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The Catholic Faith in Slow Motion(no. 17)

 
Grief and Joy Dwell Together (Christian Funerals, Part 3)
 
A Christian funeral is a time for grieving. Christians are not ashamed to weep over the work of death. And it is a time for repenting; Christians are honest about being sinners. But it is especially a time of rejoicing, even in the face of death. This “mood” at a Christian funeral takes us to the center of our Faith.
 
In a poem written for his aging father, Dylan Thomas wrote: “Do not go gentle into that good night . . . Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” This is certainly not an entirely Christian cry, but there is something very Christian in it. The Christian Faith does indeed teach us to protest death, to pray and fight against death, to save and nurture life wherever we can. Because we are not created for death but for life. Life is God's will for us, not death.
 
The story of the “Fall” of Adam and Eve in Genesis 3 expresses this truth in a deceptively simple narrative. Death comes into the garden of life as a spiritual disaster, death exiles Adam and Eve from the Garden which is their true home. The Book of Wisdom interprets the story. “God did not make death, nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living. For he fashioned all things that they might have being.” Rather, it was the wicked who with hands and words invited death and . . . made a covenant with it” (vv. 13-14, 16). St. Paul says it another way: death is life's “final enemy” (1 Cor. 15:26).
 
This is why all attempts to insist that, after all, death is our “natural end” come off as contrived comfort. In fact, even though we know that death is ever near, even in the case of terminal illness, the death of one we love comes as a shock. The body suddenly “empty” of life lies there as a gross contradiction. For death is the ever present sign in the world that some terrible darkness has invaded the world, some spiritual disaster has undermined the structures of life.
 
“Sin” is the name of this spiritual disaster, this deep “gone-wrongness”. For sin separates us from the Creator, and separation from God is the very definition of death. God did not make death, but God allows death to do its work, as a sign, reminding us always of this disaster – teaching us that the “gone-wrongness” in the world, in our lives, and in our hearts is not a problem to be fixed but an evil to be repented of.
 
Is death then a Divine punishment for sin? Yes, but not in the sense that many think. The habitual liar is certainly punished, but not by some external penalty imposed. Rather, the judgment against the liar unfolds in the inevitable consequences inherent in the lie itself – the death of trust, the death of honest relationships, the death of love, and the eventual death of the moral conscience of the liar who has lost his “taste” for the truth. Just so, the lie breaks faith with God. Even the repentant liar cannot (in this life) necessarily escape this “punishment”. Forgiveness does not necessarily assure the absence of consequences. God allows the consequence (death); for to undo the consequence would be to undo the moral order which is his creation. It is always the case: “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23).
 
The Creator allows the sign; he does not simply “banish” sin's final consequence. What he does do is revealed to us in the story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. God comes to us as one of us, to stand with us under this judgment. The Innocent One, God Incarnate, chooses to bear the weight of the disastrous “gone-wrongness” of the world. The Cross of Jesus is certainly a sign of death's power to do its worst. But Christ has made of his cross a counter sign. The sign of separation has been transformed into the sign of communion. Jesus has banished death's power over us, not from above, but from within. And by his resurrection he has transformed the grave into the pathway to eternal life. He has taught us how, when the time comes, to fight no more, but to “turn the other cheek” to our enemy death (Matt. 5:39)
 


 
 
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