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Maundy Thursday Meditation: John 19: 16b-30
“In the midst of life, we are in death”
“When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.”
In his chapter on conquering the fear of death, Rabbi Harold S. Kushner recalls a lecture he attended on the biblical story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The speaker of the lecture suggested that by eating of the forbidden fruit from the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil Adam and Eve learned something that was good and bad.
While they did not die, God having warned them “that on the day of you shall eat of it, you shall surely die.” They learned that one day they would die, and having learned how brief and fragile a human life could be, they would never again be able to think of their lives in the same way.
This knowledge of our mortality has been passed down from Adam and Eve to you and me. For many of us having survived our youth when we thought we were invincible and immortal we too have come to the realization that no matter how well we take care of ourselves, no matter how religious we may become, no matter how well we eat or exercise we can never escape the realization that in the end, our physical bodies will give out on us.
What is bad about this knowledge of our mortality is that, for many of us, long before our actual death the prospect of death the inevitability of death can cast a shadow over our days.
In his classic book, The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker writes, “Of all things that move men, one of the principle ones is the terror of death. It is the basic fear that influences all others, a fear from which no one is immune.”
A psychologist who interviewed me when I was going through my ordination process many years ago now confirmed Becker’s belief. When I asked him the number one reason that people came in to see him for help, He said, “it was because of their fear of death.”
Several nights ago I had a disturbing dream of a friend who died over seven years ago at the age of 39. When I awoke I realized that it was close to the anniversary of his death and was reminded of my own mortality.
Religions of the world have sought to combat the fear that all of us will die one day and the world will keep going on without us.
In Orthodox Judaism the deceased receive comfort in knowing that they will live on in perpetuity through the memory of their descendants who four times a year will pause to remember and give thanks for them.
In Buddhism having shed our earthly bodies our spirit or soul will live on eternally as part of the one Great Spirit or Atma.
In Christianity our life does not end with our death, for we have been promised a resurrected body and will live on with God in eternity.
These are some of the comforts man has as in the face our mortality.
It is my experience that it is not the fact of death which worries most of us but rather the fear of death which can be more unbearable. In my experience what people are more afraid of rather than the fact of death is how we will die. Like comedian Woody Allen most of us would agree with this statement “I don’t mind dying, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” What many of us are afraid of is how we will die, including the pain which we often associate with death.
Recently editing my beneficiaries on my life insurance policy and pension, as a single person I contemplated the possibility of dying alone. Many people are afraid of the pain of dying and of dying alone.
For some these fears of dying can be paralyzing and result in a withdrawal from life as we wait for the inevitable. If this is what can be bad about the knowledge of our mortality then what can be good. The answer may be that death is not good (except when it brings release from unbearable suffering), but the knowledge that we are destined to die can be good if it moves us to live to take our choices and establish our priorities more seriously knowing that we cannot put off today what we may never get around to doing tomorrow.
Dr. Elisabeth Kubler Ross who wrote several books on death and dying wrote, “It is the denial of death that is partially responsible for people living empty, purposeless lives; for when you live as if you’ll live forever, it becomes too easy to postpone the things you know you must do.” “The real fear of dying, I am convinced,” writes Harold Kushner, “Is the fear that we will leave this world with our tasks unfinished, and the best way, indeed the only way, to defeat death, is to live fearlessly and purposefully.”
While life is most often measured by us by the number of years we live both you and I know of those who have lived long lives of many years but who have never really lived. And we know of those whose lives felt cut short to us but whose lives had been full, who had really lived.
“Death,” writes Harold Kushner, “marks the end of life in the same way that a period marks the end of a sentence. It doesn’t rob the sentence of meaning; it clarifies what the meaning of the sentence is.”
“It is finished” Jesus declares from the cross before taking his last breath. At the age of 33, he had completed his life’s work he had lived his life fearlessly and purposefully. From very early on in his ministry he was well aware of his imminent death that “he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised.”
Still, he would not allow this knowledge to keep him from fulfilling his life’s purpose for those who will save their life live in fear of death will lose it but those who lose their life live fearlessly for his sake and the sake of the gospel will find it.
Having finished his work Jesus commended himself into God’s hands. His death did not define him but clarified all that had come before. For a number of us tonight the years behind us now outnumber the years we can expect to live. What will be the choices we make in the light of our mortality, what resentments will we finally let go of, what will be the priorities we make, how will we live our remaining days: In fear of death or fearlessly and purposefully?
On Easter Sunday we will learn which life will ultimately be vindicated.