning of Death and Triumph Over Death

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

For some time now our theme will be life after death, and our present meditation will be on the meaning of death and triumph over death. Sacred Scripture is unrelenting in it’s emphasis on the passing character of this life. There is a realism about death in the Bible. It runs counter to the philosophy on unbelief which either denies or ignores the fact that our stay on earth is only a short prelude to eternal life after death. However, we must immediately make a qualification. The Scriptures show a marvelous development of doctrine about life after death from the Old Testament to the New and within both Testaments an ever going clarity of Divine Revelation on the meaning, the purpose of death, and, above all, on the sequel to death which is what mortal life is all about, namely eternity.

First then, the biblical meaning of death:

We have already seen that in the earliest chapters of Genesis, the presence of death is explained simply and unapologetically as the result of sin. Had there been no sin there would be no death. What may be called the instinctive view of death as a punishment is confirmed by the account of the fall. We believe that had our first parents not sinned, the penalty of disillusion between body and soul would not have followed either on them or their descendants. Today, in case you don’t know, in the Byzantine tradition, going back to the first century after Christ, today is the feast of saints Adam and Eve as I well remember from our Byzantine calendar in the kitchen. It is especially in those books of the Old Testament which are missing from both the Jewish and the Protestant Canon that the meaning of death and the sequel to death are most clearly described. A pity. There are seven books, as you know, in the Catholic Bible that had been accepted by Christians until the sixteenth century that were dropped by the reformers. The Jews dropped those books at the end of the first century of the Christian era. Thus, in the book of Wisdom we are told God did not make death. He originally made man immortal. Death entered the world only because of the envy of the devil and the disobedience of Adam and Eve and, beyond them, of their progeny. Thus, from the opening to the closing pages of the Bible, death is a constant reminder of the presence of sin in the world. So clearly are sin and death associated that the one becomes a norm and condition for the other. Those who do evil are on the road to death. Proverbs 11:19, “As virtue leads to life so he who pursues evil does so to his death.” On saying this, however, we must immediately distinguish between the earlier and later Old Testament teaching and, with emphasis, we’ve got to distinguish between the books that are in the Catholic Bible and those that are absent from the Protestant Scriptures and the Jewish Torah.

The problem, of course, is the mystery of the death of the just. If death is the punishment for evil doing, why do good people suffer and die? The godless man is virtually dead and may be said to have made a pact with death. Both statements are in the Old Testament. But what about the innocent? It seems that God allows the just to die in the same way as the wicked. Frankly, He does. As you know, this was Job’s dilemma, and, poor Job, he never resolved it. Speaking of God, Job says, “Both the innocent and the wicked He (God) destroys.” Then he dares to complain, and he speaks from the heart for all humanity. He says, “I will speak from the bitterness of my soul. I will say to God, ‘Do not put in the wrong. Let me know why you oppose me even though you know I am not wicked and that none can deliver me out of your hand,’” Job.

The anguish of Job and the pessimism of the author of Ecclesiastes, show the deliverance from death is meaningless unless it surpasses the bounds of man’s life on earth. Are we clear? If all there is to man’s life is to end in death, alright, alright, then the wicked suffer and they are justly punished, but, pray tell, what about the good? Without struggling with this mystery, the coming of Christ, who is God in human form, and His death on the cross become meaningless. As the Old Testament revelation grew, it promised liberation from death through the goodness and mercy of God. Isaiah foretells, “He will destroy death forever. The Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces,” Isaiah 25:8. “Indeed the time will come when the just who sleep in the grave will return to life.” Still the Old Testament, quote Isaiah, “Your dead shall live. Their corpses shall rise. Awake and sing, you who lie in the dust.” Oh, how we need to hear those words and console ourselves as, while the clock of time ticks off, we get closer and closer to the dust. To believe that this is a mandate, “Awake and sing you who lie in the dust.”

With the coming of Christ, death took on a meaning it never had before. God himself became a mortal man in order that by His death we might live. Because Christ was truly human, He dreaded the prospect of dying and, especially, the humiliating and excruciating death He foresaw. Yet, He willingly chose to die in order, as we are told, to fulfill the Scriptures so that by His death we might be saved. So much for Part I of our meditation: The meaning of death.

Now, the triumph over death:

By coming into the world, Christ did more than merely redeem us by His death. He also conquered death as He proved by His Resurrection. Because of Him, death takes on a meaning it could otherwise never have had. As head of the New Israel, Jesus made us sharers in His death and enable us to die with Him, not only in body but in everything that belongs to space and time. We are to die to sin (Romans 6:11), to the old man (Romans 6:6), to the flesh (I Peter 3:18), and, especially, we are to die to all the passing elements of this world (Colossians 2:20). One of my favorite definitions of sanctity: a person who has died to all the passing elements of this world. How many never learn the lesson. The New Testament, as we have said more than once, is the New Covenant. It is, therefore, a sacred agreement or contract between God and ourselves. He makes the promise but we must fulfill His condition. If we die as He did by the practice of self-denial (oh how cheaply that word, self-denial, can be understood), giving up an extra teaspoon of sugar in one’s morning coffee or taking a less comfortable posture. Oh no, Oh no, the self-denial that Christ talks about is the denial of our self-will. By our own will we must want to die to everything, and the word is everything that we know is contrary to the Will of God for me. That’s the covenant. If we die as He did we shall be rewarded like Him in the life to come. Our reunion with the death of Jesus, begun sacramentally in baptism, must be continued in our daily lives. This is the real meaning of that much abused phrase, Christian mortification. What does it really mean? This is Paul’s definition, “We have an obligation but it is not to the sinful nature to live according to it, this sinful nature, for if you live according to the sinful nature you will die. But if by the spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body you will live because those who are led by the Spirit of God are Sons of God,” Romans 8:12 to14.

