Posts Tagged ‘death’

PSALM 16:1-4, 12-19

I love the Lord, because he has heard
    my voice and my supplications.
Because he inclined his ear to me,
    therefore I will call on him as long as I live.
The snares of death encompassed me;
    the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me;
    I suffered distress and anguish.
Then I called on the name of the Lord:
    “O Lord, I pray, save my life!”

12 What shall I return to the Lord
    for all his bounty to me?
13 I will lift up the cup of salvation
    and call on the name of the Lord,
14 I will pay my vows to the Lord
    in the presence of all his people.
15 Precious in the sight of the Lord
    is the death of his faithful ones.
16 Lord, I am your servant;
    I am your servant, the child of your serving girl.
    You have loosed my bonds.
17 I will offer to you a thanksgiving sacrifice
    and call on the name of the Lord.
18 I will pay my vows to the Lord
    in the presence of all his people,
19 in the courts of the house of the Lord,
    in your midst, O Jerusalem.
Praise the Lord!

You have loosed my bonds. There are many metaphors used in religion to represent what is commonly called “the human condition,” but the most popular by far is that of captivity, bondage, imprisonment, and oppression. Salvation in light of this metaphor can be understood as escape or emancipation if the accent of meaning is on the circumstances of bondage, or as awakening, empowerment, and transcendence when the liberative move is more about an inner shift of consciousness.

What is it that holds us in bonds? Repressive governments do this, but so do the heavy circumstances of poverty and economic hardship. The prison of consciousness that we call the status quo can keep us in a consensus trance our entire lives. And we cannot forget the multiform delusion of orthodoxy, where the mind is strapped and chained by convictions that hold captive an otherwise creative intelligence.

Is it correct to say that mortality is another form of oppression? Are human beings “stuck” in time and “condemned” to die? Many feel so. But upon closer inspection what we find is that it’s not really the conditions of mortality that keep us hostage, as the widespread fear we have attached to this fact of facts. We are prisoners, then, not of death but of the fear that the prospect of dying provokes in us.

Of course, other animals die as well, but we have no evidence that they worry over it quite to the extent that we do. So much of the world we construct as human beings – at both the cultural and individual levels – are little more than shelter, distraction, and insurance against death, not to mention a major campaign for its denial and temporary postponement.

It’s not long before we find ourselves locked inside a prison of our own making. We invest in layers of insurance that obligate us to monthly payments, which makes it  necessary to pursue higher-paying jobs and work longer. We purchase gym memberships and a growing pharmacy of supplements in an effort to stave off the creeping menace of age, dysfunction, and disease. We might hand over our freedom and intelligence to a religion that promises everlasting life in exchange for our doctrinal consent and a weekly offering.

But perhaps the greatest liability in the construction of this fortress we build has to do with how it prevents us from full participation in reality, constantly shuttling our awareness away from this present moment, from the real presence of mystery. The spiritual traditions name this mystery the ground of existence, the presence of God, radiant being, and Abundant Life – but whatever it’s called, the referent is acknowledged as beyond all names and forms.

When we stop running and hiding, fretting and fighting, looking away and waiting for later, there is in that moment, in that very passing moment, the possibility that we might fall into the gracious support of the present mystery we call God.

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LUKE 24:13-49

13 Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14 and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15 While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, 16 but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17 And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad.18 Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” 19 He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20 and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. 21 But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. 22 Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 23 and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. 24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” 25 Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! 26 Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” 27 Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

28 As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. 29 But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. 30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. 32 They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” 33 That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together.34 They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” 35 Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

36 While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 37 They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. 38 He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? 39 Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” 40 And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. 41 While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” 42 They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43 and he took it and ate in their presence.

44 Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46 and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

“On that same day …”  Which day was it again? As Luke sets his story, it is the day of resurrection. Or more accurately, it’s later in the day, on the early morning of which a few women reported an encounter with angels who told them that Jesus, whose body they had come to embalm, was not dead but alive. Up to this point, according to Luke, no one has seen the risen Jesus.

