I have a bad habit of thinking deeply about death and resurrection. I’m not alone in this, and in a few days there will be a whole lot of sermonizing done about what happened to Jesus at the end of his life on earth. For at least this one week of the year, it’s OK to enter into darkness and contemplate the unthinkable: God giving up his own son as payment for the sin of all humanity.
Most of the Easter messages I’ve heard communicate clearly the purpose and meaning of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, and for that I’m grateful. This is the central event of human history, and there’s no end to the good words that can be spoken about it. But rarely does anyone attempt to really bring this message home. The tendency of preachers is to leave a safe distance between God’s word and our response. Jesus died so we could live. It’s a done deal. Hallelujah! Let’s go get some Easter brunch.
In thinking about my own death, I’m forced to think also about Christ’s death upon the cross. His crucifixion is an historical fact. It really happened. Less verifiable, but equally true, is the proposition that I have been crucified with Christ—that on the cross he offered up voluntarily not only his life, but my life and your life as well. We die and rise again with Christ. This is literally the crux of the matter.
In the sense that matters most, I have already died. My death is behind me. Just as death has no dominion over Christ, it has no dominion over me. This is amazingly good news. It is amazingly personal news. Because of it, we are free to live fearless lives.
The Catholic intellectual John Richard Neuhaus has written movingly about his ultimate destiny in the small book, As I Lay Dying. In a “near-life” experience he had several years ago when first strickened with cancer, Neuhaus realized that the separation of the body and soul at death was not the disaster he had assumed it would be. When he contemplated and fully appreciated the fact that he had already died once with Christ, the thought of dying again in the flesh seemed less daunting. Much to his surprise, he did not then die, despite being seriously ill, although he did finally succumb to complications from cancer in January.
Neuhaus experienced in his life both a reckoning with God and a reckoning with his mortality, as I believe I have. By God’s plan, over which I have not an iota of influence, I was born into this world, I experienced a second birth and a first death, and I expect to be bodily resurrected into his everlasting community in heaven. The separation of body and soul at death is not permanent. There will be great sadness when they are breached, and I wouldn’t wish it to happen any time soon, but when it comes, I expect to be ready.
This, I believe, is as much a part of the Easter story as what we’ll hear at church on Sunday. When Christ dies, so do we. This is not metaphor. Yes, it is mystery, but holy mystery—the kind that harbors no danger. Having died once, a second death is not to be feared.
“I have been crucified with Christ: the life I now live is not my life, but the life which Christ lives in me, and my present mortal life is lived in faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself up for me.” (Galatians 2:20)