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Requiescat in Pace: Coming to Terms with Death
Grant that all who have been baptized into Christ's death and
resurrection may die to sin and rise to newness of life, and
that through the grave and gate of death we may pass with
him to our joyful resurrection. Amen.
Give courage and faith to those who are bereaved, that they
may have strength to meet the days ahead in the comfort of a
reasonable and holy hope, in the joyful expectation of eternal
life with those they love. Amen.
Help us, we pray, in the midst of things we cannot understand,
to believe and trust in the communion of saints, the forgiveness
of sins, and the resurrection to life everlasting. Amen.
~Book of Common Prayer
Death is a subject with which most people are altogether uncomfortable. We do not like to think about it, much less talk about it. However, death is a fact with which we must ultimately come to terms. But which term best describes the Christian’s relation to our Final End? Foe? Friend? Something else entirely? It would be helpful if we would consider the testimony of Sacred Scripture. Indeed, Holy Writ gives us something of a complicated picture of death, but a picture that is worthy of contemplation.
On the one hand, Death is viewed as a pernicious enemy; an unwelcome intruder upon the natural order, a thief, a cruel and tyrannical despot. From the garden eastward in Eden to the gates of the New City, Death is that which dogs the steps of Adam’s sons, hunting and haunting the children of dust. Gloriously fashioned bodies animated by the spirit comprise the essence of humanity. Death strikes a blow at the heart of that union, clawing at the integral fabric of what it means to be human, tearing asunder what God has joined together. Death is a dislocation; a separation of body and soul. Death is a breaking; a fissure in the bedrock of creation. Death comes, with scythe in hand, severing the golden bond between flesh and spirit, rendering the wholeness of humanity a tattered array of divided parts which were never intended to exist cut off from one another. On these grounds, it is right and proper to think of death as a foe—our first and final enemy.
And to that the Scriptures certainly do attest. But I would suggest that it is unhealthy—and dare I say, unchristian—to end our descriptions there. For the gospel of a dying and death-defeating God have the last word on the matter.
By virtue of the cross and empty tomb, the tyranny of Death has been toppled. Grace has overthrown the Grave and now “reigns unto life” from the vacated throne of that once-despised monarch. The jaws of Death have been crushed by the Prince of Life. The sting of Death—which is sin—has been ameliorated by the precious balm drawn from the riven side of the Savior. The strength of sin—which is the law—has been nailed to the cross and spoiled of its power. Death has been domesticated. No longer wild, fierce, and untamed, Death is now the servant of the servants of God, ushering us, in due time, into the felicitous presence of Christ. In a word, the stranglehold of Death has been swallowed up in victory.
Thus, when Death comes, as he surely is now bidden to do, he comes as a once-estranged friend. He comes unarmed; he comes in peace. He comes in our Father's own chariot of holy fire, flanked by a wondrous cloud of unseen witnesses. In place of a scythe, he holds a pillow on which Christians may lay their weary heads. St. John says of such that they are “blessed” and “happy,” for now they are able to "rest from their labors." For the believer in Jesus, Death holds no terrors. In fact, he is now able to hold little of anything at all. His grip on the souls of men was wrested from his hand at Calvary. Death, then, is only he who conducts us safely into eternity. And ultimately it is from his Christ-shackled hands that we will be delivered up to life on the last day.
When a Christian dies we do not sorrow as others do, as those who have no hope, but we rejoice in the promise of a better resurrection and the assurance of a glorified existence—the complete redemption and reconstitution of new bodies with estranged spirits—in the unending day which lies before us.
When Old Man Death approaches we should not concern ourselves as much with what brought him as with Who sent him. The old relationship has been repaired by the great reconciliation of all things of God in Christ. The last enemy was the first convert. Death is now an ambassador for the kingdom. And Christ has made peace between us through the blood of his cross. So when that final hour approaches, it will be with joyful expectation that we may look on his face and say, “Hello, old friend. I’ve been expecting you. Now, take me to the King.”
by George Herbert
Death, thou wast once an uncouth hideous thing,
Nothing but bones,
The sad effect of sadder groans:
Thy mouth was open, but thou couldst not sing.
For we considered thee as at some six
Or ten years hence,
After the loss of life and sense,
Flesh being turned to dust, and bones to sticks.
We looked on this side of thee, shooting short;
Where we did find
The shells of fledge souls left behind,
Dry dust, which sheds no tears, but may extort.
But since our Savior’s death did put some blood
Into thy face,
Thou art grown fair and full of grace,
Much in request, much sought for as a good.
For we do now behold thee gay and glad,
As at Doomsday;
When souls shall wear their new array,
And all thy bones with beauty shall be clad.
Therefore we can go die as sleep, and trust
Half that we have
Unto an honest faithful grave;
Making our pillows either down, or dust.