Wednesday, June 27, 2018

O Death, where is your sting

Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B

One of the most ideal times to go sightseeing in a temperate country would be during Autumn. You would not just be confronted with the white snow-covered branches of the trees in winter or the various hues of green in spring and summer. The highlight of Autumn, a thing of great beauty, is to see the magnificent changing colours of the foliage. It is as if God Himself took His palette of gorgeous colours to paint His entire creation anew. But let’s not overlook the obvious. As the colours come alive, the reality is that nature is going dormant, even dying, and paradoxically, nature does not get any more beautiful than at the moment of its dying. This cycle of nature is foreshadowing our own deaths. Nature serves as an important reminder which funerals occasionally do, that “all things passes, only God remains.” (St Teresa of Avila)

Nobody has ever discovered a means to avoid death despite advances in computer-chip implant technology and blueberry super antioxidant nutrition. Even those in perfect health must recognise that their health can fail in a heartbeat. The best we can hope for is to somewhat extend our lives. But the blunt and painful truth is that we will all die, and the uncertainties surrounding how we will die, are disquieting. Death may be a perfect muse for poetry but when it hits too close to home, there is really nothing poetic about it. The prospect of death can haunt us like a bad dream. This is because the certainty of death brings with it another inevitability. We will be separated forever from the things of this world and death will seal our fate for eternity. The obituary section of newspapers awaits us all. So it is important for our peace of soul to consider these facts in more detail.

It gets one thinking: Why does God allow death, or why did God create a world in which death even exists? We can begin to search for an answer in today’s readings. The first reading, taken from the Book of Wisdom, addresses this concern: Why does Death exist? Did God make death? And if He didn’t, who did? The Book unwaveringly insists that “death was not God’s doing,” in fact, “He takes no pleasure in the extinction of the living.” In fact, we are reminded that we are made in the image of God’s own nature, that is, made “imperishable” or in some versions, “incorruptible.” No, death didn’t 'just happened'. Nor is it God's will. Death is the result of sin. At the end of today’s first reading, we read that “it was the devil’s envy that brought death into the world.” Death is the final victory of the devil, the result of his destructive activity. If man had not sinned, he would not have died. His body may have changed and evolved over great periods of time, but it would not have been separated from his spirit to return to the dust. This is the meaning of the sin of Adam; made in God’s image and inspired with His Spirit, and has chosen death instead of life, evil instead of righteousness, and so through defilement of his nature in rebellion against God, brought corruption and death to the world.

Even if God is exonerated of the crime of bringing death into the world, it still does not provide us with the answer to our painful experience of its existence in our lives. How can we fix the wrong? Who can set things right? We find ourselves stumped again. We have created incredible techniques and discovered miraculous cures and unbelievable interventions that have added decades to so many lives. And yet, there remains the final certainty that our mortal life will end in death. No, we do not hold the answer.  There is only one who can set things right. Only one who can reverse death and blunt its sting. The only one who can give something much more than longevity and good health, the one who can give us eternal life. The One who says to us, “Do not be afraid; only have faith.” And then He turns to the child, and says, “Talitha kum,” that is, “Little girl, I tell you to get up!”

The gospel reading therefore provides insight into this Truth that God stands for life and not death. It is made up of two tales, one of the healing of a woman who suffered from haemorrhage, and the other, the raising of a dead girl. Without having to state the obvious, the woman with the haemorrhage and the young girl both died eventually, as will we. This did not mean that Jesus had failed or merely postponed the inevitable. His healing of the woman and His raising of the child are signs of the Kingdom of God. As signs, they point to the kingdom’s ultimate plan, which is for union with God. These miracles told the people of Jesus’ time, and us, that God walks with us in our sufferings with great love and tenderness, and promises that our mortality is not the end of the story. For God is the God of life. The righteous are not destined for death but for an eternal and immortal existence. We are meant to be “imperishable.”

As strong as death may appear to be, as sudden and as tragic as it may seem to be, death does not have dominion, it does not have the final word. We are reminded that death is not the end of our story as the people of God. Through, His Passion, Death and Resurrection, Christ has revealed to us a very different ending, an ending that does not conclude with death as its final chapter.  He shows us the resurrection, the peace of immortality that awaits the righteous faithful, in Christ.  He shows us what God does for His friends.

As we grow older, frailer, and weaker, the nearness and reality of death will seem every more apparent to us. This is why we must never take our eyes off Christ and neither should we doubt the victory He has over death, if not, we will fall victim to despair. The Book of Wisdom reassures us that our brothers and sisters are not forgotten or forsaken by God. Their departure is not a true affliction, nor is it destruction. Wisdom announces that the death of God’s faithful is only a prelude to being held by God until the time of resurrection, when we will live with God in the manner God originally intended.

Nobody has yet discovered the “fountain of youth” although so many forget that the Church offers to us on a golden platter, the fountain of eternal life, the Sacraments of Christ and His Church. Hence, the worthy reception of Holy Communion and frequent Confession should be a habitual part of the life of every Christian. Every time we receive Holy Communion we renew our Covenant with the Lord. Every time we go to Confession, with God’s grace we repair our Covenant with the Lord. These sacramental habits of life do not indicate presumption, but a holy confidence in the Lord.

No one is exempt or immune from experiencing the Last Things. For kings and popes, priests and people, rich and poor, young and old —death, judgment, heaven or hell will come. But for Christians who live the life of faith, death is not the final absurdity in an insane world. Death in Christ is the narrow gate. As we face the jaws of death, His return is the answer to our prayers, “Come, Lord Jesus!” Death frees us from the things of this world so that we can be in union with the Beloved.  Death is our gateway to Heaven. “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Cor 15:55)

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