(11/1) Wisdom of Solomon 3:1-9 or Isaiah 25:6-9 and Psalm 24 • Revelation 21:1-6a • John 11:32-44
This week, I'm going to talk about the All-Saints Day readings, which may be used in your church on November 7. I'll fold in some ideas from J. Todd Billings' recent book: The End of the Christian Life. As you may have guessed, the topic is death.
The Wisdom of Solomon text is a tough one, to me. Understood to apply to those who suffer and die for their faith (rather than by the thousand and one maladies that plague us all), it makes some sense. Still, if there could be anything less useful than reframing a death as they seemed to have died (3:2), I'd like to know what that would be! The downplaying of suffering is also difficult. That they – the dearly departed, that is – were disciplined a little (3:5) seems to deny the reality of their suffering.
The mention of God having tested the souls of the righteous was useful. Life as a testing ground, a place to grow oneself up, is a concept found both throughout scripture and in the natural order of things. Look at birds, who go from helpless creatures being fed each worm to adults feeding their own young. Look at prairie dogs, who manage as family groups to share sentry duty against an astonishing variety of predators. For all creatures, regardless of the species, the organisms that can face life's challenges – to deal with the reality of their changing context – are the most likely to survive.
What, exactly, does surviving have to do with dying? After all, this piece is about death, right? While the individual organism dies, the family organism – and the other groups one belongs to – endure. What endures from those who have died is worth pondering, every All-Saints Day. The teachers, coaches, colleagues, mentors, friends, and family members who have shaped us continue to live on, in and through us. Remembering them combines gratitude with a bigger perspective on one's life.
More difficult, but also worth pondering each All-Saints Day, is one's own mortality. It's one thing to be afraid of death; it's another to let that fear keep one too busy to think about dying! Here, the Wisdom of Solomon reading earns its name, with this singular statement: Those who trust in God will understand truth (v. 9). Trusting the cycle of new life, death, decay, and new life – written into creation as the natural order for every living thing – is the beginning step to understanding truth.
Trusting the process allows a clear view of the reality of one's own mortality, rather than a quick glance, now and then. The result: the fear is managed rather than lurking underneath and keeping a person from thinking clearly. As usual, Jesus sets the example in today's gospel. Lazarus has died; when Jesus arrives and sees others grieving, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved… and began to weep (John 11:33b, 35). Approaching the tomb, he is again greatly disturbed; soon, he pulls himself together: directing that the stone be moved, questioning Martha, and thanking God. It is exactly as he had taught: blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted (Matthew 5:4).
Similarly, Revelation 21:4 describes God tenderly wiping away every tear from their eyes. One has to be careful in reading this passage, for it – and the book as a whole - provide many interpretive challenges. (It's hard to picture a new Jerusalem floating down from heaven.) Still, the image of God attending to the tears of each person is a hint to our own self-care. Our emotional system is not to be ignored; neither is it to be given free rein; tending to it rather than distancing from it allows one to be more connected with others.
Staying connected with others and getting comfortable with one's creaturely nature both tend to lead toward a clearer view of reality. What is realistic – under one's control or not, worth working on or not - may look different than before. Relating to oneself more realistically, as a mortal whose life is coming to an end, may bring some surprising results.
Morning: How do I manage my fear of dying? When might it be useful to remember that I'm mortal?
Evening: Who are the people I want to remember this All-Saints Day? How did they change my life?
Psalm 39:4 Lord let me know my end, and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting my life is.