Category: Theological Ideas

When I say that evil has to do with killing, I do not mean to restrict myself to corporeal murder. Evil is that which kills spirit. There are various essential attributes of life — particularly human life — such as sentience, mobility, awareness, growth, autonomy, will. It is possible to kill or attempt to kill one of these attributes without actually destroying the body. Thus we may “break” a horse or even a child without harming a hair on its head.

Erich Fromm was acutely sensitive to this fact when he broadened the definition of necrophilia to include the desire of certain people to control others-to make them controllable, to foster their dependency, to discourage their capacity to think for themselves, to diminish their unpredictability and originality, to keep them in line. Distinguishing it from a “biophilic” person, one who appreciates and fosters the variety of life forms and the uniqueness of the individual, he demonstrated a “necrophilic character type,” whose aim it is to avoid the inconvenience of life by transforming others into obedient automatons, robbing them of their humanity.

Evil then, for the moment, is the force, residing either inside or outside of human beings, that seeks to kill life or liveliness. And goodness is its opposite. Goodness is that which promotes life and liveliness.”
― (M. Scott Peck, People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil).

Romans 8:18 is one of those oft quoted passages which many find to be a source of comfort in their times of trial. Saint Paul weighs present day sufferings against a future glory so vast that everything that tempts us to worry and fret simply pales into nothing:

“I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.”

I recently listened to an old podcast sermon by Tim Keller, and a particular quote really grabbed my interest, and reminded me of the power of perspective. The following isn’t an exact quote, but comes close:

“If you are a Christian, if you lose something in this world it’s like someone pickpocketed 25 cents off you, when you have billions somewhere safe in a trust fund.”

(This was a tossed off remark; the full sermon discussing the part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount which is the source of the term “strait and narrow”, is available online at Gospel in Life).

On Sept 26, 2010, a man was discovered hanging in the basement of the D.C. home he shared with his new wife. The man was an ace attorney who had been part of the botched government prosecution against Alaska senator Ted Stevens, and he was now facing a long investigation of his own role in the fiasco. In a fascinating article entitled “Casualties of Justice” the New Yorker magazine detailed the tragedy of Nicholas Marks:

Marsh woke up and went downstairs to the basement. At around three in the afternoon, Bermudez went to check on him, but he wasn’t in front of the television. He had hanged himself near the washer and dryer. There was no note.
Bermudez still lives in the home she shared with Marsh, and his voice still greets callers on the answering machine. “I don’t think I understood the depths of how the allegations affected him,” she told me. “He took his duties and his ethical obligations very much to heart. Even thinking that his career would be over was just too much for him. The idea that someone thought he did something wrong was just too much to bear.”

I find myself quoting pastor and author Tim Keller perhaps a bit too often these days, but this tragic story reminds me of some wise words he has said about work:
One of the scary things to me about this whole approach is that the culture’s approach weirdly enough is supposed to be liberating but it’s actually quite crushing. … But today in our modern culture, your work becomes your identity. How much money becomes your identity. It’s not just what you do but who you are! And that will crush you. (sermon transcript available here).

By all accounts Marsh was a very smart young attorney who had a bright future. He allowed a singular focus on career to become the entire locus of his identity, and when something went wrong it derailed him. This temptation to make an idol of career, to pin godlike hopes on it, is a common temptation, particularly in our culture. This is a tragic mistake. We are of course to work, and furthermore to “work as for the Lord”, giving our best efforts, striving for excellence; work is a good thing, but we shouldn’t let it become an ultimate thing. Our identity doesn’t come from what we do: “Our identity in Christ is received, not achieved.” (Keller)

The article about Nicholas Marsh concludes:

… Although Marsh’s reputation had suffered a severe and largely deserved fall for his actions in the Stevens case, skilled lawyers have rallied from far worse professional disasters. There is every reason to believe that he would have gone on to a distinguished career, and perhaps even to the judgeship he sought. But something in Marsh could not let the official system for discipline play out, and instead he imposed an unfathomably harsh punishment on himself.

