By Cole Hartin
Lent is good time to think about death. It’s a good time to think about death because it’s the time when we remember our mortality, our limits, and our utter reliance upon God. It’s also a good time to think about death because we can frame our dying in light of our creation through and redemption in Christ. Because we are created by God, we are not immortal. We are creatures. Though we are creatures, death is not our end. In Christ’s death, death was defeated once and for all. We will celebrate this on Easter Sunday. We cannot understand our mortality and life without reference to our creator, nor can we make sense of our death without reference to the change that Christ’s death has wrought in the world.
All of this is especially important in a culture that obscures death. By my lights, here in 21st-century America, death is obscured in at least three ways: Death is hidden, or it is trivialized, or it causes despair.
Let me give you some examples of each:
Death is hidden. The whole funeral-industrial complex sanitizes and hides death from view. Our loved ones are whisked from hospital rooms to funeral homes to celebrations of life. We are spared from the most mundane and uncomfortable aspects of death.
Oddly enough, culture also trivializes death. How? Look at horror movies or many popular video games. They are chock full of death and dying, but instead of presenting death as a liminal moment, it becomes a means of cheap scares and entertainment.
And finally, death causes despair. Without God in the picture, death is just the end, full stop. And that means our lives, however bright they shine for the three-score-and-ten-odd years we live on earth, will ultimately be blotted out forever. There’s a songwriter I love, Phil Elverum (of Mount Erie), who sums this up in an album, A Crow Looked at Me, about his wife’s early death. In one song, “Emptiness, pt. 2”, he writes of losing his wife:
There is nothing to learn
Her absence is a scream
Conceptual emptiness was cool to talk about
Back before I knew my way around these hospitals
I would like to forget and go back into imagining
That snow shining permanently alone could say something to me true and comforting
As stark as these lyrics are, I think he is right. If there is no God, there is no purpose in death, and there is no possibility of it being redeemed. It is nothing more than a “scream saying nothing.”
Now, I am not necessarily lamenting modern obscuring of death. At times it might be appropriate to hide death, or even to trivialized it. In many ways we are blessed to be spared facing death every day. Our lifespans are long and lengthening. But as Christians, before we hide, trivialize, or despair at death, we must turn to Christ to see how he has transformed it.
As we turn to Christ and prepare to remember his death on Good Friday, we remember that in death we are not alone, and more importantly, there is hope beyond the grave. When Mary, Mary and Salome went to bring spices to Jesus’ tomb, “they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back” (Mark 16:4a). That airtight tomb was broken open by the resurrection of Jesus. So too the darkness of our dying is not final. There is a light at the end of the tunnel. It is shining brighter every day.