r m p







The Way of All Flesh

Old Testament: Psalm 90

Koran, Surah 81:1

New Testament Reading: John 16:20: "Truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice: you will be sorrowful, but you sorrow will turn into joy. When a woman is in travail she has sorrow, because her hour has come; but when she is delivered of the child, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world. So you have sorrow now, but I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you." 

One of the joys of the ministry is that it allows the clergyman to participate in the lives of his parishioners at the most important moments, the moments of rejoicing and likewise the moments of sorrow, the seasons of life and the seasons of death. I can't help approaching this service today with thoughts of a service I conducted with Ellie and Hush just less than a year ago. The time was Christmas morning; the occasion was the christening of their baby son Joshua. It was a time of rejoicing, a time of celebrating life. Today I rejoin my beloved Ellie and Hush to mark a death. This is not unusual. Everyone must sooner or later experience the close passing of the angel of life and the angel of death. Last Christmas we stood together in the bright dawn of life. This afternoon we huddle together in the cold shadow of death. But we do not complain. Rather we echo the plain logic of Job: "Shall we receive good at the hand of the Lord and not receive evil?" 

Life is of course a cycle, a turning wheel. It rolls on between our own births and deaths, and in between the two, we experience both the births and the deaths of many whom we love. And we must understand that this alternation is not an up-and-down motion, like that of a roller coaster. Not the back-and-forth movement of a pendulum. Not either/or. 

No, death and life bear a dialecticlal relation with each other. Each depends on the other as the preparatory stage of a process and the culmination of the process. Again, Job tells this truth in simple terms: "Naked came I into the world, and naked shall I go out of it." It is an inevitable and a natural process. It ends where it began. 

In an early Christian text called The Ascension of Isaiah we read of how Jesus Christ came from heaven's world of light into this world of coarse matter. We are told that as he descended through one after another of the seven heavens, he clothed himself with the likenesses of the angels who lived there, that his secret descent might go unnoticed. And when he reached the solid earth he clothed himself with a body of flesh like ours. And years later, when his earthly work  was done, he reversed the process. As he ascended back upward through the heavens, he shed each layer like a sodden garment until he was pure spirit once again, in the realm of divine light. 

Jesus is called the Son of Man, that is, the human being. This is a clue that whatever is said of him is also somehow true of all of us, his fellow sons and daughters of men. And here is a case of it. For we, too, begin our trip into the world, into life, we are naked. Literally naked of course, but also bare of all the garments of culture and education and experience that we will soon begin putting on. And then when we have finished our own earthly labors, we too prepare to leave this world behind. And we begin by laying aside all these vestments of accomplishments, worries, unrealistic goals, unsatisfied desires. We have come at the last to feel their weight as a burden. 

A friend of mine in his seventies often gleefully exclaims that he doesn't have to worry about nonsense like politics and public opinion anymore. Why should he? It's not just that his shift is over; it's someone else's turn now. No, more than this, he sees that none of it was ever as important as he used to think. 

Martin Heidegger explained this. He said it is only when we dare to face the fact that we will shortly die, that we can begin to get serious about deciding what our life is really about. Only then do we, like the Psalmist, realize that we must number our days. That is, we must apportion them carefully because there will not be an endless supply of them. We are on a rationing system! 

None of us relishes the terrible prospect of being told by our doctor that we have only a few months to live. But it is a worthwhile exercise to imagine ourselves in that position. Immediately we would think, "How am I going to spend what little time is left to me?" You would make a list of major priorities. You would probably not waste time watching soap operas and talk shows. At least I hope not.

Well, I am sorry to have to tell you this, but you have been in that position! Don't you remember? It was on the day you were born, when God said to you, "I'll give it to you straight: you've only got eighty years to go, maybe ninety." In the cosmic scale of things, that is the merest fragment of time, the merest fleeting moment. We are, like Job, going to depart this world stripped of all the frills we used to think were so important. 

I recall how shortly after my father's death I sat looking through some of his papers. There was a set of notes he wrote in a period of great job stress, outlining his career options, their pluses and minuses. And I reflected how all those worries proved futile. How all my worries for my own future achievements would prove just as pointless. There was no point in wasting precious moments, much less precious years in worrying, in straining to secure that which we can never keep. 

This is a perspective we ought to try to keep in mind. Look at the larger picture in which the present moment is just a single mosaic tile. The longer film in which this moment is a single frame. Sorrows will seem not so burdensome. They will be all the more poignant, the more meaningful as a stage in an ongoing cycle, a poignant note in a great symphony. 

