Facing our mortality

When beggars die, there are no comets seen; The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes.  (Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act 2, Scene 2)

In any given population there will be a few individuals whose death will be reported by media and mourned by grieving masses. Some people make the news, not because of their life but because of the tragic circumstances in which they died. Many more will people die without even a footnote in the local obituary, and yet their death is as a real and the grief from loved ones as profound.

More celebrities will depart this world in 2017, and countless thousands of anonymous people will join them in the grave. This isn’t being facetious or morbid, but stating what is inevitable

As we have been assailed with stories of people dying we respond to death with revulsion, and rightly so, for it is a destroyer of life and friendship; death is our enemy. When we have witnessed someone suffer for an extended season, there can be relief in their passing, but it is not their life that wish to see ending but their suffering.

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Their mortality reminds us of our own, and it is wise for us to give due consideration to our beliefs and hopes over the grave.

It is not uncommon for people to sentimentalise and even trivialise death. Perhaps we do so in the hope of defying this great adversary.

Death is nothing at all.

It does not count.

I have only slipped away into the next room.

Nothing has happened.

(Henry Scott-Holland)

Another approach, and one that is probably more common, is that of rage and anger, as Dylan Thomas famously cried,

Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,

Because their words had forked no lightning they

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright

Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,

And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight

Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,

Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

There is however an alternative to uncertain optimism and despair, and it is spelled out in the good news of Jesus Christ,

“Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed— in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.

“Where, O death, is your victory?

    Where, O death, is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

(1 Corinthians 15:51-57)

Throughout the life and ministry of Jesus Christ we see God who empathises with those who grieve. John ch.11 records the story of one of Jesus’ close friend, Lazarus, falling ill and dying. When Jesus reached the town where Lazarus lived and died, he mourned with the family and outside the tomb “he wept”.

Jesus not only sat alongside those in the midst of grief, but he has walked the path of death. He endured its full horrors, not because of sickness or tragic circumstances, but he chose to enter into death out of love for humanity and to face hell for us. Indeed, in the hours before his crucifixion he told his disciples, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.” (Matt 26:38)

We are all approaching death, faster than we imagine; it is the great wall that cannot be avoided. But it does not have to be journeyed alone, and it does not have to endured without certain hope of resurrection. Imprinted into the fabric of the deathly world is the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead; real, historic, physical, and forever resurrection.

We can choose to pin our hopes on imagined sleep-like permanence, or fight off all thoughts of death until the moment arrives and we explode with fearful rage, or we can place our confidence in the one who has defeated death and who promises eternal resurrection to all who accept him, to the celebrity and the unknown, the beggar and the prince.

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