The annual celebration of Mother’s Day always brings the experience of death close to my heart. My mother died on November 18, 2008, when I was 20 years old, and I did everything in my power to not feel the pain of her death. I had developed brilliant coping mechanisms in order to do that, and theology was my primary tool, the very kind of theology we have been exploring over these last two weeks. On a number of occasions I explained to people why I didn’t need to be sad or to grieve. “If I really believe what I say I believe, if I really believe in the resurrection, then I don’t need to be sad. In fact, it is selfish to be sad.” I can look back now and lament my unwillingness to feel the pain of my mom’s death, and yet I can’t fault myself for this kind of reaction. I thought that if I didn’t feel grief or pain or sadness then they weren’t really there, and by theologizing it away I convinced myself that they really weren’t necessary at all. In the end, though, this sort of theological numbing was not an answer but an escape. It was not healing but repression, and a repression that did more harm than good. I had convinced myself that Jesus’ victory over death, his removal of the sting of death, his resurrection had abolished the need for sadness, took away the pain, destroyed the need to grieve, and all that did was make it worse.
These vibrant and foundational phrases, though, like “removed the sting of death,” need not be thrown away or repressed, any more than my grief did. Instead, how might we understand them anew, in the light of our experience now, in the midst of death and pain and grief?
Last week, we did this kind of reframing of the “sting of death” as it pertained to the oppressive use of death to control and overpower. In a similar way, when we move to an exploration of the power of death for our individual spiritual journey of lifelong transformation, we can look at the cross and resurrection as a paradigm shift in how we understand the role of death in our lives. Jesus revealed the impotence of death to be used as a destructive device by those in power against the movement of justice and liberation, and thus extended to each of us a personal invitation to a new relationship with death and its sting. The potency and power of death, though, still remain. Death still counts, death is still important, though not as a tool of oppression, but as a sacred part of our human journey. Rather than destroying death, Jesus redeemed it and revealed its holiness to us. He showed us that death is not the end of the journey, but an important and life-giving part of the journey.
Of course, to say that death is a part of the journey and not the end of it is not to say that death isn’t deserving our grief. This is what I didn’t understand, and couldn’t have understood, when my mom died. Of course, death is still the end of something. Remember, Jesus didn’t simply come back to life and continue on with his ministry as if nothing had happened. He was different, changed, transformed, unrecognizable to those who knew him best. And he did not continue on with those disciples to whom he appeared. Eventually, he left. Death was both the end of something and the beginning of something, born from wounds that did not heal, but opened into new ways of trusting and loving and healing. It was the revelation not that God willed Jesus to die, either to defeat death or in order to forgive our sins, but that in this unfolding of life, in every conceivable way, and even and especially in suffering and death, God is present. We are not alone in our grief, God was not only there on the cross, but is present in every death, and always working to co-create new life with us and within us.
Again, this does not take away death’s sting, it does not delete the grief or it’s power, but reveals to us that our way forward is through the suffering and death, not around it. Engagement with it, rather than avoidance of it. In John chapter 10, before his death and resurrection, Jesus tells his disciples “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit” (John 10:1, NRSV). Jesus is reminding us of the truth of death and its power in our lives, that to find a depth of life, an abundance of life, for which we yearn, we cannot circumvent the process of feeling its pain, of grieving. We cannot climb over the walls, because that would be trying to steal what is not ours. That would be moving past death, numbing its pain and avoiding it. Any sort of abundance we find by moving past grief will always be fleeting, and lacking in depth. It will not really be ours, it won’t be integrated.
Jesus instead tells us that the only way forward, to abundance and depth, is through the gate, through the pain, through death and into new life. We are not called to get over our grief or the death and suffering that causes it, but to integrate these vibrant realities into our lives in order that they may cultivate something new in us from something that is gone. We hold this suffering and grief, knowing that the com-passion of God, the “suffering with” of God, the God-with-us of God, knows no bounds. God is with us everywhere, not as a distant, unmoved observer, but with-us in every way. And the more with ourselves and present to that suffering and death we can be, the more we will feel and recognize God’s presence in it, and the more we will grow in compassion for ourselves and the world.
For our own growth and healing, which leads to the growth and healing of the world, it is important that we preserve the sting of death, that we recognize it and honor it. To deny death its power and sting, would be to keep ourselves stuck, to stand at the gate wondering what might be on the other side. It is not to be escaped or destroyed, but engaged and integrated. In the words of Henri Nouwen, death is not to be feared but befriended. Our grief is messy, and painful, and tumultuous, but to theologize it away, to pretend that it is unnecessary now that Jesus died and was resurrected, is to deny ourselves death and resurrection. It is to deny the real redemption of the cross, the redemption of death as a tool for our healing and life rather than an enemy of it. When it has visited us, and come close to us, and walked beside us, even though uninvited, it somehow becomes like an old friend. We can move from the fear of death, to a quiet reverence for its sacred place in our world, in our humanity, and in our journey. We can taste both its bitterness and sweetness, knowing that God is doing so with us, and will continue to do the same into eternity.
Death is sweeter than miss
It is longer than gone
Smaller than never
More than what if
This is part 3 of a three part series. If you missed the first two, check out the post feed on the homepage.