4 Last Things: Death
When we hear a phrase like “the newest thing,” we generally think of the latest TV show, flavor of soda, or computer upgrade. Our culture is profoundly interested in the Newest and Latest. We Americans especially look to the future and have historically tended to treat it as a kind of Promised Land where we will all go and live happily ever after with our rocket packs, protein pill dinners, domed cities and Martian colonies.
In this expectation, we see a curiously secularized echo of the Christian Tradition, which also teaches us to live in hope. But for Christianity the object of hope is not progress, but Jesus Christ.
We are called to “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory” (Colossians 3:2-4).
This means that our hope is not in the future, but in eternity with Christ, which is a whole ’nother thing entirely. The future is part of this world, and this world is passing away. If you want the quickest and most accurate description of the future, it is that time when you and all you know and love in this world will be dead.
Now, that doesn’t sound nearly as appealing as the bright shiny Future promised in the glossy brochures of the futurists with the Jetsonesque flying cars and the Star Trek interplanetary multicultural conflict resolution counselors in leotards — but it happens to be true. And taken together with the rest of the Christian revelation, it even happens to be Good News.
That may sound weird. But it’s why the Latin tradition of Christianity speaks of the Four Last Things — death, judgment, heaven and hell — as the Novissima or the Four Newest Things. In other words, it’s why Tradition combines the notion of our mortality with the notion of … well, what do we associate with the New? Youthfulness, freshness, morning, vitality.
How can it do something so daring? Because the Christ of paradox is, after all, the One who said that if you try to keep your life you will lose it, but if you lose your life for his sake, you will keep it to eternal life.
The world is all about trying to keep its life. So it prattles on as though you and I are not going to die but live forever in a sort of eternal dream of the Pepsi Generation. This is worldly hope, and it leads inevitably to worldly despair. That’s what is fueling the present movement toward euthanasia. A post-Christian culture that gives up on God inevitably gives up on real hope. The world says, “If I can’t have eternal Pepsi Generation happiness then, by golly, I’m going to assert my power one last time and end it all on my terms!” That’s despair as old and weary as Adam.
But in Christ, we “die before we die,” as T.S. Eliot put it. We begin, in this life, to live out what the ancients knew: that “the love of wisdom is the practice of death.” So Christians practice wisdom by little acts of death to self and love for God and neighbor that we might receive, in little bites of living bread and little sips of the cup of life, the life of God who cannot die.
We start clearing out the rubbish of selfishness that clutters the soul and furnishing our hearts with the furniture of our Father’s house.
Of course, none of that is possible without the help of God in Christ. Indeed, the very ability to turn from self to Christ for help is itself a work of grace. But it is one that requires our cooperation, and it is one that has to begin, in however small a measure, before we die.
For die we shall, sooner or later.
This is one of the hard truths the faith confronts us with out of the great mercy of God. Death is the devil’s greatest triumph, the fruit of sin. But it is also the key to the victory of Christ. Like a chess move in which Satan stupidly rushes in his pride and greed to take God’s best piece, so, too, the devil puts into the heart of Judas the notion to betray Jesus, and all the powers of darkness rush blindly to put the Son of God to death. And by his very concession to their will to power, God triumphs by putting our sins to death with Christ on the cross and then raising him from death to immortal life — and us with him.
In the world, death is a hole.
In Christ, it is a door to everlasting joy.
Mark Shea is senior content editor
- November 9-15, 2008