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Death is an uncomfortable fact—and a conquered foe

On the Readings for Sunday, July 1, 2018

• Wis 1:13-15; 2:23-24
• Psa 30:2, 4, 5-6, 11, 12, 13
• 2 Cor 8:7, 9, 13-15
• Mk 5:21-43

In his satirical work, The Devil’s Dictionary, the nineteenth-century journalist and satirist Ambrose Bierce—no friend of religion—wrote these dark lines in the entry for the word, “Dead”:

Done with the work of breathing; done
With all the world; the man race run
Through to the end; the golden goal
Attained—and found to be a hole!”

Macabre, yes. But also fairly honest, coming from a man once described as an “asthmatic, superstitious, bilious atheist”. Bierce is to be commended, to some degree, for his willingness to often face squarely (and with a smirk) the many inconvenient elephants in the murky parlor of modern skepticism.

How often do people today really talk about death with anything resembling honesty? How ingeniously does our society work to avoid the reality of the grave?

Scripture, on the other hand, not only mentions death often, it actively takes on death as a fact that cannot be avoided and a foe that can, through Christ’s death and resurrection, be overcome and conquered. The author of the Book of Wisdom wrote, “God did not make death, nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living.” He is a God of life, and “he fashioned all things that they might have being…” This echoes the strong words of the prophet Ezekiel: “As I live, says the Lord God, I swear I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked man…” What, then, does God desire? His pleasure is “in the wicked man’s conversion, that he may live” (Ez 33:11).

The emphasis is, ultimately, on spiritual death over physical death. The author of Wisdom, like the later prophets, distinguished between two deaths: natural and unnatural. “Natural death,” explained Fr. Hans Urs von Balthasar, “is a corollary of the finitude of existence; unnatural death is the result of man’s resistance to God.” Unnatural death, in other words, is damnation, the eternal separation of oneself from the holy presence and divine life of God.

The “destructive drug” mentioned in Wisdom is sin, which entered the world via the devil’s rebellious envy. The devil is the accuser who seeks to destroy God’s creatures and creation—especially men, as St. Peter warned the early Christians: “Your opponent the devil is prowling around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Pet 5:8).

The “envy of the devil” is likely a reference to the temptation of Adam and Eve. The Catechism, in discussing the temptation in the Garden of Eden, refers to the “seductive voice” that is opposed to God and seduces the man and woman into sin and “makes them fall into death out of envy” (par 391). Envy is a capital sin and must be “banished from the human heart” for it is a refusal to be charitable, it is prideful, and often leads “to the worst crimes” (CCC, par 2538).

Compare the shadowy state of envy with the bright hope that accompanies faith in Christ. The synagogue official was filled with heart-broken concern for his daughter, but he brought his deep anguish to the feet of Christ: “Please, come lay your hands on her that she may get well and live.” Others tried to stop Jairus. After all, the girl was dead—he would make a fool of himself. But faith is demonstrated in fortitude, especially in the face of death and suffering.

Jesus’ miracle brings to mind the miraculous deeds of the prophets Elijah (1 Kgs 17:17-24) and Elisha (2 Kgs 4:27-38), who each brought children back to life. Yet they were mere men, granted power by God. Jesus is God-incarnate, possessing power over both physical and spiritual death. And so he spoke of his coming death—and of his triumph over the grave through his Resurrection (Mk 8:31-38; 9:30-32; 10:32-34).

Bierce also described death as the “Ignoble end to all the strife”. For those who die in Christ, death is indeed an end to all the strife. But is also the beginning of eternal communion with God in heavenly glory.

(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the July 1, 2012 edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)

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About Carl E. Olson 1157 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His new book Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021), is published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications.

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