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Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Spirituality: To the point

by Father Michael Savelesky, for the Inland Register

(From the March 21, 2002 edition of the Inland Register)

We’ve all been in conversations that seem to accomplish everything except address the issue at hand. If it’s an argument we turn to ad hominem shouting – attacking the person, trying to kill the messenger bearing truth. If it’s a normal discussion, we talk about matters of secondary importance and avoid the real issue. Every once in a while, frustrated cries bring renewed focus: “Stick to the point.”

Sometimes this maneuvering around the central issue happens because the truth of the matter is just too real and, in the face of it, we find ourselves helpless. Nowhere is this experience more poignant than when we are confronted with death. Not just death as an abstract, philosophical part of the human endeavor, but one’s own death, or the death of a loved one. In these instances, there is no true escaping the reality and the sense of helplessness it brings. There is nothing we can do about death.

It’s very revealing, how we tend to deal with such situations. Even when loved ones die, we speak of “passing away” less often than “dying” – that’s too real. People are not dead, they are “at peace” – and we even cosmetically force the body to look that way at the mortuary. Believers even talk about the deceased as being “in a better place” – or we hide from the separation with self-consoling images like “golfing on the greens of heaven” or “joining the great bridge club in the sky.”

These acts of avoidance are found only on the lips of believers. Believers often run from death, too. As it approaches, perhaps there are even cries to the Lord to come and take away its harsh reality.

Can we not hear echoes in all this of the encounter between Jesus and his dear friend, Martha?

The event is portrayed near the end of John’s Gospel and is offered to us in the selection of Sunday Mass readings as we near Easter – the glorious celebration of Jesus’ Resurrection. Lazarus – Martha’s brother and Jesus’ friend – has died. Jesus is summoned.

“Lord, if only you had been here, this would not have happened,” cries Martha from the depths of her pained heart.

John’s positioning of Martha in this scene is not without reason. Martha – a symbol of us all, perhaps – brings a mechanical sense of “doing something” to Jesus when she encounters him outside Bethany near the tomb of Lazarus. If Jesus had been there, he could have done something to keep death at bay and her beloved brother would still be eating her cooking.

There seems to be an interesting blame game going on here. Was it Jesus’ fault that Lazarus died? And is it his role to keep his friends from experiencing the awful pain of separation that is the result of death? That was Martha’s cry – and it often is ours, too, when loved ones die, whether suddenly or after a prolonged illness. Our cries of “Why?” betray a mechanical sense of cause and effect. If the Lord had been with us, such a terrible thing would never have happened.

At some point in time, each and every one of us must face the reality of death. Our hearts will cease pumping blood, our breathing will stop and our brains cease to function. Death. There is no escaping it. – color it as prettily as we wish. We can beat around the bush all we want but there is no escape. Death happens. It is very real.

In his conversation with Martha, Jesus gets to the point. Martha is faced with a sense of helplessness in her confrontation with death. There is nothing she can do. In the end, only God can deal with death. And that’s the point!

In the conversation with Jesus, he – and we – are faced with one of the most significant challenges to our faith. The question is put to us, as it was put to Martha. Do we believe? Do we believe that in Jesus God acts to claim victory over death and will raise us up? Or is death the end of it all – the end of a limited number of years of activity, fun, partying and suffering? Our answer to that question cannot be a memorized catechetical response (which is so easy to make), but a commitment of the heart. It is an act of absolute trust in God. It is a radical placing of ourselves (or our loved ones) in the hands of God in the face of our inability to do anything. It is the heart’s trust ultimately and totally in the saving love of God. It takes Jesus at his word: “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes will live, even if they die; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” And then the punch line: “Do you believe?”

How we answer settles more than the question of “What happens to someone after they die?” or similar attempts to deal with similar questions about the immortality of the soul. It effects and changes the way we live, party, have fun and even suffer. If we believe that death merely reduces us to the stardust from which we came and that’s it – then, indeed, let the fleeting memory of our life be scattered to the winds. If that is all there is to life, then life is a joke which one rarely finds truly enjoyable and without pain. Life is reduced to a measured, Grand Deceit of nothingness.

Jesus promises us, not that our soul will go on living eternally, but that we will know everlasting life with the One who sent him. Eternal souls are the subject of philosophical bantering over the puzzling mystery of death. The philosophers seek consolation. Jesus cuts to the quick: die. But God in union with hi will raise us up. Christians believe in far more than the eternal existence of some eternal life-force; we believe in the resurrection of the body and life everlasting. We will live, not just our “soul.”

Sounds crazy and off the subject? Pious words, these, that avoid the subject? – or trust in the power of a God who promises fullness of life to those who follow his Son?

Do we believe?

Do we face the reality of death with a helplessness that lets God be God for us?

(Father Savelesky is pastor of Assumption Parish, Spokane. Harcourt Religion Publishers has issued his book Catholics Believe.) (Download order form in pdf format)

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