Following is the first of a two part series on the paschal mystery.
It’s cruel to talk about death, but it’s crueler still not to. Adult life is not child’s life. As adults, we are asked to die and, like Christ, we sweat blood about it. Physical death is only one part of it. We are dying all the time, struggling painfully to let go of youth, health, daydreams and possible dreams, infatuations, romances, honeymoons, and, in the end, of life itself. No one lets go easily. Ernest Becker contends that the denial of death is the primary repression within Western culture and that, from that repression, come the majority of our psychological ailments. He’s right.
We don’t accept death. We deny, daydream, mummify, pretend, cling, drug, refuse to wake up, and do everything except accept that we must let go. Two images describe us: The first is that of Mary Magdala on Easter morning wanting desperately to cling to the Jesus she had known rather than accepting the resurrected one. The second is that of mummification. Like the ancient Egyptians who reacted to death by embalming and mummifying their dead, we tend to embalm and mummify what has died in us. The proper response to death in all its kinds is not these postures, but the acceptance of the paschal mystery. But this needs to be explained. As Christians we need to distinguish between two kinds of death, paschal and terminal. Terminal death is death that ends life, ends possibilities. It brings dreams, health, honeymoons and happiness to final closure. Paschal death is real death. Something precious dies. However, in this kind of death, there is in the dying an opening to new life and new scripture.
In paschal death, there is always a birth as well, just as in childbirth a woman loses her child even in giving it birth. The paschal mystery, the passage through death to new life, though normally associated with Christ’s death and resurrection, is in its widest sense a natural mystery. All reality grows and deepens through it. Christ’s life, however, offers its deepest modeling and his death and resurrection is a paschal drama that we can participate in. As an event in Christ’s life, the paschal mystery has four distinct movements to it. Together, these form one dynamic movement from death to life and together they form a psychology of love and growth. In a very simple schema, the paschal mystery, as an event and as a psychology, might be charted as follows:
Passion and death … “the loss of life”
Resurrection … “the reception of new life”
Ascension … “the refusal to cling, as ascending beyond the old life”
Pentecost … “the reception of new spirit for the new life”
What does all this mean concretely? It can better be understood through a series of stories.
A priest I know tells the story of a family whose father was dying of cancer. Big, tough, a welder, the man was not dying easily. For months he hung on, long after there was any hope. In intense pain, his body wasted away, the disease terminal, he still refused to die. He lay clinging to life. Each day his family spent their time with him. One day the oldest son sat by the bedside watching his dad suffering. Overcome by the pain and hopelessness of it, he squeezed his dad’s hand and said: “Dad, die for God’s sake! Let go! It’s got to be better there than here.” Almost immediately, his dad became calm and within minutes he died. The words his son spoke were paschal words, Christian words, words that trust God enough to be able to die in him and know that new life and new spirit will be born in the dying. When King David’s illegitimate son was dying, David put on sackcloth and began to fast and pray, begging God to save his son. However, messengers arrive and David learns that his son is already dead.
Upon hearing this, David arises immediately and puts aside the sackcloth and prayer and goes instead to his house where he bathes, anoints himself, eats, drinks, then sleeps with his wife, who conceives a new life, Solomon. When he senses that he has scandalized those around him who feel that he has not properly mourned his son, David speaks paschal words: “While the child was alive I fasted and prayed, imploring God to save the child. Now the child is dead. I must move on to create new life.” When we stop clinging, when we give ourselves over to God in trust, new life will be conceived and new spirit will be released. Death will be paschal and not terminal.
In my next column I will examine this mystery as it applies to the letting go of youth, dreams and honeymoons.