Existence and death form the basic, inseparably linked reality of the universe. Everything that lives, dies — everything from mayflies that live for only one day to bristle-cone pines that live for thousands of years. And everyone, including you and me.
The death rate is, was and always will be one hundred percent. Even our planet has a predicted end, as does the universe itself. As the poet says, “dark, dark, dark, they all go into the dark.”
Death is the engine of evolution. Natural selection works through the dying out of various species. More species have gone extinct than live today. And that includes several human species, of which only one — us — survives for the time being.
Death serves the essential function of providing for renewal. Worn-out individuals and even species disappear to be replaced by the new. Death also serves the practical function of making room. Imagine what the world would be like if each year’s crop of mosquitoes never died, but simply carried on.
Paradoxically, life itself depends upon death. The molecules that we are made from are the detritus of dead stars.
Death is the inflexible rule of the universe. It is inexorable, unbeatable. The Grim Reaper mows down all. We may not like it, but there is nothing we can do about it. In fact, we need it. It is the rule.
Yet, Victimae pascali laudes, the 11th-century sequence hymn used at Easter Sunday Masses, contains the line: “Death and life have contended in that combat stupendous.” And though death won once again, life made a surprise comeback, an upset victory.
How did it happen?
Simply put, life broke the rule, fielding an ineligible player.
As Acts presents Peter saying on Pentecost: “God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power.”
There was one exception to the rule that all die: God. However, in the Incarnation, God cheated, entering the duel. That mixing of the undying with the realm of death has opened a new possibility, a “combat stupendous” in which both death and life win.
It appears that God has chosen to exempt us from the rule of creation, to make a new start symbolized by Baptism into the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Obviously, the resurrection of Jesus that we celebrate this week has not put an end to death. Creation needs death. But, Jesus has given a new possibility to the universe, a possibility that after we have done our inevitable dying, we receive a new sort of life without death.
Scripture and tradition tell us little about that new sort of life, and much of what they tell is told poetically rather than descriptively. We believe it, but do not know it.
But even though we do not know it, we can live it now. And the way to do so is exactly where it began, with rule-breaking.
In the realm of death, there are many rules that limit the realm of life. There are rules that say who can have access to the riches of creation. There are rules that say that based on race, gender, nationality, religion, social standing, position or whatever some people have privileges while others have duties. These are all rules of limitation, of death.
But for we who believe, those old rules have no power. Just as God broke those rules, we are to be rule breakers so that death and its ilk get no more than their due. And their due is simply our death, not our life.
We live by a new set of rules, the rules of theKingdom of God. Or, rather, by one rule, the one by which Jesus lived, un-self-focused love for God and others.
The world may call us to obedience to the old rules, but now we can and should break them joyfully, gleefully, purposefully and confidently. After all, we are united with the victor.
Father William Grimm is the Tokyo-based publisher of UCA News
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