Feliz Dia de los Muertos! Or, for you uncultured and uninformed people who don’t know what this means, Happy Day of the Dead! There isn’t a bigger holiday in Mexico. This is a day, indeed a group of days, set apart to honor those that have gone on before you in death.
This affords us an opportunity to talk about the most uncomfortable, avoidable topic that faces those of us in the West today: death. We’ve all thought about it. We’ve all pondered it. We’ve all contemplated that horrible reality that faces us all.
“He didn’t want to think about it. He didn’t want to care. Caring hurt. But not caring would be worse. And then his mind arrived where it always did when the deep ache got out of its cage. Death was real. It was waiting. For him and for everyone he loved and needed. In the end—in one year or in ninety—he would be alone in a cold box, silent, breathless, bloodless, listening to the slow groping of tree roots.”
This quote comes to us from the pen, or computer, of ND Wilson in his book The Dragon’s Tooth. The main character has experienced loss. He’s experienced the death of those closest to him. And he knows this end is coming for him as well. It’s as though we are the damsel in distress in some cliche 1920’s-style movie, in which the mustached bad guy binds us to the train track and we wait for the train. We never know when it is coming, but we know that it is. So what do we do with this? How do we respond to this reality?
There are all manner of philosophical positions from Nihilism, the belief that there is no purpose in anything and that everything is ultimately headed nowhere, to pantheism, the belief that everything, without exception, is God. Ultimately, however, they all must deal with the question of death and attribute some logic to it. So, we are presented with a dichotomy. Either death is purposeless or it isn’t. Death either does something or it doesn’t. There is no in-between, no third way, no way around this. So, what’ll it be?
It isn’t like the idea of death being meaningless is unattractive. It would be a nice, neat, and even clean, way of dealing with it. We could say, “Death is pointless,” and go on forgetting that the train is coming until it arrives. Isn’t this the goal of life anyway? To forget about the train until it comes? You only live once, after all.
Indeed, it’s quite tempting to believe that death is arbitrary, pointless, and unnecessary, but there is another option.
See, at the beginning of time, God created the heavens and the earth. (Gen 1:1) He created all things over the course of six days, crowning His Creation with man. Man, named Adam, was given a woman to be his companion. These two were charged not to eat the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Yet, the woman, who had been deceived by the serpent, ate the fruit and gave some to her husband who also ate. God had promised that death would be the punishment for this breach of the rules, and so, ashamed, Adam and the woman hid themselves from God. God discovered them and cursed them, but did not kill them physically. Their immediate death was a spiritual one. This spiritual death was manifested in their being cast from the Garden.
Physical death was coming for them, though. They had been bound, and the train was coming for the first time in human history. Except, it was God, not the mustached bad guy, that did the binding. See, it’s just like that example from earlier with the cliche 1920’s-style bad guy and the damsel in distress. Except, it isn’t like that at all. We’re the bad guys. We sinned. We earned our wage, and the wages of sin is death. (Romans 6:23) We’re the mustached bad guys, and the good guy, God, has declared this punishment to befall us.
But, what if, instead of death being an arbitrary punishment, it was an act of mercy? What if immortality would be more cruel? Secretly, we know this. It comes through in movies all the time. We see people who have lived for hundreds of years long for the sweet release of death.
So what is it that makes death desirable to those who long simply to forget it? This is where the Garden account comes into play. It wasn’t just that a rule was broken, though it was. It wasn’t just that they disobeyed the Word of God, though they did. On top of that, Adam and the woman marred themselves. After being created in the image of God, they distorted this image by their sin. Romans 5 will tell us that this one act introduced death into the Creation.
And, even in this we see God’s abounding grace. God doesn’t look at us and say, “You made this bed, now lie in it.” He says to us, “You don’t have to continue in your sickness and pain.”
Throughout history there have been stories of adventurers searching for the “Fountain of youth.” They seek to live forever. They acknowledge that their bodies are growing weaker and wearier by the day, indeed, by the hour. Thusly, they seek the “Fountain of youth” thinking that youth is what is to be desired. They think that, because in their youth they were strong, they could rule the world without fear of ailment or woe. They completely forget about the countless illnesses and deaths that occur in youths every day. Though they are quite unaware of it, people are not searching for eternal youth, but rather perfection. They seek to be made complete.
Humanity lost something when our first parents partook of that forbidden fruit: innocence. This beautiful component of being created in the image of God is necessary for the complete person. However, you cannot undo something that has been done. Life isn’t a video game or Word Document. We cannot hit “undo” and expect our problems to go away. No, a piece of us was lost. Not much different from losing an arm or a leg. This innocence is crucial to our identity as perfect image bearers of God. We, therefore, need a surgeon to reconnect us with innocence.
Enter: Christ Jesus. It is only in Christ that our innocence is restored. It is only in Christ that we are made complete. Clothed in the robes of Christ’s righteousness, we are able to stand before God as though the words, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” were spoken to us directly. Instead of the curse Adam received, we receive a blessing. What was lost is now, in Christ, restored.
However, as beautiful and glorious as this revelation is, it is only attainable through death. We had to die in Adam to be made alive in Christ. We have to die here to experience the Resurrection. We cannot continue in our sickly state forever.
Now, because of this, we may look ahead to the life we live after death, in Christ, through repentance and faith in Him, and embrace the coming train. Death serves a purpose. Death tells us that this miserable, sinful world isn’t all there is, and it tells us that perfect, eternal life is to be desired ultimately, above all else.
Death is scary. Death is gruesome. But, death isn’t the end. Death has no power over believers in Christ Jesus. Death can only liberate us.
In an ending just as cliched as my example, the mustached bad guy begins to see the graciousness God has used in placing us on the track and giving us time to live before the train comes. He is also able to see the coming of the train as a good thing rather than a fearful thing. The train, long and black, no longer holds sway over him. He sings as it comes for him because he knows that on the other side of the train he will be loosed and free, complete before the Lord.
Let us sing with the Apostle:
1 Corinthians 15:55 (KJV 1900)
55 O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?
Soli Deo Gloria.