Read more at The New Yorker.

Alfred Nobel was startled in 1888 to see his own obituary in the papers. His brother’s death had been mistakenly attributed to him. A French paper boldly proclaimed “Le marchand de la mort est mort” (“The merchant of death is dead”). It is thought that a sense of shame about his role in inventing dynamite led Nobel to establish the famous prizes that bear his name.

Originally called “Nobel’s Blasting Powder”, the inventor had reached back into the Greek language for a word that would forever after be associated with the immense power of his explosive: “δύναμις” or “dynamis”. It is the root behind the words “dynamo” and “dynamic”.

This same word is used in the Bible to describe the amazing power from on high that became available to the disciples of Jesus after his departure. Jesus had told them, “But you will receive power [dynamis] when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)

About ten days later, the disciples were in an upper room in Jerusalem during the feast of Pentecost, when suddenly that dynamism exploded upon them. As described in Acts 2:

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”
(Acts 2:2-12).

From that moment in a Jerusalem street, two thousand years ago, the church was suddenly born in a cataclysm–an explosion–of spiritual power that has propelled the “Good News” of Jesus through space and time, right down to us. The temporal powers that had tried to crush Jesus just weeks before this moment, were unsuccessful in stopping the new movement. They were no match for the “dynamis” of the Holy Spirit.

(Photo credit: “Boom goes the dynamite” by Aaron Merrell, at FLICKR, licensed for reuse under Creative Commons 2.0).

(Quotations are from the Holy Bible, New International Version).

The Ascension of Jesus, celebrated today as a major feast day in many churches, remains a deep mystery that both amazes and confounds us to this day.

According to the last verses of book of Luke: And it came to pass, while he blessed them, he parted from them, and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy.

I remember a movie portrayal of Jesus beaming down at his disciples as he rises into a clear blue sky. Though I otherwise liked the movie, I thought this bit of celluloid really looked kind of cheesy.

We are left to wonder, what really happened? Was this just a final flourish as Jesus left our plane of existence? Did Jesus really fly up like Superman? Did he perhaps disapparate in a puff of smoke like those “death eater” wizards in Harry Potter movies? Did he shimmer and fade out like a Star Trek character in a transporter beam? Did he go into orbit around earth and then zip on out into space?

The world’s first human in space, Yuri Gagarin of the Soviet Union, is reported to have announced in 1961 that when he went into space, he looked around, and didn’t see God up there. (More on this in a minute).

I happened to run across a blog post on Patheos, by Butler University’s Chair of New Testament Language and Literature, James McGrath, which showed some hilarious (if irreverent) pictures of Jesus in a space suit. I take his photos and his accompanying article–somewhat derisive in tone– to be a warning against too simplistic and literal a reading of this (or any) passage. The author states:

Ascension day is a perfect day to draw attention to the fact that literalism is not only problematic, but impossible. Even if someone insists on maintaining the literal truth of the claim in Acts that Jesus literally went up into heaven, they cannot maintain the worldview of the first century Christians which provided the context for the affirmation. They knew nothing of light-years, distant galaxies or interstellar space without oxygen. And it is not possible, through some act of either will or faith, to forget absolutely everything that has been learned since then and believe as they did. Even those who willingly choose to disbelieve modern science are making a choice that the first Christians did not have, and thus accept dogmatically what early Christians naively assumed because they knew no better.”

Now, I would presume that most Christians, including those early ones who witnessed this event, understood this occasion to be something different than space travel, or moving from one spot inside the universe to another. It was not translation through space but the exaltation of Christ that was the main point emphasized in the earliest Christian writings. As St. Paul gushed:

Therefore also God highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those who are in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:9-11).

Famed author C. S. Lewis wittily rebutted the comment attributed to Gagarin:

Looking for God — or Heaven — by exploring space is like reading or seeing all Shakespeare’s plays in the hope you will find Shakespeare as one of the characters or Stratford as one of the places. Shakespeare is in one sense present at every moment in every play. But he is never present in the same way as Falstaff or Lady Macbeth, nor is he diffused through the play like a gas.
If there were an idiot who thought plays exist on their own, without an author, our belief in Shakespeare would not be much affected by his saying, quite truly, that he had studied all the plays and never found Shakespeare in them.
(“The Seeing Eye”, in C. S. Lewis, Christian Reflections. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967).

