Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Fullness of Life in Christ Through Freedom From The Fear of Death

We live in a culture that has a "schizophrenic" relationship to death and anything pertaining to death. On the one hand, much advertising focuses on the "cult" of youth and beauty and almost completely tunes out the slightest hint of illness, diminishment, imperfection, the dying process or death itself. On this end of the spectrum, our culture is in full-flight from the reality of death as a natural, necessary, and even "redemptive" part of life. On the other hand, many of our television programs and movies depict violence in more and more gratuitous and graphic fashion. At this end of the spectrum our culture reveals a morbid fascination with the physical phenomena of death and dying. What drives this "schizophrenia"? While there are likely a number of factors, perhaps one of the most pronounced is fear, and even "slavery" to the fear of death.

The Letter to the Hebrews indicates that we needn't succumb to such an imbalanced and wholly unhealthy, even irrational way of living with the reality of death. Hebrews states, "Since the children share in blood and Flesh, 
Jesus likewise shared in them,
 that through death he might destroy the one
 who has the power of death, that is, the Devil,
 and free those who through fear of death 
had been subject to slavery all their life." (Hebrews 2:14-15). How do we come to a physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually healthy way of living with the reality of death? We do this precisely by facing death head on and viewing it not as a process that separates or destroys but, through faith in Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit, paradoxically unites and brings newness of life. How can we have confidence that facing death and the dying process head on leads to new life? Our confidence comes from the fact that Jesus immersed himself in the "valley of death" throughout much of his ministry, freely carried one of the cruelest instruments of death ever devised by humans (the Cross), and passed through the portal of perhaps the worst death imaginable (abandonment on the Cross). What came of this entire process of Jesus' life? Those of the Christian persuasion proclaim, Resurrection! It would seem that one of the "lessons" we can derive from the process of Jesus' dying-unto-life is that there is absolutely no experience of dying or death that separates us from God's saving and transforming love.

Freedom from the fear of death and the "schizophrenic" slavery which causes us to run from it on the one hand and to be morbidly fascinated with it on the other is absolutely essential for living an authentically human life. This is the case because death isn't merely a physical event but is intimately, integrally, and inextricably woven into the fabric of life and life's deeper meaning. Our day-to-day life often gives us chances to face, and even embrace, many opportunities to learn the paradoxical logic of dying-unto-life. When we "live simply so that others can simply live", we die-unto-life; when we make sacrifices at personal cost so that our children can grow and flourish, we die-unto-life; when we face the injustices in our world and the unjust and untimely death of vulnerable creatures and humans and speak out against such travesties, we die-unto-life; when we deny the image of a false, culturally contrived self and strive to be authentically human, we die-unto-life. Finally, when we assent to the paradoxical logic of the "paschal mystery" that it is only in dying-unto-life that we truly begin to live, than, and only than, are we freed in Christ and Holy Spirit from the fear of death and slaves no more! Pat, TOR


Rogers said...

The phrase "when we deny the image of a false, culturally contrived self and strive to be authentically human, we die-unto-life" is of particular significance to me, being the caregiver of a person with ALS. Upon diagnosis of a disease that robs one of muscle function, the ability to work, walk, hug, sing, laugh, talk, move and eventually breathe, it required an acceptance of the loss of the false, culturally contrived self, the self that advances us in THIS world. And in losing THAT self, there can be freedom. And not just for the person who has the terminal illness. We experience people close to us who embraced denial and avoidance as a coping strategy as my husband endured loss after loss of limb function, ability to drive, go camping, drive his wheelchair. My wish for our family and friends alike when my husband was diagnosed was to live this: Be Not Afraid. Denial and avoidance are tools of fear. They keep us down and paralyzed. We retreat, we protect ourselves from emotional initimacy - and in that way we thwart the Holy Spirit, closing our hearts, closing doors. Having courage in the face of death is essential. Courage in the face of death is not hanging back after experiencing the shock of seeing your loved one walk with a cane the first time or the shock of hearing their speech markedly changed since the last visit. It is interesting and puzzling to me that it is easier for some to watch a show like Criminal Minds or Law&Order SVU - but seemingly impossible to reach out to a loved one and just talk, extending empathy, sympathy about the difficult changes that present nearly every week. "Be Not Afraid" also has to include summoning courage to not be afraid of the isolation and sadness that is borne of others' fear and our culture's inability to deal with death and illness. It is paramount to celebrate and dignify life - in all its forms - but especially when encompassed by suffering. It is then that we are called to look beyond our sensitivities and sensibilities that are part and parcel of our culture, look past appearances, inabilities, even smells or sounds, and see the beautiful soul that is held within that other person - your loved one or someone in your living room on your TV on the other side of the world. LRogers