VERBUM DOMINI

The fear of death

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The culture of death fears death. Our culture promotes the destruction of the unborn, the elderly and the sick. These are enshrined as rights. We hear plenty of talking heads jabber about the right to die, while they recoil at a right to life. Our culture has embraced death with both arms, and yet, we are profoundly afraid of it. As we live in the now, living for this world, the sight, the thought, the reminder of death is almost taboo. Wakes and funerals are less attended, the dying are shut away in private rooms (lest we see them), and many campaign to end old lives quickly (get it over with). For a culture that embraces death, we sure have trouble looking it in the eye.

Death is a horror. It is the scourge of life. Consider Qoheleth’s assessment in the Book of Ecclesiastes. His famous cry, “All things are vanity,” essentially means, “all things are meaningless.” He asks, what advantage is there to be wise or virtuous? The wise man and the fool, the hero and the villain, share the same fate: the grave. There is “a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance...a time of war, and a time of peace,” (Eccl 3:4,8) but all these run in circles. They never get anywhere: “nothing is new under the sun” (Eccl 1:9). Qoheleth’s principal complaint is death. Death rules over all things, bringing them to silence: “none has mastery of the day of death” (Eccl 8:8). Death ends all things, robbing them of meaning. Death makes all things pointless. That is, until the Christ.

This Sunday, Jesus tells Martha, mourning her dead brother, “I am the resurrection and the life.” He assures her, “whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live” (Jn 11:25). Jesus is the counterpoint to Qoheleth’s despair. Conquering death, he has freed us from the fear of death (Heb 2:14-15). If death made all things meaningless, then the Christ makes all things new (Rev 21:15). By rising in the flesh he has overcome our ancient foe, reinvesting the world with purpose. Now every choice, every event, has meaning unto eternity. Now, for those who believe in the Christ, life is our master.

But losing sight of his victory, abandoning the hope of the resurrection, our culture has caught the desperation of Qoheleth. Without an ultimate purpose, so many bury themselves in pleasures to obliterate thoughts of the inevitable. Reminders of death are banished, and, in the frenzy, casualties lie on all sides. Living without purpose is a kind of living death, and it promotes death. It falls to Christians to calm these desperate hearts with the Easter news.