Tim Keller, the famed pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, has further commented on this:

“C. S. Lewis wrote that if there is a God, we certainly don’t relate to him as people on the first floor of a building relate to people on the second floor. We relate to him the way Hamlet relates to Shakespeare. We (characters) might be able to know quite a lot about the playwright, but only to the degree that the author chooses to put information about himself in the play.
“In the Christian view, however, we believe that God did even more than simply give us information. … God, as it were, looked into the world he had made and saw our lostness and had pity on his people. And so he wrote himself into human history as its main character (John 3: 16). The second person in the Trinity, the Son of God, came into the world as a man, Jesus Christ.”
(Tim Keller, online at monergism.com).

Jesus isn’t any longer on the set (this world), nor is he in the rafters of the theater, nor is he next door quaffing a pint in the pub with the other actors. Nor is he anywhere floating around in outer space. He is outside the script, outside the story–outside the universe. He conquered death, took a bow, and exited. He is not a cosmonaut but the very author of the cosmos.

Epilogue:
Back to Yuri Gagarin. His friend Valentin Petrov has been interviewed as saying that Gagarin was in fact a devoted Christian at a time when it was dangerous to be such. The quote referenced above is from Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev:

It was most certainly not Gagarin who said this, but Khrushchev! This was connected with a plenary session of the Central Committee addressing the question of anti-religious propaganda. Khrushchev then set the task for all Party and Komsomol [Young Communists] organizations to boost such propaganda. He said: “Why are you clinging to God? Here Gagarin flew into space and didn’t see God.” However, some time later these words began to be portrayed in a different light. They were cited in reference not to Khrushchev, but to Gagarin, who was beloved by the people. Such a phrase spoken by him would be of great significance. Khrushchev wasn’t especially trusted, they said, but Gagarin would certainly be. But nothing was ever said by Gagarin about this, nor could he have uttered such things.

(photo credit: Fabrice de Nola, 1996. Yuri Gagarin, oil on canvas, cm 40 x 40).

Introducing a new video:

We have stitched together two brief audio excerpts from prominent New York pastors Andrew Mead (Rector emeritus at Saint Thomas Church 5th Avenue) and Timothy Keller (Redeemer Presbyterian Church), that discuss the idea of Christian freedom versus bondage to sin. All the pertinent source materials are listed at the Youtube website.

From the 1928 Book of Common Prayer:
“Set us free, O God, from the bondage of our sins, and give us
the liberty of that abundant life which you have made known
to us in your Son our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns
with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and
for ever. Amen.”

Thwack!. I am enjoying a beautiful spring day, attending a minor league baseball game with my family. My attention is diverted toward my bratwurst when suddenly a shadow seems to appear above me. Is it a bird? Then fans around me gasp and lunge as the shape– now clearly baseball sized–appears to be zooming toward my head. The maroon-uniformed batter down below has hit a foul ball and its wayward trajectory is about to ruin my day, or worse. Fortunately another spectator with a glove catches the ball, snatching it out of my orbit. This man in the stand cheers and waves his catch around like a trophy. He has caught the foul ball!

This baseball memory came back to me the other day as I was in a hospital corridor. Sunlight was streaming though patient windows. Spring was in the air–until suddenly it wasn’t. For some reason the door to the surgery recovery unit was closed. As I pushed it open, I soon learned why. Wafting down the corridor was an acrid stench that almost felled me. It was like bowel gas mixed with something infectious, like the purulent stinky drainage from a boil or the rot of an infected abdominal wound. It slapped me in the face and drove away all other thoughts. I started to hold my breath as I exited the unit. Soon I was back outside in the sunlight and the fresh blossom-scented spring air.

