When I sat down with the pastor at St. Maximillian’s to discuss my spiritual journey, the pitch was pretty blunt: “Tell me, Brian, do you want to die, or live forever?”
Today, I have arrows in my quiver that I didn’t have then. “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.” [Matt. 16:25] Not that I wasn’t concerned about survival then, but that concern was overshadowed by incredibly powerful dreams. I needed somebody to help me sort through them, so the response he got back was a disappointed stare.
Now I didn’t expect to die, so the sense in which I was losing my life at that time was that held by most people reading Jesus’s words. My way of living was being consumed by powerful forces that I could not overcome with force. The only weapon that I had was my heart. I was committed to surrendering myself to loving, no matter the cost.
But in an earlier era, most people would have taken those words as a literal pronouncement: those that perish for me will find life. Certainly death was part of the early Christian experience, with thousands of martyrs to the faith. But how is that “for Christ”?
We celebrate sacrificial nobility in those that died in combat securing our freedom. That was perhaps also the understanding of those that died fighting for the faith during the Crusades and other Christian wars. But how does that square with the first part: “Whoever wants to save his life will lose it”? Doesn’t every warrior wish to return to home and family?
Christ died on the cross to bring perfect love into the world. In Matt. 10-38, he admonishes “…he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” From this, it seems clear that to die for Jesus is dying to bring love into the world. That is hard, because the only reason that our lives are not filled with love is because we chose, of our own will, to reject it. Why would we do that? Because we’re infected with a disease called selfishness.
Look at what Jesus did on the cross: he submitted to the religious and secular authorities of his age. They forced their wills upon him, and he did not resist. Because of that, they became stuck in his compassion. He infected them with the seeds of loving.
Obviously, that is taking a great long time to work itself out. But the message is that dying is nothing to fear, at least so long as the manner of our dying is to bring love into the world.
Now Jesus’s surrender to evil was obvious and dramatic, involving public orations and processions. Very few people in Jerusalem would have been unaware. For most of us, taking up the cross is a lonely, silent affair. We don’t wrestle with Satan in all his power, we wrestle with petty evil in spouses and bosses, employees and rapists. That can have its toll on us. A family member once shared an anecdote about a visit with a rich business partner, a man that took his children up to the top of a building to throw paper airplanes down into the streets in violation of a sign that said “Do not throw paper airplanes.” (Think about it: would you go out of your way to do that?) This was a pattern in his business dealings as well. His wife was a twisted crone, beaten down by the burden of the anger that the world had mounted against her husband.
How long should we struggle against the burden of others’ sin? Only so long as we can face it without falling into fear. Trying to live with uncontrollable pain is heroic until we lose our heroism. Then it becomes a slow cancerous submission of our souls to evil.
Is there hope? Always, but Jesus offers the guarantee this way: “whoever loses his life for me will find it.” Jesus could have chosen to hang on the cross in suffering, suffer into eternity. But he did not because he knew that another life awaited him. He knew that to attain that life he needed to surrender his body.
Thus it is with those that suffer pain in this world, pain brought on by their sin and the sins of others. They need to lose their bodies to selfishness, to let it wind itself into their flesh, and then to escape into death, purified in spirit as was Jesus. It is thus that we weaken evil by trapping it in decaying matter, and free those portions of our soul into loving as are willing to accept love.
So when you pronounce against death, remember that death was Jesus’s tool of choice. Look into the soul of the person dying, and do not push them past their ability to endure. Do not block that moment of release, lest you stretch it into a torment of possession.
Rather, send them off with that most tender of incantations: “S(he) has gone to a better world.” With that little push too empower them, perhaps they’ll be motivated to look back in time when they get there, and reach out to pull us through behind them.