All that I have said, I see in the brief text from the Gospel of John I read a few minutes ago. The occasion is the Last Supper of Jesus with his disciples who cannot understand why death must overtake their master. The scene is quite similar to that in Plato's Crito, where Socrates' disciples gather round his death bed and try to convince him not to die. Socrates could have escaped death that day; so could Jesus. Each could have evaded his enemies. This time. But not forever. We cannot argue in the end with the Grim Reaper. Neither can we convince a loved one not to die. So we had best face the fact of this death and, with it, the eventual prospect of our own. 

But I would like to forget the context of these verses for now. Let's just take the saying as it stands, as I have quoted it. It makes a striking new sense this way. Of the Passion Narrative let's just recall that there is a death impending. And this accounts for the sorrow Jesus says the disciples are feeling. First he draws a contrast: you will be mourning and weeping, and you will not fail to notice that others you meet in your daily world do not share your gravity. It seems cruel! How can they be so irreverent? How can they be so hard-hearted? Don't they know how you are suffering? Well, of course, they do not. Not most people. And yet it seems to you that the world should be a dramatic backdrop to your sorrow, like a blue lens in a movie. Like a cloudy sky in a novel of tragedy. 

But your bitterness is a veiled attempt to protect yourself. Secretly you envy their happiness. You wish that you could drop the veil of mourning and rejoin the happy throng enjoying the sunlight of happiness. You dare not admit this to yourself, however, because then you would feel guilty. As if you should not be feeling this way. But you needn't feel guilty. The whole point of grief is to feel the deprivation of the ordinary joy of life. It is like fasting for Lent. You have purposely, temporarily, set aside your accustomed diet of happiness for a fast. And that fast is to sensitize you to that which you are usually too sated, too satisfied, to regard. In Lent you recall the sorrows of Jesus and his death. But now Ellie and Hush are savoring the bitter cup of their grandfather's death. 

But in due time you will emerge from the shadow. The 23rd Psalm speaks of walking through the valley of Death's Shadow, not abiding there forever. The wheel will turn. Today is not all days. This one moment in which you now reside is not your only moment, or forever. And this is what Jesus predicts to his disciples. In the other 3 gospels Jesus repeatedly predicts his coming resurrection, yet the disciples remain so obtuse that, when Jesus dies, they despair completely. It does not so much as occur to them that he might rise. And so the resurrection takes them totally by surprise! And at first they cannot even believe it when they see it! They almost miss it! 

And the same is true for you! In our passage from John, Jesus makes what seems a more modest prediction. He simply predicts that after the night of sorrow the dawn of happiness will come again. And this is equally incredible! When you are sunk in sorrow, in mourning, you cannot believe the joy of normalcy will ever return. But it will. It will, only, again, you may not see it. When joy returns, it may be like the Risen Christ--you cannot believe it even though you see it. So now consider yourself forewarned! Joy will return. And like the Son of Man, it cometh at an hour ye expect not! 

And why, how, does joy return? Jesus says it comes from the very thing that made you mourn. Like the labor pains before childbirth. In the moment of pain you can almost forget that it heralds a new beginning. What you must try to do is to remember that the very ending that you mourn will inevitably turn into a new beginning, bathed in joy. 

Though the passing of a loved one is sad, so sad, it must in the same moment be a beginning, and it is no slight to the dead, no hypocrisy, to welcome the new even as you tearfully bid the dead good-bye. 

Why must an end be a beginning? Why is a death always a birth of something new? First, because it is a part of the cycle of life. One generation of life must die to give place to the next. Like the New Year's cartoon in which the wizened Old Year hobbles off stage to make room for the crawling infant New Year. And it will all happen again next year. 

But there is another reason, even simpler: when someone dies, a brick is being pulled from its place in the wall, and the other bricks were where they were because of the presence of that brick. Without it the wall may sag or collapse. And then the brick mason comes and takes the bricks and builds the wall again, but the bricks have changed positions, and perhaps the design of the wall is a bit different this time. Even so, your life will reshape itself into a different configuration. It has to happen. New possibilities will emerge. A new scenario. 

And even if, without our departed loved one, it is a more difficult reality, that may be for the best, too. It may at last be the time to learn to stand on your own. Perhaps the baton of family leadership has passed into your hands. It may be that things will go easier for you. That a long and faithful servitude has ended. But a new dawn will come. And ending will be followed by a beginning, as the spring follows the winter, as it always must. And today, when we gather to recall the meaning and the contributions of a life now over, we must examine the legacies of that life, as we might go through his personal effects after death, to decide what we can value and what we will take with us into our future, our new beginning that starts this very day.


Robert M. Price




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