The day my Mom died was a beautiful spring day, with an immaculate blue sky, birdsong in the air, the sound of children playing in the streets. For years after, my Dad would comment that on that day, he really understood how life and death go together, how they are part of a whole.
Fourteen years later: another spring, another death. As you know, my Grandma died only a few weeks ago, even as her great-grandchild is being knit together in the womb. Life, again, asserting itself in the face of death. There is a continuity that holds them both together.
Today’s readings sum up the main events of Jesus’ last week of life before the Resurrection. His entry into Jerusalem, the last supper, betrayal, crucifixion, and death. And in between, we sang the Psalm that extolled God’s steadfast love.
These are some of the central texts of our faith. And if you look at them closely, they are rife with contradictions. Jesus knows he will be betrayed. But does he do anything about it? No. He simply lets it happen. After being mocked and tortured, he is crucified and dies in despair, calling out to a God who has forsaken him. And the Roman officer who witnesses this exclaims “Truly, this man was God’s son!” What makes him think that?
And then, of course, we have Luke’s account of Jesus’ death, where his last words are: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit”. Here, he dies in faithful surrender, not despair. How do these accounts go together?
Perhaps the biggest discrepancy is that between Jesus’ anguish at Gethsemane, and the words of our Psalm. Grieved to the death, Jesus prays: “Father, remove this cup from me”, only to be put to death in agony. All the while, the Psalmist intones, “God’s steadfast love endures forever”, “God’s steadfast love endures forever”.
It’s one of the most difficult questions raised by Christianity: how can a loving God put His Son through such an ordeal? And we’re all familiar with not-so-helpful answers. Some tell us that it’s our fault. We’re so evil that God had to punish Himself so that He wouldn’t have to punish us. That’s one of our most unfortunate inheritances as Christians, the penal substitution theory.
Others say that in his surrender to evil, Jesus broke its power over humanity. His resurrection proclaims that God loves us no matter what, and this love frees us from bondage to our darker impulses. I think this view is closer to the truth. And it’s actually the more ancient view, held by the early church fathers. It’s called the Christus Victor theory, Christ who defeats sin.
But the question remains, how did he do it? How did he break that power?
One way of answering this question is to frame it in terms of paradox. Life is full of paradoxes, things that don’t seem to go together. Light and dark, goodwill and ill will, healing and suffering, they all cohabit in the very same spaces in our lives and our hearts. One minute we are full of gratefulness, the next we lash out for some minor thing. One moment we proclaim love for our enemies. Next thing you know, we fume over something a Republican said. And so on.
The ultimate paradox, of course, is that we are alive and know that we will die. We are aware of the infinity of time that has passed before us and will continue after us, but we cannot escape our own finitude.
Christian lore says that death is our punishment for our original sin. But what if it were the other way around? What if death wasn’t inflicted on us after our grasp for the apple? What if death came first, as part of life? What if the story of the Fall is really this: the emerging awareness that there is something paradoxical about being alive and knowing you will die?
The promise of Jesus’ death and resurrection is this: if we surrender to this paradox, we discover that life and death are not opposites. We are part of an unceasing stream of becoming and passing, an endless symphony of being and nonbeing. The cells of our bodies contain the same molecules as the distant stars. The creatures that swam in the primeval oceans millions of years ago are part of the same feast of existence as we are, a feast that will continue through eternity.
This is not to say we can be indifferent to death. Death is real. Death is painful. Possibly more so for the living than for the dying, more so for those who have to live with loss. Especially when loss comes sudden, and when it is incomprehensible, as in the case of murder, or the plane crash last week. To be indifferent to death is to be indifferent to life. And the work of grief, especially when death is incomprehensible, is to come to terms with this very incomprehensibility. To discover that there is a peace and a solace larger than our understanding. They are always available to us, right there beneath the paradox that makes us suffer.
Life and death are not opposites, they are part of the same great song of being. And the rhythm to the song is the chorus of the Psalm: the steadfast love of God, the steadfast love of God…
Those of you who were at Nick’s for Stations of the Cross remember that it was a bit unusual. Nick was playing the moving, dark music by Liszt, and Rollie with his deep resonant voice read meditations on Jesus’ pain and anguish.
And then there was little Evangeline, running around, squeaking and squealing, and desperately trying to touch the piano, trying to join Nick in playing. And there was Sarah, faithfully catching her every time before she could interrupt.
I don’t know if anyone was bothered by that. For me, not only did it not bother me, it actually made Nick’s music more meaningful. Life was asserting itself even as we were commemorating a death. Underneath the solemn tones of grief and pain, life raised its exuberant little voice as if to remind us: all of this is passing.
Death is always imminent, but resurrection is right around the corner. Pain and grief shall pass, but the steadfast love of God endures forever, and forever, and forever.