The word “foul” has layers of meanings that are worthy of reflection. When we go astray (like foul balls) we have deviated from God’s intended trajectory for us. It has happened to all of us: “all we like sheep have gone astray”, as you may remember from Handel’s famous chorus which is taken straight from Isaiah 53. Paul in Romans 3 also reminds us that we have all “fallen short” of God’s glory.

What is worse, though, is that our misdeeds make us, in a sense, smell bad–we “stink to high heaven” as an old saying goes. In Isaiah 65, God says the following of his wayward people. Here I use the Living Bible translation, for its descriptiveness:
“These people are a stench in my nostrils, an acrid smell that never goes away.”
When we stray from God’s will, we become like that odor I encountered in the hospital. Or like my dog, who sometimes on walks through wooded parks will suddenly dart into some leaves and roll in the liquifying remains of some dead rodent, thereby acquiring an awful odor. (When this happens, he finds that he very quickly gets some kind of bath).

But there is a promise to the faithful. Through the prophet Hosea, God exhorts His people to return to Him, and promises to make Israel smell good: “His splendor will be like an olive tree,
    his fragrance like a cedar of Lebanon.” In Ezekiel God says, “As a pleasing aroma I will accept you, when I bring you out from the peoples and gather you out of the countries where you have been scattered. And I will manifest my holiness among you in the sight of the nations.”

Blast forward four centuries to the New Testament, and we find that the apostle Paul used the idea of fragrant burnt offerings as a metaphor for the Christian life. He asked his readers to become “living sacrifices”–they are to be as consumed by passion for the things of God as to be on fire, and as dead to self as the animals consumed by that fire on the altar.

“But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things?”
(2 Corinthians 2:14-16, Holy Bible, English Standard Version).

The Living Bible clarifies verse 16: “To those who are not being saved, we seem a fearful smell of death and doom, while to those who know Christ we are a life-giving perfume.”

So, don’t be like my dog, or like that festering sore. Instead turn from worldly ways and embrace God’s love; let God bathe away your stench. (Though I won’t pursue this further in this little meditation, I will mention in passing to any non-Christian readers that the Christian initiation rite of baptism is a rich metaphor for such a spiritual bath–consider looking into this further).

I’ll conclude with another passage: “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”
(Ephesians 5:1-2)

Like most, I find the Bible to be a difficult book. I don’t merely mean that it is a lengthy collection of writings, and therefore a task for which I have trouble finding time. Nor do I mean that it is riddled with sometimes arcane or obscure terminology. Nor that it is full of challenging passages. Nor that original meanings sometimes get lost in translation.

More than this, it is tempting to approach the texts with 21st century assumptions. We tend to presume a naturalistic view of life that excludes the miraculous. We tend to fall into a fallacious and prideful assumption of moral and intellectual progress–that recent thinkers are smarter than those from antiquity, and our current values are superior to theirs. In short, we tend to look down our noses at our predecessors and their writings. We judge them from within our own parochial biases.

Within liberal Protestantism exists a large “fifth column”, a herd of skeptical critics who are currently inhabiting influential seats of power on church councils and in seminaries. These lend a veneer of authority to support a dismissive approach to understanding the Bible.

As one who reads widely, who has been through the rigors of higher education, who values scholarship, and whose work bastes me in scientific data on an ongoing basis, I am also particularly vulnerable. Doubt is my main demon–doubt, and perhaps pride. There are times when my own skepticism rises up against me. For me, I must retreat to my “touchstones” of faith, the greatest of which is the Resurrection of Jesus. The Resurrection is the claim that splits Christian believers from all other people examining these mysteries. I’m convinced that this miracle is no fable but actually true.

That a historical Jesus, a teacher, existed in 1st century Palestine and died on a cross is not controversial–this is not a point for which lengthy arguments are needed. But how do we know he didn’t stay dead?

