The Way of All Flesh
Old Testament: Psalm 90
Koran, Surah 81:1
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Copyright©2007 by Robert
Carolina Web Design