It is interesting to consider Luke’s story in the historical and evolutionary sequence of New Testament Gospels. The most authentic version of Mark, written earliest, leaves the reader at an empty tomb, with the disciples of Jesus bewildered and afraid. Matthew, coming next in the sequence, gives us an earthquake and a descending angel who rolls the stone away from Jesus’ grave. In their hurry to give report to the other disciples, the women encounter Jesus himself. Then we have Luke, likely composed shortly after Matthew. Following this, the Gospel of John will feature the personal meeting of the risen Jesus and Mary Magdalene, right there as she weeps near the garden tomb.

Luke’s story, in other words, stands between Matthew’s dramatic special effects and John’s intimate encounter with Mary, who by this time has taken on significance as the very embodiment of human liberation by the power of Jesus and his gospel. (According to reports, Jesus had thrown no fewer than seven demons out of Mary, which must mean at the very least that prior to knowing Jesus her life had not been her own. Jesus, as it were, gave Mary back to herself.)

Even if the writer of John was unfamiliar with Luke’s account (which seems to have been the case), the progression across the sequence of Gospels is suggestive of an evolving realization through the ensuing decades following Jesus’ death. From an empty tomb (Mark) to the very moment of resurrection (Matthew), and from there to a walking conversation leading to a dawning awareness as the “stranger” breaks bread (Luke), and finally to a deeply personal encounter between a disciple who had been set free by the love and truth of Jesus (John).

If you put these different frames side-by-side and then play the video, you have a progression from shock to insight, from something that seems to have happened to Jesus, to The Something that was grasped as having happened through him for our sake.

This gradual (as Luke sees it) or sudden (according to John) in-breaking realization, that neither death nor the fear of death, neither orthodoxy nor empire, can hold back the revolutionary power of love, is the real meaning of Easter.

 

ISAIAH 25:6-9

6 On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
    a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines,
    of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.
7 And he will destroy on this mountain
    the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
    the sheet that is spread over all nations;
8     he will swallow up death forever.
Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces,
    and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth,
    for the Lord has spoken.
9 It will be said on that day,
    Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us.
    This is the Lord for whom we have waited;
    let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.

What is this “shroud” and “sheet” that covers human consciousness? It must have something to do with the “tears” and “disgrace” that the poet dreams will one day be wiped away by God.  And this? What’s at the root of this heavy anguish?

The answer is clear: death – or better, the fear of death.

Considered by itself, death is simply an end, the period at the end of our life’s sentence. Despite all the claims, no one knows for sure what’s after death. Clearly, the body that dies succumbs to decay and decomposes into inorganic compounds – the “dust to dust” of the old graveside eulogies.

The popular confidence in something, classically called the soul or “the real me,” that survives the body is actually quite recent in the history of religious belief. By far the most ancient and widely held notion is that when your time is up, you’re done. The personal ego that spent a lifetime (however short or long) managing an identity, collecting and casting aside the things of this world, and chasing all the while after an elusive happiness (or maybe running like hell) – that gig is up when you die.

When thinking human beings consider the prospect of mortality – and more specifically the certainty of their own death – a peculiar distress can come over the mind. Further reflection reveals that this life is characterized by pain, loss, and endings, along with the anguish these can provoke. The Buddha called this “dukha”: Life is suffering.

                                                                                              

What do humans do with this creeping realization of their approaching end? They busy themselves with other things. Countless distractions are instantly available to take your mind of the depressing thought. It can be therapeutic to throw your focus into something else – sometimes the more petty and trivial, the better.

Some people try to numb the distress with intoxicants. For as long as the cloud persists and the muscles are relaxed, the matter is as good as forgotten. But then, after the headache, it’s back.

Religion has done its part, with the invention of an immortal soul – “the real me” – that simply skips like a rock on a pond, from this life to the next. Or, according to Oriental theory, across many lives. In this case, the dark punctuation of death is but the briefest transition – the proverbial “blink of an eye.”

