“Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.” – Luke 24:5b NRSV
According to the accounts found in the Synoptic Gospels, the female disciples that travelled to Jesus’s tomb the first Easter morning expected nothing spectacular. They merely intended to finish preparing the corpse for its long-term entombment (Mark 16:1, Luke 24:1), a process that had been truncated due to the late hour of Jesus’s expiration and the impending approach of the Sabbath. These women had encountered death countless times in their lives and likely engaged in the task of preparing bodies for burial many times over. In the Roman Empire, where life expectancy hovered around thirty years-old and many children, especially in urban areas, died before age ten, preparing a body for burial was a mundane task.
Familiarity with death meant that resurrection possessed a considerable poignancy for the women, bringing a hope that countered the ubiquitous fear of death. As the good news spread, the first-century readers of the Apostle Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians (and most readers since) had an acute sense of what it meant that “the last enemy to be destroyed is death (1 Cor. 15:26, NRSV). Until Easter, death had been victorious, the destroyer of lives, families, and hope. But victory only tastes sweeter when defeat is the norm. For the first Christians, the news of Jesus’s victory over death as “the first fruits” (I Cor. 15:23) was sweet indeed.
Throughout the history of the world, most people—like the women at the tomb—encountered death on a near daily basis. Death’s brutality over the greater part of the last two millennia cast a long shadow over everyday life as disease, famine, and infant mortality claimed victim after victim. For Christians of yesteryear, this familiarity with the pungent reality of death brought the hope of resurrection into sharp relief, not just in old age, but at every stage of life.
By contrast, Americans have largely outsourced death and dying over the last 150 years, gradually banishing it from sight and thought. Coincidentally, over the same period, many American evangelical groups have adopted a near myopic emphasis on expiation in their discussions (and presentations) of the gospel message. In a culture that sanitizes death and dying while simultaneously and self-reflectively obsessing about guilt, the need for forgiveness trumps the need for resurrection.
In the past, the pervasive presence of death often stimulated rich, biblically-informed reflections on the good news of resurrection and its implications for the Christian life. In his great work On the Incarnation, Athanasius articulated the manner in which Jesus Christ overcame both the problem of sin and the consequence of sin—death—through his incarnation, life, death, and resurrection. Pastorally, Gregory the Great instructed neophyte priests regarding the spiritual care of the dying, and Robert Bellarmine spurred Christians to live in the light of death—not in fearfulness, but in faithfulness and joy. Artistically, John Donne’s famous poem “Death Be Not Proud” paints a picture of death’s emasculation in the face of resurrection. For centuries, familiarity with death gave Christian writers, pastors, theologians, and artists cause to address death and dying from a Christian perspective—not as an intellectual abstraction, but as tangible reality. Although an omnipresent human experience, the resurrection meant death held no power for Christians and therefore, they lived and died differently than other people. Rob Moll thinks they still should.
In his book, The Art of Dying: Living Fully into the Life to Come (IVP, 2010), Moll urges American Christians to re-familiarize themselves with death that we may revive the ars moriendi—the art of dying. Grounded in his own experience as a hospice care worker, Moll carries two related burdens throughout The Art of Dying. First, he desires each Christian’s death might once again become “an embodiment of a belief in God who has defeated death and will give life to our own mortal bodies (68).” Second, he urges congregations to once again take seriously cradle-to-grave ministry. Moll rightly assesses that the first cannot be accomplished without the second. Along the way, he gently rebukes contemporary evangelicalism’s propensity to follow the larger cultural trend of outsourcing end-of-life decisions to professionals. Wonderfully adept at their vocations, doctors, nurses, and other medical caretakers naturally think in terms of prolonging life, not dying well in light of the resurrection. Such is the purview of ministers, and ministers should reclaim such functions.
Moll’s exhortation comes at a propitious time. As the baby boomer generation ages, a surge in elderly congregants will provide a tremendous opportunity to American churches. In an age and culture where many of us will face both knowledge regarding our impending death as well as options regarding how to live the final days of our lives, the opportunity for ministry to the dying and by the dying increases exponentially. Moll exalts both, urging congregations to continue to allow critically ill patients to employ their gifts in service to the body while the body comes alongside those who are critically ill in order to minister to them. This provides “an opportunity for the dying and elderly to continue to fulfill the ministry to which God has called them, but the rest of congregation sees life lived and ended with hope and faithfulness (169).” And a life ended with hope and faithfulness proclaims the resurrection in ways a sermon or liturgical service never can. As a result, every pastor and seminary student in America should read The Art of Dying, mulling over it carefully.
See also: “Outsourcing Death”
Cross-post at the Anxious Bench.