In the Name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.
Like a scarlet thread the idea of eternal life and of death runs through the whole of Scripture, both the Old and the New Testaments; and the idea of death is as of something crazy, pointless, something that should not be. St. Paul tells us that the last enemy to be overcome will be death, we acknowledge the resurrection of the dead on the Last day; we expect the victory over death. And indeed, Christ did not teach us how to fight bravely with death, nor did He teach us simply how to face it fearlessly. He showed us victory over death.
Death does not begin at the moment when the soul parts from the body; there are any number of killing, murderous moments in life. So many lives have come to an end while the person is still living on earth. It is enough that someone realises, or imagines, that his life is pointless, that nobody needs him, enough that he feels rejected by everyone, neglected, for him to enter the realm of death. Death in its most terrifying and truly final form is not our bodily dying but the separation which lies in the estrangement of hearts: you are not wanted, you are unnecessary — it is as though you were no longer there. And this is perhaps the most terrifying sin that one man can commit against another, to let him feel by word or action that he is unnecessary and unwanted, that he merely exists and might just as well not be there.
Remember the horrible words that the prodigal son says to his father at the beginning of Christ’s parable, “let me have now the share that will be mine when you die.” That means, “I don’t care whether you are alive or dead, and I don’t need you. All I want is what I shall receive when you are no longer there. Get out of my way, you are not wanted, you are standing between me and my freedom, the gratification of my desires. Let’s agree that you don’t exist, that you are buried alive.” What horrible words! And yet we say these words, or they reach those around us without being said, when we pass by them as though they didn’t exist — or even worse, as though they had no right to be on the earth, as though they were blocking our path. Here, perhaps, lies the most frightening thing in the destructive and agonising mystery of death. And that is what existed before the coming of Christ: the hell to which He descended after His death on the cross. That was not the hell that we speak of as a place of torment, however fearful that may not be; it was something far more terrible; it was the place where God was not, a place of absolute, final, hopeless separation from God, and the estrangement of man from man. This was the hell into which Christ descended, rejected by people on earth and suddenly feeling himself forsaken on the cross by God, into the hell of absolute separation. When we say that Christ conquered death by death, that hell is harrowed and emptied, we mean that this death and this hell no longer exists. There is no separation from God; God Himself descended into hell, and no place remains where God is not present with his creatures.
Christ descended also into the hell of earthly, human, cruel relationships, into the realm of mutual estrangement and rejection, of mutual destruction and hatred. And when we go down into that hell, or are sometimes dragged into it by a terrifying human destiny, we are not alone — the Lord is there, having entered it of his own free will; and He calls us Christians to enter these depths of hell willingly, as people alive, unconquered, undestroyed, not as dead men, but as men living with the whole depth of power of eternal life, Christ says, according to the testimony of St. John, that eternal life consists in knowing the Heavenly Father as the only living God, and Christ as His Son and the Saviour. That is our heritage, that is our treasure; we can enter the depths of hell, we can be submerged by any black darkness on earth or in hell without fear, for not only is God with us, but before us He submerged Himself there; not only is God with us, He is in us and we in Him, through baptism, by the gift of the Holy Spirit, through communion, and we are a terror to those regions.
Temporary death, as is often said in liturgical prayers and writings, is a sleep, a temporary separation from the earth; but that final separation which was the dread of the ancient world, no longer exists, we have no need to fear it. There is no death, it is overcome by God’s love; and the death I spoke of earlier, which is a living death for the person who is unwanted, unnecessary, rejected, forgotten, should not exist, and it is within our power to see that it does not exist in the world around us. Let us therefore try to be as attentive, as perceptive, as sensitive as Christ was, and to anyone who is dying not only in the body, but this spiritual death, let us bear witness that there is no death, that the Kingdom has come, that love has conquered death in the struggle on the Cross and by its victory in our hearts.
Published: Newsletter N. 59, February 1975