Critics have exposed the liabilities of such an eye-blink philosophy, noting how the minimization of death translates for so many into a disregard for the genuine (and passing) preciousness of life. In their hope and anticipation of a better life to come, they let this one slip by. If this one is particularly miserable, then such hope for the by-and-by can help you hang on till the end.

But here’s the point. Whether you are futzing around with meaningless distractions, finding solace in a drug, or pinning your focus on a paradise beyond, you are living (but not quite) under the shroud of a dangerous delusion.

While it’s not necessary to fixate on the real limits and final end of your mortality, living your life in full acknowledgement of this fact can be one of the most clarifying and liberating certainties there is.

Suddenly this moment, the one you were just about to dismiss and forget, is full of mystery and beauty. When this realization dawns on you, mark the day, for it is a day of resurrection. Fear is wiped away and you are finally truly alive.

EZEKIEL 37:1-14

The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”

So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” 10 I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.

11 Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ 12 Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13 And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. 14 I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord.”

Resurrection is a metaphor found throughout world mythology, and likely originated in early agricultural societies where local economies looked with expectancy to the return of life in the spring. Stories across cultures tell of the god or goddess who dies or is taken into the underworld in late autumn and rises again in new seedlings and green shoots.

Because his people had languished for so long in Babylonian captivity, the prophet Ezekiel saw them as having lost their chance at fulfilling God’s destiny for them. Back home in Jerusalem, his contemporary Jeremiah was working out this same grief and struggle for hope on behalf of those who had been left behind in the city’s ruin. Although their contexts were different in that regard, both Jeremiah (at home) and Ezekiel (in exile) were searching for signs of divine presence and purpose in the midst of human suffering.

What can you say to a generation whose faith in God has been drained of life and left strewn on the ground like sun-bleached disjointed bones? Other writings of this Exilic period (587-538 BCE) – the Book of Job notable among them – had already fallen into disenchantment with the god who protects the righteous and punishes sinners. This generation was barely old enough to remember, and many of them were not yet even born, when the foreign army of Babylon had invaded their land, toppled the city walls, devastated the temple, taken their leaders away in shackles, and left the “tree of Jesse” (the father of David and his royal line) a mere lifeless stump.

How can you give hope to a people who can’t even remember what home was like? There are no commitments left behind that they can look forward to picking up again, no nostalgia under the ashes that can be poked and stirred and fanned back to life. It’s as if they need to start with an absolutely new beginning, with a new cycle of time, a fresh creation and their own identity.

                                                                                        

Resurrection, then, is more than a recovery of what might once have been. Its literal meaning has to do with “being raised up” from a state of profound discouragement, hopelessness, paralysis or death. This literal meaning is widely used as a metaphor of an experience that is widely contemplated across the world religions, of not just coming back to life as it was, but transforming to a new quality, vibrancy, or fullness of life.

The help his despondent generation, Ezekiel had to first get them together – thus the sound-imagery of rattling bones clicking together, the sight of flesh covering skeletons, and of  the ground cluttered with corpses. Only with the body thus reconstituted could the breath (spirit) animate it with life and new hope.

We need to be reminded that Hebrew anthropology did not accept the oriental and Greek idea of a body-soul dualism. For the Hebrew, “soul” is the unique individuality of a human being, a synthesis of a material principle called body (basar), and a spiritual principle called breath (Heb. ruach, Grk. pneuma, Lat. spiritus). Once the breath leaves the body, it is dead and the individual soul simply ceases to exist.

Unlike their cultural neighbors farther West (Greeks) and to the East (Hindus), the Hebrews didn’t engage in speculation over the metaphysical status of the once-embodied soul. The metaphor of resurrection for the Hebrew, then, wasn’t just about getting a departed soul back into its former body. It was an event of new creation! God is starting again with a fresh word: Let there be!

This was good news for a community that had all but given up.