The idea that we might be active in our preparation for dying flies in the face of the mores of our time, particularly as the celebration of life is pursued with increasing intensity. The Church, being on the back foot, and eager to convey a positive message, rarely talks about the idea that faith is, essentially, a preparation for death. It is, of course, also a preparation for life, but the two go hand-in-hand.
Tradition has it that there are two kinds of death that are part and parcel of the same movement: the death of what we now call the ego, and physical death. This movement begins with our baptism when we are symbolically immersed in the waters of death and raised to resurrection life, and ends with our physical death when we return to the dust from whence we came.
The discipline of the ego is a recognition that we are not the authors of our lives – that vocation, or calling, trumps personal ambition and that we are being transformed into the image of Christ. Thus life in faith is a continual dying to the powers of the world and a continual resurrection to a life in Christ. A friend of mine once made the distinction between the “dying living ones” – those who live out their baptism; and the “living dead ones” – those who, in their grasping after life, may be physically alive but in fact are “dead” to life. The “dying living ones” live in resurrection or eternal life, their death lies behind them in their baptism. This means that their physical death in the future loses its power. “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1Cor.15:55)
When death is incorporated into life as a daily experience and a final end we are, paradoxically, set free from the power of death. Death is no longer the “something nasty in the woodshed” of our lives, something we know we all must meet, but which must be avoided for as long as possible. Of course death is the enemy of life. It is truly the end of all human potentiality and its power is not easily dismissed. This being so, it will take more than belief in the existence of God to dispel its power. It will take the lifetime habits of faith, or what we might call the religious life. It appears that we have placed too much emphasis on belief, on the ideas that we hold to. While these are important they are impotent, if not accompanied by a robust practice of the faith. This consists of prayer, worship, meditation and study, for we find that the self is recalcitrant and ideas are insufficient for our hoped-for transformation.
Without such practice we are likely to find ourselves to be in the tightest bondage to the primal fear: nonexistence. This bondage has the power to corrupt our lives, particularly as we mistake the things of the world as being the source of life.
The comfort that the faith has for us in the face of death is not the elimination of death, but the realisation that death is not the last word. This is expressed by the final lines of Luther’s Hymn “A mighty fortress is our God”:
Let goods and kindred go,
This mortal life also:
The body they may kill:
God's truth abideth still,
His kingdom is for ever.
How we deal with our own death is predicated upon whom we understand to be the ruler of this world. The pathology of our time is that we understand death to be what ultimately rules. This means that we approach death as the final disaster and, as such, it casts a shadow over our lives. We cannot, with Luther, believe that the truth of God abides forever and that our death is not the emptying of all meaning. If God does not abide forever, even when we die, then death does truly rule.
To understand death in the Christian context is to deal with paradox: “Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” (John 11:25). Taking this as a quid pro quo (something for something) is to avoid the paradox and to lose the meaning. The meaning in the gospel of John is that Jesus has overcome the world. He has done so not with power and violence but by embracing death. As the agony in Gethsemane bears witness, this was not easy or trivial. He had to do it on his own and even prayed to the Father for the cup of suffering to be taken from him. He had to find the moral courage to set his face towards his persecutors. The temptation to escape to Galilee must have been very real.
The passion narrative gives no hint that the death of Jesus was not a real death. Would he have suffered so in Gethsemane if he had known that his consciousness – his world – would survive the agony of the cross? The docetic heresy, that Jesus only seemed to die on the cross, has been condemned from its first expression. Likewise, our death is a real loss of the self, a real pouring out. The promise of eternal life is the promise that we will be held in “life” during our lives, that we will not be found among the living dead. It is the promise that even in death we belong to the community of all believers. There is a common phrase spoken by the priest or minister when the host is given during the Eucharist; “The body of Christ keep you in eternal life.” Eternal life is an ongoing experience.