Scripture: Luke 22-23 (selections)
As many of you know, my wife Mary’s younger brother Mike died this winter. He was only sixty-two, and was felled by a sudden massive heart attack. We still grieve, and miss him, and wish he had taken better care of his health. His death is an ever-present part of our lives.
You can’t be a pastor of a church—and I daresay you can’t be a member of a church, especially one of this size—and not be aware of death. Almost weekly, our Fellowship of Prayer includes the mention of someone who has died. I officiated at a funeral yesterday for Judy Batdorff, my fourth funeral in the last six weeks or so. Death surrounds us. And every so often it assaults each of us a little more directly, a little more personally.
And usually we don’t talk much about it. It’s there, lingering, casting its shadow. And for most of us, it’s just too big, too overwhelming, too off-putting to gaze directly at it. So maybe we cast a sidelong glance, and then we look away, and all the while the massive elephant sits in the room with us as we try to ignore its looming hulk, its frightful weight.
During Holy Week, though, we Christians turn our gaze to that elephant. And it may seem like an terrible downer—‘I knew I should have stayed home today!’ But there’s something about Passion Sunday, this day on which we remember the death of Jesus, that invites us into the mystery of the one thing that, along with taxes, happens to us all.
The four gospels, of course, all tell the story differently. They each have their own spin. When I ponder the death of Jesus as Luke tells it in his distinctive way, here’s some of what I take in. Luke’s Jesus has a wonderful ambivalence toward death. Early in the story, we see his resistance to dying. He prays to have this cup of death removed from him (22:42). He’s filled with a deep anguish, tears falling from his eyes like drops of blood (22:44). He doesn’t want to die. And we can’t help but think what a gift it is to hear of Jesus’ fear and pain in this world that so often pretends not to feel it. That holy anguish affirms that full-bodied grieving is one of the healthiest things we can do. Telling God and each other of our desolation is often vital in regaining a sense of wholeness. Mention of Jesus’ misery is a huge gift to a culture that so often shies away from sustained tears and genuine grief.
That said, though, Luke’s gospel has another emphasis, as well. As the story progresses, Jesus also accepts the inevitable. From one angle, his words from the cross are almost unbelievable. “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (23:34). Really, Jesus? How can you be so sanguine, so blasé, about this? How can you so easily let your persecutors literally get away with murder? It seems preposterous, and maybe even unhealthy, not to weep and wail and even to desire revenge.
It is indeed healthy to express our grief, as Jesus most certainly does. Bottling up fear and sadness is undoubtedly the way of emotional constipation. It is also true, though, as Jesus shows us, that the way to true freedom may entail finally accepting what is inevitable—forgiving our tormentors, not stewing in our resentments, not holding grudges, finding a kind of peace in what is. Forgive them. Let go.
The other striking word Jesus utters from the cross is the very last thing he speaks: God, he says, “into your hands I commend my spirit” (23:46). “Into your hands,” he says. Into God’s hands he knows he goes. For Jesus, death is not a void; it’s not a vast emptiness and nothingness. For Jesus, the truth is that death is a homecoming. Death, for him, is an immersion into the very source of life. Jesus trusts that God will carry him even in death. “Into your hands.”
When it’s my time to die, I want to grieve. But I also want to commend my life to God as gracefully as I can. I want to be able to yield, to accept, to find peace in that unavoidable step. The Quaker educator and activist, Parker Palmer, has recently written a book about his own aging and inevitable death. Mary gave it to me for Christmas—I’m hoping there isn’t some subtle message embedded in that gift!
Palmer writes there in a moving way about the process of accepting his own death. His time in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area has been an especially good teacher for him in this regard. He has witnessed massive natural devastation there, and he has also witnessed a gradual rebirth. He has been transfixed by the area’s quiet, beautiful and unassuming renewal.
“For years,” he says, “I’ve asked myself the ancient question, ‘How, then, shall we live?’ . . . But at age seventy-nine, . . . I also ask ‘How, then, shall we die?’” And he writes so astutely about the grace hidden in dying. “I learned long ago how much I do not know, so I won’t be shocked if death has surprises in store for me. But amid all my not-knowing, I’m certain of two things: when we die, our bodies return to the earth, and earth knows how to turn death into new life. When my own small life ends in some version of wind and fire, my body will be transformed by the same alchemy that keeps making all things new. . .”
He trusts that his death will be a kind of gift. “It matters not to me whether I am resurrected in a loon calling from the lake, a sun-glazed pine, a wildflower on the forest floor, the stuff that fertilizes those trees and flowers or the Northern Lights and the stars that lie beyond them. It’s all good and it’s all gold, a vast web of life in which body and spirit are one.
“I won’t be glad to say goodbye to life, to challenges that help me grow, to gifts freely given, or to everyone and everything I love. But I’ll be glad to play a bit part in making new life possible for others. That’s a prospect that makes life worth dying for. . . .
“Julian of Norwich got it right: ‘All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well’” (On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity and Getting Old, pp. 180-181).
Palmer’s reflections, I think, resonate with the dying Jesus. My prayer, when we go, is that we will all let go and know that our death has a goodness about it, and that we will be able to say gladly, “into your hands I commend my spirit.”