Today many of us will have some ashes smudged on our heads, reminding us that we are going to die, and asking each one of us to turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ. How should you react? How should you react if someone were to say to you that you’re going to be turned to ashes, that you’re all going to die? And why does thinking about your eventual death help you to turn away from sin? I mean, if you are going to die, perhaps you should get some serious sinning under your belt, or maybe even some serious sinning below your belt!
So why the stress on death? Why does the Church want to remind you that you’re going to die? Isn’t the Church supposed to be spreading good news, emphasising new life in Christ, emphasising eternal life? Why death?
The simple answer is that Jesus emphasised it again and again. You’ll remember the saying, ‘If anyone saves his life, he will lose it; but anyone who loses his life for my sake will save it’. Or again, ‘If people try to make their life secure, they will lose it; but those who lose their life will keep it.’ Or, ‘Those who love their life will lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.’ Our baptismal liturgy echoes much the same theme: in baptism we literally drown and are reborn — we die to sin and come to real life. And Jesus’ own life is very much the story of someone who had to let go of his own life for others. And for that reason, we are told, God raised him to new life. Had he clung to life, we wouldn’t be here today.
Given the radical centrality of this death-life connection, it’s a bit odd that Christians have kind of sidelined death — or at least they have sidelined it theologically — for several thousand years. Death, they said, was a result of sin, original sin. Prior to Adam’s and Eve’s sin, there apparently was no death. Prior to Adam’s and Eve’s sin, we’re told, no one died, no one had deadly diseases, no one hurt themselves when they fell off cliffs or high trees; no one was devoured by lions; deadly cancer didn’t exist; birth defects didn’t exist. Death only came into the world when sin entered the world — a teaching based not so much on Genesis, which is ambiguous on this point, but on Romans 5, which could (and probably should) be seen as St Paul’s using physical death as a symbol for spiritual, even eternal, death.
I must say that I took such an approach myself for quite a few years. I thought to myself that, if death were an evil (and it does seem pretty nasty), then God couldn’t be the cause of it. After all, God wouldn’t, God couldn’t, create anything that wasn’t good; therefore death couldn’t possibly be part of God’s original plan; it couldn’t be part of God’s original creation. Someone else must be to blame.
But that’s too easy. Human beings have always been finite, which is to say we are and never have been in-finite: we’re not and we’ve never been God. No doubt death has a lot to do with sin, with the evil we do to ourselves and to one another; and it is probably the perfect symbol for understanding what sin does to us; but death is an inherent part of our being finite creatures. Death is and always has been natural — as natural as living. If you’re biological, you will die. Physical death is not a punishment in and of itself. And our finitude, our being finite beings — this is a universal and good aspect of all of creation: it’s not an evil to be explained away. We don’t need to make excuses for God: God created a finite universe.
The thing is, because we wrote off death as something evil, we rarely bothered to ask whether there is anything good in death. We rarely asked why God made a universe where all living things inevitably die, where even non-living things — all of them — inevitably lose the battle against entropy and die out too. But what if death cannot be written off? If God created death, as it were, shouldn’t we be asking why? Could it be that, in being created in the image and likeness of God, our living and our dying are both — somehow — in the image and likeness of God? Could it be that there is something about our having to face death that reveals something about God?
If, like me, you’ve had family members who have died recently, then these questions are not just theoretical questions, but exquisitely painful questions, especially as you watch death slowly overtake the body of a loved one, as you wrestle with the God who created the universe, knowing full-well that people would invariably die — and die often in the most horrendous and painful circumstances, leaving the survivors to experience the soul-numbing pain of separation.
And yet Jesus realised that clinging on to life is futile: ‘If anyone tries to make his life secure, he will lose it; but those who lose their life will keep it.’
This is a huge paradox, but Jesus is surely right. If you consider your own death, as you are asked to do today, you can either descend into moroseness (or a whole range of neuroses) or you can discover an unusual kind of freedom. If we’re all going to die anyway, then perhaps nothing has any real meaning at all. That’s certainly one way of looking at things. But if we are going to die anyway, then we ultimately have nothing to lose: we can live life to the full, we can take real risks, we can live radically, love radically, risk courageously: you can even dare to love your enemy. And if that’s true for each of us, just imagine what a community of people who thought that way could accomplish.
All of this cuts to the very heart of Jesus’s teaching: God is so trustworthy that you can choose to do the right thing, you can dare to love sacrificially; because, in the end, you’re going to have to trust God anyway: death ensures that. And Jesus’s own death and resurrection — these are God’s way of assuring us that such trust is not in vain.
There is this strange sense that we do have to let go of life, let go of our fear of losing life, in order to live life. And that’s not just a nice, theoretical, paradoxical sort of maxim. No, we actually have to do it. We have to let go of life physically. I’m well in my fifties now, and I can already feel it happening bit by bit. We’re talking about real death here. We have to live life facing death. In the face of death, we discover that we can’t cause ourselves to continue to exist. We face the fact that we can’t save ourselves. We realise that we are creatures — finite creatures — not gods: we can’t even claim our own lives as our own. If we are to live again, as Christians hope and believe, then such a life is not something we can give to ourselves.
And what does this reveal about God? Well, it reveals that all love, even or especially divine love, involves a dying to self; it involves a giving of self. Love demands that we not cling to life and hoard it as some possession. In the Trinity, the Father gives of his very own life to the Son. The Father does not cling to life; instead he shares it completely. And the Son does not cling to his equality with God, but empties himself, as we can read in Philippians 2.5, and offers his life, his Spirit, back to the Father. And this shared Spirit is offered to us, not as something we can own, but only as something we can share. And that emptying, that embracing of death, even death on a cross, that sharing of life itself — that is the Christian image of the costliness of love: not just for Jesus, but for the Father as well … the Father who shares infinitely in the pain of his Son’s having to let go of life, and yet the Father who also knows that Jesus’s faith was well-placed, that God indeed is in fact ultimately trustworthy, that death is not the final word. Love is the final word.
As I alluded to earlier, I realise that some of us have faced and are facing the deaths of loved ones. No doubt you are already anticipating the pain of loss: Do you dare love him or her so much as she dies? Do you dare believe that love makes sense in the face of death? If not, then nothing would make any sense at all. Nothing would matter in the end. But we know that things matter, because we do love, and we choose love. That’s the choice. That’s what Jesus was asking us to do: choose life, choose love, choose God. And the power of that radical choice comes to the fore when we confront death, as we do symbolically in the ceremony of the sprinkling of ashes.