  1. There is the mystery of the empty tomb. Much more could be said about this.
  2. We have eyewitness testimony, in the form of the 4 Gospels, and furthermore Paul the Apostle lists some of those who encountered the post-resurrection Jesus in 1 Corinthians 15:5-8.
  3. From this same passage, written probably in the year 55 (merely 22 years after Jesus’ death), Paul refers to an older tradition. Taking this idea of an older tradition, along with the great song to Christ (the “kenosis hymn”) of Philippians 2:5-11, we have evidence that before Paul was writing his letters, within a few short years after the crucifixion, Jesus was being revered as God in human form by a sizable number of people.
  4. These people were Jews, who by their history and religious faith would have been almost the last people on earth in any era of history, to have embraced such an idea.
  5. We have the evidence of changed lives: Jesus’ disciples were transformed from cowering in fear after the crucifixion, to boldly proclaiming the Gospel, even to their own gruesome martyrdoms.
  6. For me, one of the more persuasive arguments is that Jesus’ own earthly brother, James, came to believe in him after seeing him in his resurrected body. If I made a claim to my own divinity, the last person who would probably believe me is my own brother, because we grew up together.

Other arguments can be made, but I will defer for now.

If the resurrection is really true, then we can handle other parts of the Bible that are difficult. Once we grasp the miracle of miracles, then the other recorded miraculous events are not a significant intellectual problem, including the parting of the Red Sea by Moses, and the fish story of Jonah. We can handle the purity codes of the ancient Hebrews. We can draw meaning from the story of the Garden of Eden. We can handle all the parts of the Bible that are difficult for us to grasp in a post-enlightenment era. If the resurrection is true then we can have faith that those narratives were collected for us for a good reason.

If Jesus really came back from death, then we must transform how we look at the ancient texts he held sacred. We no longer judge the Bible by our standards but rather let the Bible judge us by its standards.

I know that spring has arrived, when a patch of dirt by our front lamp post erupts in dark green shoots. Days later a feast of color bursts upon the eye as the tulips fully bloom.

Spring brings also the yearly commemoration of the passion, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. One interesting controversy centers on the scope of Christ’s atonement, and tulips also remind me of this.

By 1610 a controversy had erupted in Holland, over a rift that had emerged between followers of Jacobus Arminius, and the rest of the reformed community who hewed to what we would today call Calvinism, after the theologian John Calvin. Eventually the Synod of Dort (which seated only the Calvinists) settled the matter in 1619 in favor of Calvinism.

The dissidents were known as the “remonstrants” who took issue with five theological points. These points are sometimes called the “Five points of Calvinism”, and they form an acrostic that reminds us of the tulips of Holland:

T-Total depravity
U-Unconditional Election
L-Limited Atonement
I-Irresistible Grace
P-Perseverance of the Saints

A lot could be said about each of these things, but this would get out of hand fairly quickly. I’ll focus on one: The “L” in TULIP is the idea that Christ didn’t actually suffer and die for all humanity. He died only for the Elect, for those particular people who have been chosen by God from the beginning of time to receive his Grace. Jesus seems to have come out and said just this in his upper room discourse on the night before his death (the same occasion that gave us the institution of Communion or the “Lord’s Supper”). As St. John recorded, Jesus prayed aloud for his disciples and all who would believe through them, in what is often referred to as his “high priestly prayer”:

 “I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world. Yours they were, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. … I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours.” (John 16:6, 9; Holy Bible, English Standard Version)

This idea of limited atonement is at one end of a spectrum, the opposite of which would be the idea of Universalism, which teaches that Christ’s atonement is universal in scope and that his death saves everyone, whether they believe or not. No one is lost. Universalism is a very comforting philosophy, but unfortunately only a tortured reading of Jesus’ words would permit one to reach this conclusion. Jesus’ teachings are clear that in the end some are saved, but many will perish. This is a deep and troubling mystery that confounds us. For those who take Jesus’ teachings seriously, Universalism is not a viable option except as a vague hope–in the end only God knows what He will do with Buddhists and agnostics. Universalists are on the fringe of Christianity.

