Perhaps no apparent injustice compels the human heart to beg the Mystery for an answer as the death of a child does. That suffering and death is a part of our lives, however enigmatic it remains, is at least swallowable, for we who have sinned much in our adult years. But the suffering and death of a child tosses the human heart into an entirely different category of questioning and even indictment.
Yet I wonder how many, in the face of death, have the freedom to even get this far.
Recently, a young member of our parish, and one of my daughter’s friends passed away. She was three-years-old. As I sat with that cold reality for several days, I observed much about the ways people deal with death – and this is true of the culture as a whole. Here are a few generic characteristics:
- Rational Acceptance – Here, “enlightened” man reduces man to mere matter, a series of biological functions that naturally grind to a halt. The machine dies. Everyone’s machine dies. So what?! As Epicurus says in Menoeceus, “So death, the most terrifying of ills, is nothing to us, since so long as we exist, death is not with us; but when death comes, then we do not exist. It does not then concern either the living or the dead, since for the former it is not, and the latter are no more.”
- Denial – In the face of death, denial can take on the stoic/apathetic form – simply not allowing your emotions to get involved (i.e. “shutting down”), or, on the other hand, denial can lead one to avoid the reality/pain of death by filling that space with distractions. One example of this would be a conversation I had with someone who simply would not engage the real question (“Why did this three-year-old have to die?”), the question of meaning and reality, and instead consistently reminded me to never ever take my eyes off of my own children so as to keep them safe. This position evades the problem.
- Entrance into the Mystery of Death – Not many people want to do this. Not many want to stare death in the face, bear the full brunt of its blow. As T.S. Eliot said, “Human kind / cannot bear very much reality.” This is why most of us are…
- …Satisfied with trying to impress upon the reality of death our own judgments and reasons for the injustice. For those of you familiar with Job’s story, this is exactly what Job’s friends (aka. Satan’s little helpers) do – they pin Job’s sufferings (loss of children and physical ailment) into a category (namely that Job was sinful). But Job was blameless. Personal sin was not the cause of the predicament (not unlike Christ). Preconception and the attempt to humanly compress reality into human reasons simply did not allow the friends to see Job’s righteousness and the real injustice of his suffering. So too, we offer conjectures (that quickly become dogmatic for us) about why the child (or so-and-so) died.
This is all a big problem for us, because death presents that supreme injustice for man who cannot escape its cold clutch. That grip that will end everything he was and could have been. The Christian understands that death is an historical reality before it is biological. “Death was therefore contrary to the plans of God the Creator and entered the world as a consequence of sin. ‘Bodily death, from which man would have been immune had he not sinned’ is thus ‘the last enemy’ of man left to be conquered” (CCC 1008). So what is the answer?
When the Lights Went Out that Night
With these general ways of thinking about death in mind, I’d like to ponder the sentiments of the apostles as they lie in bed on that first Good Friday. What an unspoken and tragic moment.
The man who they had come to believe was God, who had just days prior entered triumphantly into Jerusalem and who had fed them, now lay in a dank tomb, decaying. How could they stare this apparent complete abandonment in the face – the man they had pinned all of their hopes on, who they had given up everything to follow, seemed to do nothing in the face of his tormentors, or in the face of death, accept surrender to it. Did the apostles simply accept it? After all, He was just another man. Did the apostles deny everything about Him? Some did. Did the apostles try to project their own reasons onto the situation? Probably. How many of them actually stared His death in the face, allowed the scandal of the cross to penetrate the heart? How many of them were present to its depth? Perhaps only the few who actually went all the way to the cross with Him.
“Holy Saturday is the day of the ‘death of God,’ the day which expressed the unparalleled experience of our age, anticipating the fact that God is simply absent, that the grave hides him, that he no longer wakes, no longer speaks, so that on no longer needs to gainsay him but can simply overlook him” (Benedict XVI).
That night, as Good Friday transpired, and the shadowy Saturday came upon the horizon, Jesus himself offered the only adequate response to death. Not a rationalism, or a stoicism, or even a “good” reason (humanly speaking). In the face of death, He simply offers himself. He doesn’t offer a clever remark or a power trip, instead, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, offers himself.
Thus the truly satisfying position in front of death does not deny or cheapen or find a “good reason for it,” instead it is simply present to the mystery of death and the Presence that has filled it and made it new. “Christ strode through the gate of our final loneliness; in his Passion he went down into the abyss of our abandonment. Where no voice can reach us any longer, there is he. Hell is thereby overcome, or, to be more accurate, death, which was previously hell, is hell no longer. Neither is the same any longer because there is life in the midst of death, because love dwells in it” (Benedict XVI).
Even in death Christ can be encountered as a Presence that transforms death into life. This truth satisfies. Trite expressions and denial do not.
“For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then from my flesh I shall see God” (Job 19:25-26).