Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Grandeur of Death

The row of windshields coruscated in the spent afternoon light, shadows lengthening at the summer day's end. A long line of flashing taillights warned that I was imminent upon a funeral procession. Cars in the opposite direction were stopped along the side of the road, a final salutation to the soul whose body was about to be laid in its final resting place. Other cars rushed past almost in protest at the languorous pace of traffic, as if the precious moments of courtesy would cheat them out of their urgent destination.

It was a jarring sight, those cars failing to stop at this moment of solemn passing: a human being whose earthly course had run was now returning to his Creator. A soul loved by God as no others could have loved, pursued and wooed to the end by the God whose very thought created this being. How could anyone fail to stop and acknowledge this moment of grandeur? But perhaps in the failure is an element of denial, a frenzy that keeps at bay the overarching fact that each of us, too, must meet this fate.

I wondered if this person had died in the friendship of God, if he had responded to the impulses of grace freely given, if he learned to speak with God with a quality of intimacy and ease that he had with his loved ones. Or did he die in rejection of the untiring call of God? At least, judging by the number of cars in the procession, he was held in esteem by a good number of people. Enough of them understood this auspicious moment of passing.

The procession snaked its way in the country lane, passing through towering spires of cornstalks rustling in the warm, gentle breeze. How many times did this person pass through these roads? Did his eyes behold these sights of rural beauty? And did he breathe in the joys of the life of simplicity so steadfastly lived in these bucolic parts? Or were the cares of the farming life so burdensome that death, in a way, was a welcome rest from the unrelenting pace?

I will never know the answer to the questions. But that did not stop my wondering as I slowed my car to match the mourners’ pace. Behind me, more cars added to the length of the line. Lord, have mercy upon him, this sinner whom you have called back to yourself, I prayed. May angels greet him at his coming.

The procession turned off at a major branch in the road. Soon, I was released from my brief role as mourner in this drama of death, returned to my own exigencies to arrive at my own temporary destination. Yet for the brief moment, time was suspended in the contemplation of the story of this soul, his pilgrimage ended. How easy it is to overlook the import of moments like these, wrapped up as we are in our own rituals and personal dramas. It is the genius of civilization that we have funeral customs of acknowledging the significance of the life just ended.

I have often contemplated what it means to be in the friendship of God. St. Gregory of Nyssa wrote about being a friend of God, the end of all intelligent creatures is the restoration of the original condition. Friendship expresses the absence of hostility or animosity. There is a likeness in thoughts and desires, and even more than likeness, a sharing of sympathies and compassions. The words "sympathy" and "compassion" imply a deep awareness of another's feelings and passions. To be friends with God then, is to long for the things he longs for, to care deeply for the things that he cares for. Both Abraham and Moses are described in Scipture as being friends of God.

Friendship involves an abiding in each other's lives. And this abiding calls to mind what Christ said about the True Vine. In this rich imagery, Christ gives us a picture of clinging, of growing, of being nourished upon the True Vine. This clinging quality is borne out in the virtue of faithfulness to God. So in the end, friendship with God is faithfulness and loyalty to God in all things. We must constantly ask ourselves if we as branches show forth the fruit of God's constant and meticulous care. Do we see and find God in all circumstances? And do we live the deep joy that comes in knowing him as he is, all adorable and all true, God in his all-surpassing greatness?

Or are we like the vines that bore bitter fruit or no fruit at all whom the Vinedresser mourned over as he pruned them off the Vine? Do our words and actions bespeak of the faithfulness of God in our lives? I often think that we rather like to dwell in the perversity of our anger and bitterness because that is all we are familiar with. In clinging to our anger, we cut off the grace that God desires to pour into our lives so that we may grow. What is reflected back to us is full of anger and anxiety that is far from the reality of life in Christ. And yet God constantly calls us to fruitfulness that reflects the hope of glory even in the most adverse of conditions. The holiness to which we are all called to live as Christians must show forth fruit if we truly believe in the Resurrection power of the Cross. Indeed, the daily dying to ourselves and our passions is an abandonment to the Holy Spirit who roots out the bitter passions of our former life as slaves to sin and death and refashions us into the image of the Son who bore the bitterest of passions for our sake. It is a cosmic paradox, this dying to take up eternal life hidden in the life of Christ.

In death, we are confronted with the only question that matters. Did we live the life of grace that bore fruit in