February 15, 2015, Ashes to Ashes and Dust to … Life
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Jesus took Peter and James and John, the core group of his small circle of disciples, up onto a mountaintop to be his witnesses when he was revealed in his glory – when he sort of set aside the cloak of his humanity for a moment, and they saw him as the Son of God that he is. They saw him become dazzlingly bright, whiter than any earthly white. And they saw him talking to Moses and Elijah, who were like mythic figures to them, as if we saw Peter or John standing around chatting with someone. And they heard the voice of God speaking out of heaven. It was an overwhelming experience, one that Peter wrote about at the very end of his life, reassuring his fellow believers that it was all true. But on that day it was far more than any of them could take in, and as they walked back down the mountain, Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about what they had seen – not yet. “Don’t tell anyone what you have seen,” Jesus commanded them, “until the Son of Man has risen from the dead.” Because it was not until they had seen him dead – and his death was the most horribly certain of facts – not until they had seen him dead and then seen him alive again, and more than alive, that they would not be able to understand the full glory of who he was and what he came to do.
So Mark says that as they came back down the mountain, “They kept the matter to themselves, and they questioned what this rising from the dead might mean.” It wasn’t that they didn’t believe in resurrection. Peter and James and John, along with many Jews, including the Scribes and the Pharisees, believed in a resurrection of all mankind at the end of time. But it is clear that they knew he was talking about something different, something more radical, something more immediate. And whatever Jesus meant by the rising from the dead, it was going to make sense of the glorious and terrifying experience they had with him on the mountain. And it was going to make sense of the suffering and death he had been warning them about.
Making sense of death and suffering is something all of mankind, Christian or not, religious or not, eagerly seeks. This past week I watched an episode of a show called Frontline, and it was all about dealing with death. Specifically, it was about a group of doctors who are working to become better caregivers of those with terminal illnesses: how they themselves have to learn to recognize the point at which they are no longer able to prolong life in any meaningful way, how they can best be compassionate as well as truthful, giving people the information and help they need to live the last days of their life with as much comfort and dignity as possible, and offering them the time to do those things they most need to do, to make the best choices, to arrive at death in peace. For most of the people in the program, not surprisingly, that meant letting them know their condition early enough that they could spend time with the people that were most important to them. One man chose to stay at home on his farm, and they showed him talking to his grandchildren about his death, and comforting them. That man even said that those last days of his life, surrounded by his family, were some of the best days of his life.
It was a beautiful show, very moving, and to me it was very helpful in many ways in understanding people’s needs and feelings at the end of life. I think it was an example of the very best the world has to offer. The doctors showed genuine love and compassion for their patients, and the patients whose stories they followed had incredible courage and integrity. Certainly the doctors and the loving families of these patients made their deaths as peaceful and as comfortable, and even as joyful as they possibly could. We can learn a lot from that.
This coming Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of our Lenten fast. Ash Wednesday brings us face to face, quite literally, with our mortality, and we might think that Ash Wednesday calls us to the kind of peace that the people on the program were trying to make with death. We call one another to, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.” And we impose ashes that symbolize the impermanence of our flesh, that remind us of our mortality. But that isn’t the end of the story. Thomas Merton wrote that “the body of a Christian is a temple of the Holy Ghost, and though it is fated to see death, it will return again to life in glory.” The truth is, that in Christ, mortality is no longer all it was cracked up to be. And the sign of our hope is that even though we smudge ashes on our foreheads to remind us of our death, we smudge the ashes in the shape of the cross, which is the assurance to us of Christ’s victory over death.
In a world full of death and suffering the compassion and understanding that the doctors in that show offered are truly valuable. And I think that many very good and kind people – my sister is like that, a very kind, compassionate person, who does a lot of volunteer work for Hospice – such people find a way to make peace with death, through doing what they can do to alleviate suffering, and acknowledging death as an unconquerable fact of our existence.
But we are not called to make peace with death. We should learn from those who can show us how to care for those who are suffering; we should offer all the compassion and mercy and understanding we possibly can to this hurting world around us, but we have something more to say about death. As followers of Christ and sharers in his death we have an entirely different perspective on death, one that we need to share with the world.
First of all, we know, as Christ’s own, that death is the enemy. When Jesus offered himself to suffer and die on the cross it was not because death is just a normal part of human life, it was because death was the greatest enemy of the life that God had created. Christ died so that he could bring death’s reign of terror to an end. The writer to the Hebrews says that through death Jesus destroyed the one who has the power of death, so that we might all be delivered from the slavery of fearing our mortality. Because no matter what the world would like us to believe, death is not natural. We were not created for death; we were created for life. And the revulsion and shock and anger we feel in the face of death is entirely appropriate. We feel in our hearts, when we lose someone we love, especially when it a young person, that death is an outrage. We know even in the loss of our pets that death is our enemy. And we are right.
And the very good news is not only that death is not natural, but death is not invincible either. We will probably all face death – or we may not – but we know that death will not have the last word. Because one man, Jesus, already broke the power of death, the defeat of death is assured. We are still grieved by death, and especially we are grieved by the pain it causes so many people, but we do not need to fear death any more.
We are entrusted with the message that we have a future, that the whole creation has a future, and our future is not bounded by death or cheated by corruption or decay. It is a future whole and good and full of unquenchable life. I think that is a message that is so far beyond the reckoning of most people we meet out in the world, that many, I think maybe most, people have lost the ability to hope for it, because a future free of death and suffering is too good a thing for most people even to have the courage to desire. It is so much easier; it seems so much less scary and less exhausting to just make peace with death and try to make our little span the best we can make it.
But we were created for life. And the glory that was revealed on the mountaintop was that the Son of Man who walked the roads of Palestine was also the Lord of Life, who came to bring an end to the tyranny and hopelessness of our mortality. It didn’t make any sense to Peter or James or John that day on the mountaintop; it was too much to take in. It made no sense to them, until they saw their friend and teacher, who had been tortured and killed and sealed in a tomb, suddenly fully alive and well, alive in new and different way: eating and drinking and talking, able to be touched, but also somehow beyond the limitations of physicality so that even a locked door had no power over him – alive beyond the reach of death forever. Then, suddenly, that vision of glory made sense. Because they saw who Jesus was; they understood what he had done. The rising from the dead was the key that unlocked the mystery.
The world has a story to offer about death, a comforting story that tries to make peace with lying down with the enemy we can never conquer. But that is not the good news we have been entrusted with. The cross, and the rising from the dead, and the future glory of all creation – these are our story.
Paul wrote, “if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.”
In fact Christ has been raised – that is our glorious good news – and death has been robbed of its power, and the living hope of healing, and a future; of adoption as children of God, and a home where we belong – those glories are assured for all who put their hope in him. And that is the good news we have to share with a world that is struggling along, doing its very best to live in the shadow of death.