Through the Passion of Christ, bodily death acquires a sublimity of the highest order. A Christian no longer faces a grim destiny that he cannot avoid or merely resigns himself to accepting death as the consequence of sin. He, quote Paul, “Dies for the Lord,” memorize that, “Dies for the Lord no less than he had lived for Him.” Paul was speaking for all true believers when he wrote, how we should pray that we can repeat these words and mean them, “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain,” Philippians 1:21. Because of Christ, from a fearful necessity, death has become the source of beatitude. How so? Their life on earth, “Calls for patient endurance on the part of the saints who obey God’s commandment and remain faithful to Jesus.” Let’s burn that into our memories – “patient endurance on the part of the saints.” That’s what makes us saints, my dear friends in Christ, patient endurance, suffering, pain we all experience. The secret is to endure suffering and pain patiently. The message John records, “I heard a voice from heaven say, ‘Write: blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on. Yes, says the Spirit they will rest from their labor for their deeds will follow them,’” Apocalypse 14:12 to 14.

The hope of bodily immortality regained after death is an essential part of our Christian faith. This is one of the central themes of the fourth gospel. Thus, when the Jews determined to kill Jesus it was because he made himself as, they said, God’s equal. He certainly did make himself God’s equal. He said, listen, “Just as the Father raises the dead and grants life so the Son grants life to those to whom He wishes,” John 5:21. I won’t let go of this theme until we close the retreat: Life, joy, beatitude await us in eternity on one condition that, faithful to Jesus, we are patient in our endurance until death and, without apologies for saying this, enjoying the experience. Again, after the miraculous multiplication of loaves and fishes, again in John’s gospel, Christ foretold the Holy Eucharist and then gave us both a promise and a warning. The Jews asked Christ, “How can this man give us His flesh to eat?” Here is Christ’s answer, “I tell you most solemnly if you do not eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood you will not have life in you. Anyone who does eat My flesh and drink My blood has eternal life, and I shall raise him up on the last day.” Thanks, Lord. I am sure looking forward to that day.

Reception, therefore, of the glorified body of Jesus in the Eucharist is the pledge of our own glorious resurrection of the last day or, as the Church’s language more accurately says, the first day. Again, shortly before His own passion the Savior raised the dead Lazarus from the grave but not before He proclaimed Himself Master of Life and Death. Remember, Martha had just declared that she knew her brother will rise again in the resurrection on the last day. Then, Christ added to what Martha said. “I,” Jesus said, “am the resurrection. If anyone believes in Me, even though he dies, he will live and whoever lives and believes in Me will never die.” He asked her, “Do you believe this?”

With Martha we all answer, “Yes, Lord I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the One who was to come into this world.” So basic is this faith in Christ’s power to restore the immortality man had lost through sin that it becomes one of the principle features of St. Paul’s fourteen letters. He devotes a whole chapter to the subject covering no less than seven aspects of the resurrection. Paul tells us Christ’s bodily resurrection, provided it was the object of our own faith, was a true and provable fact of history, I Corinthians 15:1-11. A man really dead, really buried and really rose from the dead. Again, Christ’s resurrection is the crowning miracle of the gospel testifying to our own having been redeemed by the death of Christ. By overcoming death which he underwent in our stead, Jesus confirmed our belief in our belief in the redemption. We know that sin was forgiven because the effect of sin, which is death, was conquered by Christ’s resurrection, same chapter 12-19. Again, the glorification of Christ by rising from the grave is the assurance we have of one day rising like Him at the dawn of eternity, same chapter versus 20-28.

Our faith in Christ’s resurrection and faith in our own resurrection should lead us to the practice of virtue. Unlike the pagans for whom death is the end of everything, we know that if we have lived mortified lives, but we must perform the mortification here on earth, we shall be rewarded not only in soul but also in body in the life to come, same chapter versus 29-34. When we die our body, St. Paul under Divine Inspiration tell us, is planted not buried, planted, in the grave and destined to rise immortal, beautiful, glorious, and incorruptible. The degree of our glorification in heaven depends on the measure of our earthly (pardon me this is the fifth time in one meditation) mortification. Our risen bodies, like that of Christ, will be real bodies, dimensional, yet spiritualized. How? Because our souls will behold the Face of God. Any spirit which sees the Face of God glorifies the body which it animates beyond anything conceivable here on earth, still the same chapter versus 44-49. All of this is God’s promise to those who serve Him in faith and love, but on one condition. Stand firm, let nothing move you, and the word is nothing, neither the seduction of pleasure nor the dread of pain. If faith tells us I am to forego the pleasure, I do. If faith tells me I am to endure the pain, I do. We are told this is Paul’s crowning exhortation, “Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord.” The crucial word here is fully. Why? It’s still Paul under Divine Inspiration, “Because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.” One final statement: all of this is possible, we are told, only “through our Lord Jesus Christ,” all that I have been finally saying, same chapter versus 50-58. Here we close:

Lord Jesus, You the Infinite God became a child. You were born in Bethlehem in order to die in Jerusalem. Teach us, dear Savior, the only real lesson we need to learn on earth that provided, out of love for You, we choose the cross as you did. Like You, we too will one day be glorified in that eternal beatitude reserved for those who, during life on earth, stood firm and allowed nothing to move them because they loved You. Amen. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica

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