On Death and Life

For the Christian who clings to Christ, death is not the end.

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 In my end is my beginning. 
—T.S. Eliot

If a book has God as its author—which is what we believe about the Bible—then it should scarcely surprise anyone to find a great many divinely inspired stories in it. Wholly unexpected things will suddenly pop out to startle and amaze the unsuspecting reader. So many stunning examples, in other words, of things God has said and done that stay in the memory. 

For instance, the passage in John’s Gospel (11:34-35), where Jesus goes to the house of Lazarus, who has been in the ground for four days; and, standing over the grave of his dead friend, He weeps. How moving can that be? How utterly unexpected, too. That a mere mortal should cause a breach so profound in the heart of God that tears freely fall. How can this be?

It is the greatest possible sign of solidarity with those who suffer. The tears of God have long watered the soil of human suffering. Who doesn’t go through life and suffer along the way? Does anyone get out alive? 

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“Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore,” says Shakespeare, “So do our minutes hasten to their end.” There are no exemptions, no loopholes for the lucky few. “Golden lads and girls all must,” he tells us, “As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.” Dying is the one constant that connects all the living. “The bright day is done / And we are for the dark.”

Isn’t this why, in the tears of Jesus, we see the most complete and perfect identification of God with the children of men? That the Creator of the universe should weep for us? And yet there is more. Not only will His tears fall to the ground for poor Lazarus; before He is through, He will have suffered and died for all of us. That “having loved his own who were in the world,” we read in John 13:1, “he loved them to the end.” 

Not only is God on the side of those who suffer, He enters into their suffering in order to make it His own. He did not come among us in order to give an account of suffering, nor to explain or wipe it away. He came to fill the whole bloody barrel with His presence.  

In Crossing the Threshold of Hope, John Paul II writes, 

The fact that he stayed on the Cross until the end, the fact that on the Cross he could say, as do all who suffer: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34), has remained in human history the strongest argument. If the agony on the Cross had not happened, the truth that God is love would have been unfounded.

Someone once asked Henry James what he thought of life. “I think,” replied the master storyteller, “it is a predicament which precedes death.” And death? What is that but a condition for which there is neither cure nor escape. “The undiscovered country,” Shakespeare has called it, “from whose bourn no traveler returns.” After all, if life is a journey, then at some point it has got to end.  

But for the Christian who clings to Christ, death is not the end. Otherwise, why would he go to witness the burial of someone he loves? Just to stand and stare into an empty hole that will shortly contain yet another body, as still and lifeless as all the others buried in the ground? Why would anyone want to do that? 

Rather, he goes because he believes in a force greater than death, one which will always outrun his pursuer. It is death that is marked out for death. Indeed, as St. Paul reminds us in a stirring passage from his First Letter to the Corinthians (15:51-58), “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting?”

So, what is that force stronger than death, that outlasts even the Old Guy who comes to claim every corpse? Love. “Love is the unfamiliar Name,” writes T.S. Eliot in the final movement from Four Quartets

Behind the hands that wove 
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire. 

A dear sister of mine, whom we buried only last week, now knows that. She has gone home to God, where there are no tears, nor is there any pain, or sorrow. There is only the company of God and His angels and saints, and all those whom she has loved and lost, who long to see her on the other side. 

Someone once said that if ever he did get to Heaven, there would be several surprises waiting for him. One, that many of those whom he never imagined would make it are, in fact, there. Two, that many of those he’d have sworn would be there are not, in fact, there.  And, finally, that he is there. 

And what is Heaven? It is the gift of a God who is so great and good that He makes room even for people as paltry and unimportant as ourselves. “Life in God,” says Hans Urs von Balthasar, “becomes an absolute miracle.” For anyone who suddenly finds himself wafted into the waiting arms of God, who, having left planet earth for the life of eternity, it will be as if “vast spaces are opened before one, taking one’s breath away. Spaces into which one could hurl oneself in uttermost freedom, and these spaces are themselves freedoms that entice our love, accept it, and respond to it…”

Of course, up against the actual experience of the joys that await us in Heaven, who isn’t reduced to a kind of gibbering, palsied inadequacy in trying to give it expression? “He that asks me what heaven is,” says John Donne in one of his sermons, “knows I cannot tell him: when I meet him there, I shall be able to tell him.” In the meantime, he adds, “the tongues of angels, the tongues of the glorified saints, shall not be able to express what heaven is; for even in heaven our faculties shall be finite.”

Notwithstanding all that, I find St. Augustine’s description as apt as any I have come across. Taken from The City of God, his great masterpiece, in which he documents in the briefest and most beautiful way what the joys of Heaven may well consist of, it seems a fitting end to these reflections, occasioned by the sad passing of a dear sister into (please God!) eternal life:

There we shall rest and we shall see; we shall see and we shall love; we shall love and we shall praise. Behold what shall be in the end  shall not end.

Eternal rest grant unto her, and may her soul, and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.


  • Regis Martin

    Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar’s Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, published by Scepter, is called Looking for Lazarus: A Preview of the Resurrection.

tagged as: Catholic Living Death

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