Between these extremes would be the idea that Christ’s death is universal in scope (he died for all) but that not all people will avail themselves of his grace and therefore are not saved–each person must choose whether or not to accept Jesus. He died to take away all sin, and thereby to make salvation available to everyone who chooses in faith to turn to him.

Calvinists and non-Calvinists would tend to agree with the formulation that Christ’s death is “sufficient for all but efficient only for some.” The point of the controversy really comes down to the mysterious interplay between human free will and God’s will. It comes down to whether God intended that only a few be saved, or perhaps rather that He had a blanket desire that everyone be saved, but sadly God’s will is thwarted, as he leaves it up to us and our own free will to decide, each one for himself or herself.

We currently take the position here at this site that both viewpoints are Christian, and within the bounds of orthodox Christian belief. Therefore we don’t take a strong stance. There are faithful people on both sides of this question of free will versus determinism.

What all traditions would agree, is that for you as an individual, if you are a believer, then there is no limitation on God’s grace. Christ’s atonement is as unlimited as it is unmerited. It is shocking in its scope. However heavy a bag of sin you carry, you can lay it all at the cross.

The God of Christianity is the same who was praised by the psalmist for treating us not as we deserve but as children:

For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
    so great is his love for those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
    so far has he removed our transgressions from us.
(Psalm 103:12-13)

Saint Paul probably recalled this when he wrote his letter to the believers in Rome:
For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39, New International Version).

Reflect on this as you witness the unfolding of the tulips, and the unfolding of the drama of the death and resurrection of our Lord.

“Jesus is the answer!” So proclaims numerous road signs, Facebook posts, and bumper stickers. For those posting such things, it is an expression of their faith, of their confidence in Jesus. It a touchstone of peace and happiness for them and perhaps also for many who see it–but not for everyone. To a great many others, this statement provokes rather a sense of bewilderment, and begs a follow up question: “If Jesus is the answer, then what is the question?”

This thought brings to my lips a smile as I recall the analogous situation in Douglas Adams’ humorous Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, in which a planet-sized super computer named “Deep Thought” was constructed and directed to come up with “the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe, and Everything”. The program ran for millions of years, and finally returned an answer: “42”. Unfortunately neither the Deep Thought nor his designers knew what the ultimate question happened to be. The pan-dimensional beings seeking this answer were then forced to construct another planet-sized super computer to figure out the ultimate question.

Ash Wednesday is a Christian celebration that reminds us of the question for which Jesus is the answer. Or, more accurately, we are reminded of the problem for which Jesus is the solution; That is, the problem of death:

“Remember, o man, dust thou art, and to dust shalt thou return.”

Thus intones the priest in many a ceremony as ashes are imposed upon the foreheads of penitent Christians, these words echoing God’s curse in Genesis 3, pronounced upon humankind as punishment for sin.

Death is literally the bane of our existence. It destroys all that we hold dear. Try as we might to banish it from our thoughts, death catches us all. We recoil from it as we simultaneously yearn for permanence and significance. The idea of the extinction of our consciousness into an eternal nothing is difficult for us to fully grasp, for “God has set eternity in the hearts of men.” (Ecclesiastes 3:11)

Death is universal. We all die, because of our sin. Death is universal because sin is universal.

Fortunately, Ash Wednesday is merely the prelude to Easter. Whereas Ash Wednesday reminds us of our mortality, in essence saying, “Ye are dead”, Easter tells us: “Ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3).

The good news of Christianity is that God has set eternity in our hearts for a reason. It isn’t a dreadful taunt, or a meaningless musing. Jesus, the Christ, has died our death, in order that we might live his life. “For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

As the old Easter canticle proclaims:
“But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept.
For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead.”
(This comes from 1 Corinthians 15)

Jesus’ resurrection from death foretells our own liberation from it, and not only in the future, in an eternity after physical death. We may be liberated from its shadow, and its dread, and its power over us even in this life.

In the light of this good news, St Paul exults in his first letter to the Corinthians: “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?”

As John Donne, the 16th century poet we recently profiled, elaborated so eloquently:

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

(Sonnet X)