Life and Death

Today’s readings are about life and death, from the musings of Solomon in the Book of Wisdom to the story of Jairus and his daughter from the Gospel of Mark. Solomon directs our gaze to the origins of death, and the Gospel story makes it clear that the God of Life has the ultimate power over death.

Connecting back to the Creation story in Genesis, Solomon remembers that we were not made for death but for life. He writes, “For  God formed man to be imperishable; the image of his own nature he made him.”

When we say that we were made for life and not for death, it’s useful to remind ourselves what those words mean when we use them in this context. For Christians, God is life. In response to a question from his disciples, Jesus says, “I am the truth, the way, and the life.” And in the Transfiguration, Jesus’s glory is revealed as being so white that no fuller — a person who cleans and bleaches clothes — that no fuller could ever duplicate. In the Transfiguration, the disciples get to see, for just a moment, what real life looks like. Thus we understand that when Solomon says we were made to be imperishable he is saying that we were made for life, that we were made for God. God made us to be close to him and to be with him in the fullness of life. Made in His image, we were made to enjoy a close relationship with him.

If that is life, then what is death? Death is the absence of life just as evil is the absence of God’s goodness. Evil is not a thing; evil is the lack of a thing or the absence of a thing. The thing that is missing is God himself. Sometimes theologians describe evil as a privation, which is a fancy word for the absence of something or the lack of something. Evil is the lack of God’s goodness, and death is the lack of his Life.

In the Old Testament reading today, Solomon explains how death came into the world. He says, “by the Envy of the devil death entered the world.” The creation stories that we read at the beginning of the Bible in the Book of Genesis focus on the relationship between the Creator and Humanity, in the persons of Adam and Eve. We get a clear picture of the devil proposing ideas and tempting Adam and Eve, followed by their decision to obey the guidance of the devil instead of the guidance of God.

But there is less in the scriptures that directly discuss this devil who seems to have envy and the ability to tempt Adam and Eve, who, let us remember, were created in purity and without any stain of sin. We know how impurity came into the human race, but scripture is a little less direct in explaining the devil and his power.

So let’s spend a minute or two drawing from Sacred Tradition and the teaching of the apostolic fathers on the nature of angels and demons. We are going to the days of Saint Augustine, in the fifth century, who explained that the term “Angels” is what they do, but “Spirits” is what they are. We use the word angel sometimes to include all spirits, but angel just means messenger. An evangelist is a messenger for the good news of the Gospel. So in that sense, all of us are called to be angels. But we are humans, having a body and a soul. Angels in the Scriptures are purely spiritual beings.

The church has long understood angels to have intelligence and will. So they can think and they can choose. Now let’s return to Solomon’s words that death came into the world by the envy of the devil. Envy is a vice that is the direct result of thinking too much and then choosing badly. Envy comes from pride. When we are envious, we compare ourselves to others, and we don’t like what we see. Envy can easily lead to resentment, as we convince ourselves that our current conditions are unfair and were imposed upon us.

All creatures exist to glorify God, from the rocks and trees and other natural wonders that speak to God’s majesty, to the spiritual and bodily beings that speak to his dominion through their obedience to his commandments. Having intellect and will, the power to know and the power to choose, these beings can decide for themselves in ways that animals and natural objects cannot. The spirit known as Lucifer chose to go against God’s will and tempt Adam and Eve into disobeying God. Their act of disobedience was the Original Sin, and through that original sin, death entered into the world.

By the work of the devil, our intellect is clouded, and we are less able to know what we were made for. We were made for life, for living, but so much of the time we are only coping. Life, true life, is joyful, even in times of trouble. Coping is living without joy. We were not made to cope. We were made to live.

But death entered the world through the envy of the devil. And he and his armies of evil spirits are prowling about the world seeking the ruin of souls. Some experience death like the daughter of Jairus; they stop breathing altogether. Many experience a spiritual death through immoral decisions that leave them outside the life of Grace. If they do not return to full communion with the Church through the Sacrament of Penance and Confession, they can experience a further death of their intellect and will. They will basically lose the power to know what is truly good and to choose that true good. Our world today is full of people stumbling around like the Walking Dead because they have lost their knowledge of what true life looks and feels like. Praise be to God that as Catholics we know what to do when we stumble: get ourselves to a confessional and say, “Father, forgive me for I have sinned.” And the power of the sacrament of reconciliation gives us new life because God is that good, that generous with his love for us.

And in the story of Jairus’s daughter, the evangelist gives us a hint about the divine nature of Jesus the Nazarene. He is not just a miraculous healer. He is the giver of Life. After the resurrection, the apostles will understand that Jesus is fully God, but even in this story he is clearly more than just a wandering rabbi with the gift of healing. He raises the girl from death. In the Easter resurrection, he will rise from death by his own power. In rising from death, he will destroy the power of the Devil, and we who believe in him will have the chance to live eternally in his presence.

There is a death coming that the Devil does not fully comprehend. That death is the eternal separation from Life itself. That’s what Hell is. It’s worse than annihilation or obliteration. At least when you are annihilated, you cease to exist. But we know that when Jesus comes in judgment, our souls will be restored to their bodies in some glorified form. If our eternal destination is Heaven, then we will experience true life bodily as well as mentally and spiritually. If it’s the other place, then we will experience the privation of God’s presence in all those ways. If you think coping with the trials of this world is bad, imagine the agony of unmitigated punishment in which we feel every stroke of the lash for ever and ever. As Solomon writes, “the devil and they who belong to his company will experience it.”

That is not God’s desire for us, but he gave us intellects and wills to let us choose life or death. He sent his Son into the world to triumph over the Devil by dying for our sins and rising on the third day. While the Devil seemed to be victorious after the fall of Adam and Eve, God’s power is ultimately inescapable. The Devil will lose in the end, and all his followers with him.

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