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Death is an uncomfortable fact—and a conquered foe

On the Readings for Sunday, June 27, 2021

"Raising of Jairus Daughter" (1871) by Ilya Repin (WikiArt.org)

Readings:
• 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 1162 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.

5 Comments

  1. Enjoying this life and the opportunities it presents to love, while looking forward to going home, as soon as God says so.

  2. Bierce saw more then his share of Death in the Civil War.The kind of death Bierce saw would jade any man.Making it all that much harder to crawl out of the hole he found himself in.

  3. One of the Oblates of the Virgin Mary once made this observation about envy:

    Envy gives us nothing. Other sins at least give pleasure, or something. It is a mystery why we are even subject to envy, but it is a consequence of original sin.

  4. Ancient manuscripts, those discovered by good fortune, frequently have insight. Envy. An article, this one dated as far back as 2012 touches on the sin that drives many to perdition, Satan to rage that Eve the initial sinner Adam her pretentious mate [the woman told me to eat it] would be given a second chance. That is Mankind. Whereas when highly intelligent superior beings, angels were immediately cast into the Inferno of God’s wrath. Similarly Pharisees hated Jesus because of his peasant appearance, cutting wit, holy bearing a rebuke to their wickedness. How could God choose him? thinking I’m far more suited to Messiahship. What is stunning to this writer is that the Sanhedrin, after the tumultuous earthquake, torn in two Temple veil, not to mention the many miracles raising Lazarus from the dark pit of death all supporting evidence of his resurrection still refused to recognize Jesus was, as witnessed by the officiating centurion that, Indeed, this was the Son of God! Envy discolored their reasoning, hatching a lie with bribery of Roman soldiers that his body was stolen and hidden and the resurrection a fake. As to the Jairus miracle, even the professional mourners enviously ridiculed Our Lord when he arrived and said the girl was asleep. They were wrong and should be quieted. Author Olson then makes the essential point, “Compare the shadowy state of envy with the bright hope [of Jairus] that accompanies faith in Christ”. Envy leads to unhappiness in this life and the next, humble faith to happiness in both.

    • Just a note of interest on what evidence the Pharisees had of Christ’s resurrection. Matthew 28 alone among the Evangelists depicts an earthquake, the appearance of an angel startlingly white the Roman guards deathly frightened, at the moment Mary of Magdala and ‘the other’ Mary arrived at the tomb. The angel announces to the women, He has risen! We may assume the Roman guard heard this. They reported this to the Pharisees who concocted the lie. What’s of interest is that these soldiers were living witnesses of the circumstances related to Christ’s resurrection. A phenomenon rarely mentioned although there are commentaries. Although they were bribed we may wonder whether in time they revealed what actually occurred at the tomb of Christ. We are aware also of the somewhat mysterious conversions among Roman military particularly centurions. Death of an acknowledged just man, this evidence known by the Roman guard of his rising from the dead may have spread among the military and the general populace.

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