Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Conquering the tragedy of death

Recently I went out to dinner with a friend and he told me a story about his coworker. She had found out there was a tumor in her brain and had broken down crying during work one day. It turns out she is fine, but we were both impressed by how suddenly your entire life can fall apart because of what may be news of imminent death. We respond to death as if it were the greatest tragedy. I responded, in the Easter spirit, that it's a good thing Christ's resurrection guarantees us that death isn't the end. Still, though, death is a tragedy and something we cry about -- why, if it isn't the end?

Athanasius remarks in On the Incarnation that Christ's resurrection from the dead has conquered death, a conquest in which all Christians share at least through the following thing: they no longer fear death.

A very strong proof of this destruction of death and its conquest by the cross is supplied by a present fact, namely this. All the disciples of Christ despise death; they take the offensive against it and, instead of fearing it, by the sign of the cross and by faith in Christ trample on it as on something dead. Before the divine sojourn of the Savior, even the holiest of men were afraid of death, and mourned the dead as those who perish. But now that the Savior has raised His body, death is no longer terrible, but all those who believe in Christ tread it underfoot as nothing, and prefer to die rather than to deny their faith in Christ, knowing full well that when they die they do not perish, but live indeed, and become incorruptible through the resurrection. But that devil who of old wickedly exulted in death, now that the pains of death are loosed, he alone it is who remains truly dead. There is proof of this too; for men who, before they believe in Christ, think death horrible and are afraid of it, once they are converted despise it so completely that they go eagerly to meet it, and themselves become witnesses of the Savior's resurrection from it. Even children hasten thus to die, and not men only, but women train themselves by bodily discipline to meet it. So weak has death become that even women, who used to be taken in by it, mock at it now as a dead thing robbed of all its strength (On the Incarnation, 27).

Christian faith in the resurrection of Christ, for Athanasius, motivates a person not to fear nor lament death. It's no big deal -- death itself is a dead thing robbed of all its strength.

Our natural reaction to death is fear and sorrow, of course, because we naturally don't know what goes on afterwards. It may even be that we have a natural inclination to think that it is the end, that at death we are utterly annihilated and that's that. Catullus has a poem (carmen #101) about visiting his brother's grave where he writes:

Multas per gentes et multa per aequora vectus
advenio has miseras, frater, ad inferias,

ut te postremo donarem munere mortis
et mutam nequiquam alloquerer cinerem,
quandoquidem fortuna mihi tete abtulit ipsum,
heu miser indigne frater adempte mihi.

Borne across many nations and over many oceans,
I come, my brother, to these miserable funeral rites
to give at last the gifts of the dead
and pointlessly to address silent ashes,
seeing that fortune has taken you from me -- 
Oh, my miserable, undeserving brother, taken from me!

For Catullus the death of his undeserving brother is a misery and a tragedy. He doesn't even address his brother, who in his mind is now gone forever; he "pointlessly addresses silent ashes." In another poem Catullus speaks of the place of the dead as that place whence they say no one may return (unde negant redire quemquam, carmen #3).

We naturally react like Catullus does to death: it is a tragedy for which there is no cure; there's no coming back, and we and our loved ones are gone forever. But Athanasius' proposal is that Christ's resurrection, when we believe in it and are thoroughly gripped by it, ought to change our attitudes forever. When it slips our minds, we may be overwhelmed; but when we see in faith the light of Jesus' resurrected body and the empty tomb, then fear is dispelled and our tears, though all separation may provoke them, are less bitter.

Jesus says: I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die (John 11.25-6). If we are Christians and we believe Christ, we will never die! Let us take Christ at his word, and look upon death as something itself dead.