Death and life have contended in that combat stupendous. The Prince of Life, who died, reigns immortal. Alleluia! (Victimae Paschali Laudes)
As I grow older, I find myself increasingly interested in obituaries (I wonder why). And there, one often reads that the deceased “succumbed” after years of “battling” some dread disease. The person lost his battle with encroaching death, but not without a fight. He deserves credit for putting up a good fight, even though death won the battle. At many a wake one hears admiring comment about the departed person’s courage against overwhelming odds; but there he is, laid out in his coffin, proving once again that the odds against poor human flesh are just too great.
Why do we admire courage of that kind? Why not, instead, give credit to a person who dares to face encroaching death, wisely declines further, useless, treatment, settles his affairs, and then departs in peace? Isn’t that a better kind of courage than stubbornly defying overwhelming odds? It does seem so, but one seldom finds that kind of courage mentioned in obituaries.
I suppose a high proportion of obituary readers think of death in naturalistic terms, as what sadly happens to beings who have bodies such as ours, which break down and disintegrate as a result of trauma, disease, or age. There is a corresponding view of this life that we now enjoy as something that must be perpetuated at almost any cost. This naturalistic view may include some pale notion of immortality, such as a person’s legacy to future generations, or his spirit “living on,” or some such thing. But still, death reigns—and so it is no wonder that people without faith take consolation in the thought of someone stubbornly determined to resist it.
Today, again this year, we reach the climax of a story about someone who did not defy encroaching death; indeed, he is one who accepted suffering and death of the most excruciating kind, even though he could have chosen to avoid it. And we celebrate this man as the one who really did win the battle with death. In his case, as the ancient Latin Easter hymn proclaims, “Death and life contended in that combat stupendous. The Prince of Life, who died, reigns immortal.” Jesus Christ the Lord, the “Prince of Life,” defeated death—paradoxically, it seems, by freely and willingly embracing it.
That paradox points us well beyond the naturalistic view of death—and life; it points us forward to a mystery of faith that is meant to govern all the ways we Christians live—and die. For in the light of our Lord’s Resurrection, both death and life take on entirely new, and different, meanings.
The commonly accepted meaning of death is of a loss, a termination, an extinction—something to be feared, or welcomed only when life becomes intolerable. And in that conception, life is something you and I possess—something belonging to us that is worth our every effort to preserve and to enhance. Death is, then, a constant threat to our most dear possession, constant if not imminent; death is a shadow, the threat of dispossession, something to be feared.
But now, the Christian scriptures offer a corrective to that common way of thinking about death and life. In the Letter to the Hebrews, it is written that “Since [God’s human children] share in flesh and blood, he [the Son of God] likewise partook of the same nature, that through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage” (Hebrews 2:14-15).
Bondage! That is the true state of those for whom life is their possession, under constant threat of death—under its shadow, subject to its dominion, since we all know it will dispossess us in the end. So, through the fear of death, the devil gets his power over us, because we will be willing to do anything, to commit any sin, to keep our grasp on this life, and on our way of life. If that fear could be removed, the devil would be dispossessed; the power of evil would be broken. That is our Easter faith: The Son of God, by sharing in our human nature even to embracing death, frees us from the fear of death, and thus the devil’s power over us.
Life under the shadow of death is really a poor thing, after all; there is no real joy in possessing something that could so easily be lost. But just as Jesus shows us that death need not be feared, he shows us too that life does not belong to us as a possession to be grasped; life is a gift to be received and shared, and given. Jesus spoke his last words from the Cross—“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit”—confident that the life he was giving up to the One who had given it to him would be restored to him—a thousandfold.
The family of man, without the Easter faith, is bound to create what Pope John Paul II called a “culture of death.” When people devote all their resources to preserving, enhancing, and protecting their lives as their possession to be grasped, ironically the threat of death becomes a weapon to defend that way of life; the practice of death becomes a tool to enhance that way of life; by death we rid ourselves of fellow human beings who are undesired, inconvenient, or no longer useful; and if the preservation of that way of life relies so much upon the use or threat of death, then it is surely death, not life, that has dominion, and every kind of evil is permissible.
On the other hand, our Easter faith gives us the power to create a “counter-culture,” one that enthrones the “Prince of Life,” who has dethroned death by embracing it; who has freed us from the fear of death; and thus enabled us to live our lives together as a gift to be received and shared and given, confident that the life we give up to the Giver of life he will restore to us a thousand fold; it cannot be lost.
Jesus Christ our Lord has lifted the shadow of death from the world, even if so many who do not believe in him continue to live under it. In the light of his Resurrection, every human good can flourish freely, without fear of loss; the practice or the threat of death become unnecessary evils; there can be created, even within the “culture of death,” a “counter-culture of life,” in the phrase of Pope Paul VI, a “civilization of love.”
And thanks to Jesus, crucified and risen, the world that we inhabit is enormously expanded to include so much more than we can see within the boundaries of this short life—all that myriad of human souls, our brothers and our sisters, who now truly live in the communion of the blessed, in the company of Jesus Christ the “Prince of Life,” who “reigns immortal” over this world and the world to come.