Thursday, April 21, 2011

Beyond Death

This week both Passover and Easter are commemorated by observant Jews and Christians throughout the world. What meaning do these “Holy Days” have for contemporary people who do not share the theological beliefs of orthodox believers?

Passover is the commemoration of the liberation of the Jewish slaves from tyranny. While that sounds wonderful, the story as related in the Torah (Bible) contains implications that make this less and less of a fantastic story and bears a strong resemblance to the human reality even today. The freed slaves find themselves in the middle of a desert facing a lifetime of uncertainty and difficulties, sound familiar? I have written on this subject before, if you wish to revisit those thoughts, follow this jump.

Christian Holy Week is bookended by Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday. It is connected to the Passover, since the young Rabbi Jesus was visiting Jerusalem to observe the Passover with his disciples. There is a layering of new significance onto the older significance of the Passover.

The crowds jubilantly welcome Jesus as a Liberator/King on Palm Sunday. The popular opinion/understanding was that he would eject the Roman occupiers of Jerusalem and restore the Davidic Kingdom. Through this Kingdom and its expansion, Israel would fulfill her role in Salvation history by imposing the Covenant on the pagans (at the point of the sword).

This, was never the divine plan, according to the Prophet Isaiah (42: 43) and to Luke (2: 34), the Messiah of God would invite inner spiritual conversion and not impose external conformity. Not a crowd-pleasing plan, as the elderly priest Simeon prophesied in Luke’s Gospel, this was not the Messiah the crowds expected (or wanted). He still is not, people want the “Shell Answer Man and Julius Caesar” all rolled up in a neat package. Evil should be defined as people elsewhere, someone not like us (me). Evil should never be defined as something we each have to personally face and overcome within ourselves. That requires something of me, far too much work and highly disquieting.

In the course of the week, Jesus fails to deliver, 1) what people want, 2) how they want it, and of course, 3) on their timetable. The religious and political authorities of the day seize this golden opportunity to eliminate Jesus and maintain the status quo, along with their power, wealth and social status. The same crowds that shouted praise at Jesus on Palm Sunday shout jeers at him on Good Friday. This resonates with a truth about popular opinion; it is fickle and more often driven by emotion than by reason.

Another truth about human life revealed on Good Friday, is when Jesus is stripped of his garments. Life does that to each of us. Everything we think is essential for our life and happiness is slowly stripped away from us with the passage of years. Our youth, friends, loved ones, health, mobility, independence and in many cases our other half. We, like Jesus, are left naked and in that nakedness discover what is truly essential. What no thief or time can steal from us, the love we have generously received and given. If you doubt this, or consider it emotional hyperbole, spend a day in the local oncology ward of your closest hospital.

Then there is Easter Sunday. All the chocolate and jelly bean Easter eggs, pale in comparison to the syrupy diabetes inducing nineteenth century “spirituality” that swirls like Katrina around popular American “Easter Day” celebrations and “piety.” The shorter (original) conclusion of the Gospel of Mark [16: 1-8] ends simply with “an empty tomb.” The women leave that tomb, “bewildered and trembling; and because of their great fear, they said nothing to anyone.” What Mark suggests is not so much a “declarative” as a “question.”

That question is as valid today as it was thousands of years ago. The empty tomb suggests that death is not the end of human life. It suggests that there is something beyond death, something beyond this immediate physical existence. The work of Kubler Ross and Dr. Brian Weiss confirm this truth. If Ross & Weiss’ research and work are correct, then the question implied by Mark’s empty tomb is also raised by their research. What is the value and meaning of human (my) life?

There are a vast number of proposed answers to this question, ranging from Aristotle, Plato on one end of the spectrum to Aquinas and Marx on the other end. My experience of working with people on their death beds suggest that these vast collective answers are not the primary concern of someone who is facing death. Rather, how one has interacted with other real people (spouse, friends, family) is what is most pressing at that moment. If what near death experiences suggest is accurate, then how we chose to live our lives is what is of paramount importance.

Specifically, you are the product of your deeds and words. These, be they conscious or unconscious choices, shape who we become. I believe that the “acid test” of the worth of our life is, “Have I done what I honestly believed was right in my life?” and “How have I expanded love in the world?”

Passover suggests that freedom is the beginning of a life long journey, from enslavement towards fulfillment. Easter suggests that death is not the end of our being, but simply a completion and transition. How we use our freedom determines who we are today and the peace/happiness (or lack thereof) both now and at the completion of/transition from/ this life.

1 comment:

Tal said...

Your post points to something I think important: Jesus asks difficult things of all of us, a profound challenge to us to think about ourselves and our relation to those around us. Yet it is a challenge tempered with love, an acceptance that we will always fall short of the ideal as much as we may strive to meet it.

But the Church is increasingly sucking the life out of that truth. One of the ways we give is to dedicate to each other, to finding the God that resides in each of us in that unique bond that we share with those with whom we choose to share our lives, either as lay or ordained.

The Church would deny LGBT that form of love and charity so unique to our state and so essential to our being. In the Church's eyes we are neither to be married nor ordained. We are not to love. The Church would cripple us, leave us quasi-humans, isolated from many of the crucial aspects of love that pervades God's central commandment to us and core to His plan of salvation for us.

Paul, I think, said it best. "And now there remain faith, hope, and charity, these three: but the greatest of these is charity." For these I pray.

I wish you a blessed Easter Fr. Geoff. God bless.