23 March 2008

The Death of Death: Jesus' triumph over Godless death

What is it we celebrate today in proclaiming CHRIST IS RISEN, INDEED HE IS RISEN!!? In particular, what does it mean to say that Jesus has conquered death? Isn't death still with us? What has changed? A couple of people have written about the article I posted last week and asked for some clarifications. Since the explanatory notes that accompanied the original article in Review For Religious did not translate into the blog entry it is more than likely the article left readers in general with questions and the need for clariifcations. I will try to answer or address them here as they are raised in email.

As I noted in that earlier post (A Theology of the Cross), in the Scriptures death has two meanings. There is the normal kind of perishing, the kind of perishing our pets do, the kind of perishing which is completely natural and untainted by sin. Presumably it is the kind of dying which is, for us, a natural transition to eternal life, the kind of death Mary suffered prior to her assumption, and the kind of death we might have known had sin never been introduced into our world. But there is also a second kind of death, the kind which we humans beings know and fear because it is unnatural, sinful, and therefore, by definition, Godless. It is a more characteristically PERSONAL reality created by human sin. It is also a power at work in the world, but twisted, distorted and made malignant through sin. For this reason it is variously described as sinful death, godless death, or the second death; it is symbolized by death on the cross, and what makes it horrific for us is the absence of God. It is completely antithetical to what we are made for or called to. When Paul writes that the sting of death is sin, this is what he is referring to --- death which is rendered Godless --- for we are rightly terrified of this death, and yet, every time we choose to live without God, we choose Godless death as well, for to choose life without God, is necessarily to choose death without him.

This second (kind of) death is the death which Jesus died for us, the death which he experienced in all of its depth and horror. It is marked, as his cry of abandonment tells us, by his loss of all contact with his Father. Jesus enters the realm of Godlessness, not simply that of death but of SINFUL death, the uniquely personal realm and power created by human sinfulness, and he does so OBEDIENTLY, that is, remaining open and responsive to his Father and the Holy Spirit, not turned in on himself or rejecting the dependence of faith by attempting to save himself or despairing of God. When Paul says Jesus was obedient unto death, even death on a cross, this is what Paul is talking about. Crucifixion symbolized godlessness, and being completely cut off from both human and divine communion. To die such a death while remaining obedient to God is to open this ultimate sinful and personal reality to God. It is, in fact, to implicate God into this reality thus transforming it forever.

And here is the key to understanding Jesus' triumph over death, sinful, godless death. God cannot force his way into a strictly personal reality. He must be ALLOWED in. That is true in our own hearts, and it is true of this uniquely personal reality as well. In our own lives, we are called to obedience, which means we are called to remain open to and dependent upon God and the life and meaning he gives. We are called to do that in all of life's moments and moods so that God is implicated in them --- our contribution to God's becoming "All in All"! And yet, in our own lives, when faced with threatening situations, we typically do NOT remain obedient to God. Instead we do what the crowd challenged Jesus to do: we attempt to save ourselves. This may mean doing all we can to extricate ourselves altogether from the situation APART FROM THE GRACE OF GOD, but it may also mean shutting down emotionally, doing all we can to prevent ourselves from really feeling what is happening to us or being vulnerable to all it implies. Unfortunately, we also cease to be vulnerable to or dependent on the grace of God at such times.

Jesus, however, does not shut down emotionally; he does nothing to ease his own vulnerability, and he certainly does not act to extricate himself from the situation. Even his request that this cup might pass from him is a way of remaining open to the will and grace of his Father and dependent upon that; it is an expression of vulnerability. His is truly an obedient death, and he remains open and responsive to God right to the depths of all this sinful, godless death implies. And it is here the miracle occurs. Because of this openness, this complete or exhaustive dependence and self-emptying, God is able to enter the situation just as exhaustively and transform the reality of godless death with his presence. Where once sinful death would have had the final word, it no longer does. Instead God will bring life and meaning out of even this reality. When Paul speaks of the death of death this is what he is speaking of: the triumph of self-emptying (kenotic) Love over sinful death. When he asks, "death where is yout sting?" he is pointing to this transformation.

In light of this, for those baptized into Christ's death and faithful to that baptism, death is what it can be for us: more truly a matter of natural perishing, a kind of transition to eternal life. It is no longer something we must fear in the way we once did for it lacks the sting it once had. It is instead, in light of Christ's death, the place or event in which we may meet God face to face. God forgives our sins, but he acts to reconcile us to himself, and part of that reconciliation is to defeat those realities which remain as obstacles between us and himself. Both death and godless death are among those. The post-resurrection world is not the same as the one that existed before Jesus was raised, for life has broken into some of the darkest most inaccessible places in light of Jesus' OBEDIENT death and resurrection. More precisely, heaven has broken in upon us and we are asked to be ITS citizens (that is, Daughters and Sons of God) right here and right now as a result of our baptisms into Jesus' death.