Facing Death – Reviewing Our Priorities
Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him. Matthew 4:1-11
The liturgy of the ashes and the scriptures for the beginning of Lent draw us to the precipice, to the edge, to the inevitability of our own death. In the bible, the mythical story of the origin of sin begins with a temptation by the serpent in the garden, “Eat the fruit of this tree and you will not die.” The entire drama of salvation reaches an epic moment when the serpent tempts Jesus himself with being spared from death, “Caste yourself down from the pinnacle of the temple and you will not die.” The Devil promises what he has no power to give: Life without death.
If you have never really looked into the face of a dying person – Lent begins with an invitation to do so. It doesn’t take a lot of effort. You don’t have to go out of your way to visit a terminally ill patient in a hospital ward. It simply takes the will to do so. Either look into the face of the person next to you or, if you have the courage, look into a mirror. Underneath the appearance of life is there not always a dying man or a dying woman? And even, as the tragic news reported all to frequently – a dying child. At this present moment in history, the whole world is being compellingly confronted with the unquestionable truth of life’s fragility as we stand in fear and dread before the deadly advance of the coronavirus. There would appear to be no place that is safe and no place to hide.
If we open our eyes, dying is all around us. I remember once seeing a movie entitled The Ice Storm. A number of families are pictured where the relationships are grounded in materialism, consumerism, minimal communication, personal isolation, dishonesty and infidelity. And where children of dying parents are themselves dying in a sea of drugs, sex, rage, violent fantasies and a haunting belief that life is without any real meaning.
You may be wondering, “What’s your point? I didn’t come here today for a downer trip. Why would I want to face death and specifically my own death before I really have to, and until I really have no choice, but to?”
Is there not some real merit in living in denial of death, or, at the very least, pushing it always into the distant future rather than moving it to the front burner?
The death-fearing culture in which we live certainly would argue so. The culture would have us do anything even kill our enemies rather then face death. In his book “Iron John” author Robert Bly makes this observation:
“The word ashes contains in it a dark feeling of death; ashes when put on the face whiten it as death does. Job covered himself with ashes to say that the earlier comfortable Job was dead, and that the living Job mourned the dead Job. But for us, how can we get a look at the cinders or ashes side of things when society is determined to create a world of shopping malls and entertainment complexes in which we are made to believe that there is no death? Disneyland means “no ashes”.”
When I first went to Hong Kong as a missionary in 1972, I was a bit taken back one day. As I walked down a street of shops, I passed a clothing store, a teashop, a jewelry store, a rattan store and, believe it or not, a coffin shop – yes a coffin shop. When was the last time you visited a mall that listed a coffin shop on its directory?
We must face death here in church, because outside the context of faith there is little support in our culture for facing death even though our culture remains so wedded to the art of killing. I wonder if the contemporary practice of cremating the dead, as soon as possible, is simply another indication of our increasing discomfort with facing death. Dead bodies just disappear.
But unless we face death we remain clueless about life. We remain clueless about it’s meaning and certainly clueless about it’s priorities. You and I remain clueless about my life, its meaning, and its priorities. It was only when Ebenezzer Scrooge looked at his own tombstone that the redemptive transformation of his tortured life began.
A gifted theologian, William Temple, speaking about repentance once observed:
“The world, as we live in it, is like a shop window, into which some mischievous person has gotten during the night, and shifted all the price tags so that the cheap things have the high price tags on them, and the really precious things are priced low. We let ourselves be taken in. Repentance means getting those price tags back in the right place.”
In the present order of things, a higher price tag is being placed on the tools of war, while the need of people for affordable health care is being devalued. Profit from fossil fuels is more valued than the well being of the environment. We would be persuaded to believe that our lives are more valuable than the lives of the millions of our undocumented neighbors we are ready to discard and the hundreds of thousands asylum seekers to whom we deny safe harbor. When we disown our neighbors we deny their humanity and our own humanity and we deny the most important commandments of Jesus.
You recall that in another well known biblical myth, Noah and his family and all those animals spent forty days in the Ark, as death came to everything outside the Ark. What do you imagine they did for those forty days and nights? Do you think they were playing pinochle? I think their living in and smelling there own you know what for forty days gave them a needed opportunity to review their priorities. These forty days are our opportunity to review our priorities.
In today’s gospel, we are told that Jesus, after his baptism and before the start of his ministry was thrown like a javelin, by the Spirit, into the desert wilderness. In that place of death – Jesus got clear about his priorities – the will of God and the service of God and the way of God before all else. Jesus rejected being relevant, spectacular, and powerful. Tempted to greatness, He chose rather to be foolish, humble and weak – to be as the poor who live with daily certitude of their absolute dependence upon God. And if you wonder at times about God’s will for you, the prophet Amos put it very succinctly and Jesus rounded it off. “Do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God, caring for your neighbor as you care for yourself.”
Lent invites us to spend forty days in the desert so that we might face death and the questions that death raises about our life and its priorities. In baptism, Jesus called us to enter the waters of death with Him, so that we might be raised to the fullness of life with Him. He daily invites us to walk the way of the cross that we might know the joy of an empty tomb. He leads us thru what seems a godforsaken desert to arrive at the land of promise – the place of abundant life.
We are mindful that it is in the desert, where God appears most absent, that He is, in fact, most present and available to us. If we strip away the fluff, the essence of things comes to the surface. Lent is about our destiny – because it is about our priorities. What we desire first, is what we will have at the last.
How can we tell when we are making progress in Lent? The answer, uncomfortable as it is to acknowledge, is when we become angry and vehemently deny that we have reversed those price labels. It is when we want to push out of consciousness our guilt over things done and left undone.
But that is when Lent is doing its work. The truth about our selves begins to break through our defenses – threatening our manufactured sense of security and well-being. But the pain of such realization is the very pain of our healing. Only then is our heart torn open. Only then does the awareness of our own sin cry out for God’s grace and love. Only then can we genuinely return to the Lord and begin the process of rebirth.
The Rev. Frank J. Alagna
March 1, 2020