A Kosovo Serb man visits the graves of his relatives during All Soul's Day at a cemetery in the ethnically divided town of Mitrovica on June 19, 2021. (Photo: AFP)
Since ancient times in the northern hemisphere, perhaps especially in Europe, November has been a time of death.
Leaves wither and fall. Crops are cut down. Trees are turned into firewood. Livestock is butchered for winter food and to reduce the number of mouths devouring shrinking supplies of grain and fodder. Grain is stored for the lean times with the hope that there will be enough left for spring planting. The sun sinks lower in the sky as daylight shortens; will the sun return as in the past or just go away? Cold leaden skies bring more and more snow.
Western Christianity, heir to that November landscape, has been so normative for most of the Church that even in the Southern Hemisphere November is the month of death, starting with All Souls Day and continuing with prayers for the dead.
The English philosopher Bertrand Russell told of a man who turned to someone at dinner with him and asked what he thought would happen to him when he died.
“The man tried to ignore the question, but, on being pressed, replied, ‘Oh well, I suppose I shall inherit eternal bliss, but I wish you wouldn’t talk about such unpleasant subjects.’”
"All living beings die, even those that do not sin. Death is built into creation"
That paradoxical reply captures our attitude toward death. Christians are committed to the belief that death is a gateway to new life. But even so, when faced with the actuality of death, we are repelled by it. Even Jesus was repelled by it, as his prayer in Gethsemane illustrates.
Where does death fit into the human mystery? Is it simply a biological necessity, a result of our “wearing out”? Is it just part of the evolutionary process, weeding out individuals and species to make room for newer, possibly improved, models?
It is those things, but Christians also proclaim that the death of Jesus is our salvation. Why does the tradition make a connection between the death of Jesus and salvation? Why is there not some other reality that is intimately linked to salvation?
There must be something about death itself that makes it rather than, for instance, care for the suffering the distinctive saving action of Christ.
We say that death is a result of sin, a punishment for the basic estrangement we have from God, each other and our true selves, an estrangement we call Original Sin. But what if it were the other way around? What if sin were a result of death?
Clearly, death is a part of life. All living beings die, even those that do not sin. Death is built into creation.
A few animals seem to have some idea of death, but none besides ourselves understand that death is not just something “out there.” For us humans, death is very “up close and personal.” In fact, it is something that will happen to me one day.
"We have allowed death to estrange us from God, from one another and from our own true selves"
So, I hide from death and the limitations that remind me of it. I become obsessed with looking after Number One, myself. I grab for power because if I am powerful, I can make believe death has no power over me. I look for fame and acclaim because I want to believe that I am too important to die. In fact, those were the temptations Jesus faced in the desert. He resisted them and went to the Cross.
Throughout history, we have yielded to the temptations. We have allowed death to estrange us from God, from one another and from our own true selves. Our refusal to face, accept, and perhaps even in some sense embrace death is the ultimate source of sin.
Death has, as Thomas Browne said in the 17th century, a brother who “daily haunts us with dying mementos.” We do not always recognize this brother. However, as with human siblings, once someone points out the relationship, we begin to see family resemblances. And we begin to notice him lurking behind events of our lives and sometimes even parading ostentatiously through those lives.
So, who or what is this brother of death?
Every day, we run up against situations that remind us of our limitations, situations that become constraints on our hopes and activities or starkly remind us that we are not in full charge of our lives or world. Those situations are the brother of death. In fact, the impact of death is at its most powerful and creative when death does not appear under its own name.
Plans fail, hopes are dashed, friendships end, loved ones die, youthful vigor and health fade. Natural and political disasters overtake us. My past and most of the people who were part of it are gone forever. Every day, my life is toned down or diverted in various ways. The choices I make open new possibilities, but close off, kill off, opportunities I have not chosen. Even something so trite as a rainy day reminds me that I am not in control, that somewhere over the horizon there awaits an end of it all against which I am powerless.
Though the brother of death is always with us and will not leave us until he presents us to his brother Death, for the most part, we do not like him. We fear him. We try to drive him away. We try to hide from him. We disguise him. We mock him. We look away. We deny his presence.
And so, Jesus comes among us to do what we do not do, cannot do. He goes to death with all the fear and disgust that we have. But he goes with obedient confidence in the love of God that is stronger than death.
Because we are aware of death, we can try to avoid it out of fear. But, in the Cross of Jesus, we now know that because we are aware of death, we can face it with hope because by his death and resurrection Jesus has shown that God’s life-giving love does not die. That love is not overcome by death, neither the death of Jesus nor the death of each of us.
Every Sunday is a commemoration of the Resurrection, something we should remember especially, perhaps, on the Sundays of November.
William Grimm, a native of New York City, is a missioner and presbyter who since 1973 has served in Japan, Hong Kong and Cambodia. A graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York, he is the active emeritus publisher of UCA News. Based in the United States, he regularly contributes columns, some of which have been collected in the UCA News e-book "Spoutings." He is also the presenter of popular Sunday homilies telecast by UCA News each week. A collection of those homilies has been published as "Dialogue of One."