Thursday 28 May 2015

Living Our Trust in the Face of Death

The resurrection of Our Lord that we celebrate at Easter marks our deep trust in the love of God. All the barriers that separate us from life-giving communion with our Maker, Redeemer and Enabler—they are all unmade by God’s surpassing love. We just know it in our bones, or wished we did, be it beyond all expectation, all calculation. No computer algorithm could be counted to pick that kind of love out from the jumble of ordinary existence, or allow us to predict the lengths that God’s love would go to remove the barriers splitting us off from God, leaving us bereft and love-lorn. The symbolic barrier of barriers, of all this absence-making, is Death herself: she whose varied movements are woven like threads into the very fabric of our existence. Death in such an image is that implacable, inextricable, last barrier between ourselves and the God who is Life. Her opposition to Life is powerful and persevering, life-long one is minded to say. Maybe that is why Paul’s witness to the surpassing love of God in Christ bespeaks a poet’s exaltation at Christ’s Easter triumph. “O Death where is your victory; O Death where is your sting”—whether sung or declaimed the words are dead familiar, buried deep within the loam upon which we stand in God’s living Presence.

“Halleluia!” we all sing in Eastertide, and “Halleluia!” we mean. But Christ’s victory does not mean our lives become all larks in the shadow of Death. We may fear no evil, or wish we did, but Death as I said is woven like threads into the very fabric of our existence. She is so much a part of us that St. Francis of Assisi urged us to think of her as “Sister,” and so to love and cherish her as one of us, she too a child of the God of Life. Thomas Aquinas did not often turn his hand to such poetic metaphors, but he knew what Francis meant. We are our bodies; creatures made of and made to walk the earth: mudmen and women, Spirit-breathed. Indeed, our bodies were fearfully knit together of all the elements of our earthborn universe, a delicate harmony of opposites held in productive tension, able to act as a whole, to love or hate, feel, understand, and all the other things that a body does. We are that delicate harmony. We are creatures whose beauty, whose original very goodness, is fragile. In and of ourselves, we are mortal. Our harmonies are all bound by time and thus only for a time. Everlasting life is not ours by right, as if by virtue of our constitution. The glory of endless communion to be received in Joy can only come as gift. For Thomas Aquinas, the gift was so huge and unimaginable within the confines of our present existence that he couldn’t even imagine it as Grace. No it had to be an even greater thing: surpassing love wrung from the very heart of Glory. We can put his intuition quite dramatically: But for God’s glorious extravagance we would live with Death woven into our sinews even to the end of the age.

The point is this. On some level death and life go together. In the eyes of Eternity it may be they go together like wheat and tares, but woe betide you if you try and separate them here and now. It is as if we living souls live our lives in Death’s embrace. Her kisses are cold, made from icy sorrow, wrung from our hearts like tears and prayers. She is a barrier, a last barrier separating the living from the dead and yet she is thread woven into the fabric of our mortal frame. There is no way of coming into God’s living triumph except through her. Nevertheless . . . “Halleluia!” We people of faith persist in our witness every Easter that God’s love in Christ refuses to accept that stubborn, last barrier; Christ’s resurrection manifests the potency of this divine refusal. Death is conquered, we sing, warmly, year in and year out. I have had cause to remember and trust in that love this past Easter Monday as I joined with my family and friends to reflect on the life of one of our own, newly and shockingly dead, marking our place between trust and sorrow with the sounds and sights of our prayers and tears.

I wonder if that experience doesn’t lay bare the very site of Joy in this life. We live in the Presence of God to our great Joy, but ever in the Face of Death. That is, we find ourselves somewhere between trust and sorrow in a gratitude marked by prayers and tears. It is not an easy place to be, but we are not alone or without help. May we all remember this in all that we are and do, at ICS, to be sure, but honestly wherever the Spirit leads us.

Bob Sweetman