Prayer of the Day: O God our shepherd, you know your sheep by name and lead us to safety through the valleys of death. Guide us by your voice, that we may walk in certainty and security to the joyous feast prepared in your house, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
A late friend and former parishioner, upon learning that he had been diagnosed with a particularly aggressive form of pancreatic cancer, told me “nothing has changed. I’ve always known there were plenty of trains out there and one of them was bound to hit me sooner or later. Now I just know the number of the one with my name on it.” My friend’s words, spoken long before the coronavirus was a twinkle in anyone’s eye, have a contemporary ring to them. In a very real sense, nothing has changed for us. Even in the midst of life, we are in death. Covid-19 has simply brought that stark reality into sharper focus.
The words of the Twenty-Third Psalm also have a contemporary ring. Safety and danger, peace and conflict, light and darkness, life and death are all juxtaposed, contrasted and reconciled within this short piece of poetry. The shepherd leads the sheep to “green pastures” and “still waters.” Yet the “paths of righteousness” along which the sheep are led pass through “the valley of the shadow of death.” The shepherd “prepares a table for the sheep,” but that table is set “in the presence” of their “enemies.” To be sure, the psalm offers the assurance of God’s comforting presence. But that presence comes to us in the midst of a dicey existence.
There is one more thing to keep in mind. In the Bible, sheep are not adorable little pets. They are commodities. At some point, they will be sent to slaughter. David, the putative author of the Twenty-Third Psalm, knew that and so did Jesus when he referred to himself as the “good shepherd.” Just as the shepherd lays down his life for the sheep, so the sheep must lay down their lives for their shepherd:
“If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you. If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world—therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, ‘Servants are not greater than their master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also. But they will do all these things to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me.” John 15;18-21.
Of course, not all of Jesus’ disciples died as martyrs. It is probably safe to say that most of us will not perish under the sword of persecution. But perish we surely will. There is a train out there with our name on it, whether it be covid-19 or another number. Now that our mortality is placed for us in such sharp relief, what are we to make of it?
I believe the last episode in John’s gospel can help us with that. There Peter is told that he will be imprisoned and die for Jesus’ sake-a good word for him. Recall that Peter had promised to undergo that very fate just days before-and lost his nerve when the opportunity came. So Jesus was, in effect, giving Peter another chance to make good on his promise, an opportunity to redeem himself. But then Peter goes on to inquire about another of Jesus’ disciples identified only as “the one Jesus loved.” “What about him?” Peter asks. Jesus politely replies that it is none of Peter’s damned business. Peter is to follow Jesus and leave off with speculating about the destiny of others. John 21:18-23.
What I find particularly interesting is John’s commentary on the rationale for Jesus’ informing Peter about his ultimate destiny. “[Jesus] said this to indicate the kind of death by which [Peter] would glorify God.” John 21:19. Even what Paul calls “the final enemy,” is transformed by Jesus into a gift. Death constitutes the one last opportunity we have to glorify God, to bear witness to the hope that is within us and offer encouragement and inspiration to others. Viewing death as an opportunity is nearly impossible for a death denying culture like ours. There is no place for it in the way we live our lives. We plan our careers, we plan our retirements and we plan for the distribution of our wealth after we have died. But who plans for death? We go out of our way not to use the “D” word, employing flowery euphemisms, like “expired,” “passed on,” “entered eternal rest” and the like. We typically hide the dying process from the rest of life in hospital rooms and the hospice section of nursing homes. We need living wills and health proxies to make sure medical practitioners do not employ extreme measures to keep our hearts beating and our lungs pumping long after nearly all brain function has ceased and the prospect of recovery is nil. Our medicine is adept at prolonging life, but inept at dealing with the end of it. In medical terms, a dead patient amounts to failure.
It was not always so. During medieval times, death was at the very center of life. According to church teaching, the whole purpose of life was to prepare for death. Participation in worship and the sacraments was understood as a process of formation, readying one for a “good death.” Time was measured in saint’s days marking the death of biblical and post biblical heroes of faith. The landscape was dominated by parish churches and towering cathedrals which were the sites of local graveyards. The faithful were challenged to so live that in death their hope and confidence in the resurrection and eternal life might glorify God. Death was surrounded by familiar communal rituals and symbols of comfort and hope. It was sad, to be sure, but not terrifying and hopeless.
I am not suggesting there is any merit in morbid preoccupation with death (and yes, the church of the middle ages did go a bit overboard with that). But I do believe that our persistent denial of death robs us of much joy, comfort and hope that comes with recognizing and accepting it for what it is: the end of a mysterious and wonderful gift that we have been given, namely, life. Part of what makes life precious is the knowledge that it is finite. Much of what makes life meaningful is the recognition that it is brief and what we choose to do with each minute of it matters. It will matter in the end how compassionately we have treated one another, especially those among us regarded as “the least.” Eternal life does not begin after death, but long before it. Eternal life, it turns out, is life lived in communion with Jesus and his devotion to the gentle reign of God. So the question is, how much of the life you have lived today is “eternal”? How much of it matters from the standpoint of God’s reign? Would your death today witness to a life that has been lived eternally?
Here is a poem by George Herbert inviting us to think differently about death.
Death, thou wast once an uncouth hideous thing,
Nothing but bones,
The sad effect of sadder groans:
Thy mouth was open, but thou couldst not sing.
For we considered thee as at some six
Or ten years hence,
After the loss of life and sense,
Flesh being turned to dust, and bones to sticks.
We looked on this side of thee, shooting short;
Where we did find
The shells of fledge souls left behind,
Dry dust, which sheds no tears, but may extort.
But since our Savior’s death did put some blood
Into thy face,
Thou art grown fair and full of grace,
Much in request, much sought for as a good.
For we do now behold thee gay and glad,
As at Doomsday;
When souls shall wear their new array,
And all thy bones with beauty shall be clad.
Therefore we can go die as sleep, and trust
Half that we have
Unto an honest faithful grave;
Making our pillows either down, or dust.
Source: This poem is in the public domain. George Herbert (1593 –1633) was a Welsh-born poet, orator, and priest of the Church of England. He was born into a wealthy family and raised in England. He was admitted to Trinity College, Cambridge where he went with the intention of becoming a priest. Instead, he became the University’s Public Orator. His skill attracted the attention of King James I through whose patronage he entered the Parliament of England. There he served for about a year. Following the death of King James I, Herbert gave up his secular ambitions and took holy orders in the Church of England. He spent the rest of his life as the rector of a small parish in Salisbury. You can read more about George Herbert and sample more of his poems at the Poetry Foundation website.