Shedding Some Light on Death
Someone said, "Better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness." A single candle sheds a lot of light in deep darkness, and what is darker than death? So let's strike the match and light that candle.
The sentiment popular in medieval times was "In the midst of life we are surrounded by death." This sentiment seems to have originated with a chant used during Lent in the Catholic church titled Media vita in morte sumus which Luther translated as "In the midst of life we are, aye in death's embraces." Pastors today talk about how it seems sometimes that death is all around them when they have funeral after funeral. Older folks can feel the same way. Where they use to celebrate baptisms, then confirmations, then graduations, then weddings, then more baptisms, now it's funerals.
Death does press us on every side. It's no more than a missed heartbeat away. Scripture itself describes life as a handbreadth, as vapor on a glass. In early medieval times, around 600 AD, a person's life was described like this: It's winter. Snow and wind howl outside. There is a lighted hall warm and glowing. It is open at both ends. "A sparrow flies swiftly through the hall. It enters at one door and quickly flies out through the other. For the few moments it is inside, the storm and wintry tempest cannot touch it, but after the briefest moment of calm, it flits from your sight, out of the wintry storm and into it again. So this life of man appears but for a moment" (http://www.britannia.com/bios/abofy/paulinus.html).
Our life is but a sparrow's dash through a lighted hall surrounded by death's wintry howl. Is that true? Is that all we get is the dash? A 1996 poem entitled The Dash Poem thinks so. The first two verses are as follows: "I read of a man who stood to speak / At the funeral of a friend/ He referred to the dates on her tombstone/ From the beginning to the end/ He noted that first came the date of her birth/ And spoke the following date with tears, / But he said what mattered most of all/ Was the dash between those years."
This poem is very popular at funerals. For many it strikes a note of comfort. For me it's positively depressing. Is the dash all we get? A brief flight through this life of light and then into darkness? Is this all that All Saints' Day is a remembrance of? Our loved ones' dash between the dates because once they leave this lighted hall it's only darkness out there? Was Cat Stevens really right about even our loved ones in Christ? They were only dancing on this earth for a short while and then death like some great white bird took them into heaven, and "Though you want them to last forever /You know they never will." If this is All Saints' Day is, strike it from the Church calendar, change the paraments from white to black, and let's start chanting, "In the midst of life we are, aye in death's embraces."
What causes people to focus on the lighted hall and the dash is the belief that there is only darkness everywhere but here. This came home to me when someone after the sudden death of their loved one asked me, "But where is he now? What is he doing now?" He was peering into the exit from the lighted hall of life and he could see nothing but darkness, chill and stormy. What do you see? What can we see?
"In the midst of life we are surrounded by death," chanted the people of Luther's time during Lent. Luther, as he had a habit of doing, turned that phrase on it's head and said, "'In the midst of death we are surrounded by life.'" (Oberman, Luther, 330). In the midst of darkness, we are in light. Isn't this what the Bible says? Didn't Jesus say that He was the light of a dark world? Matthew 4 tells us that the people sat in darkness, not a lighted hall; they only saw light when Jesus came. 1 Peter 2 says we have been called out of darkness into His marvelous light. 1 Thessalonians 5 says, "Brothers and sisters, you are not in darknessYou are all children of the light and children of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness."
All is darkness, even in the lighted hall, even during the dash of the sparrow's flight, apart from Jesus the light of the world. Being true God He is light. But God in His essence according to I Timothy is blinding light, unapproachable light, burning light, a light no one can look at and live. But Jesus is also True Man conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin Mary. Being True Man, Jesus could be the light of men. People could look at the face of God in the Person of Jesus and live to tell about it. They could touch the face of God in the Person of Jesus and tell everyone about it.
Jesus came down out of heaven into our lighted hall of fallen life as one of us. His heart beat like ours. He too was in the midst of death. In order to see life and light, He too was required to keep all of the laws of God. He too was tempted in all ways like we are, but He never sinned. He winged His way through life sinless, holy. At the end of His life, He asked His enemies which one of them could convict Him of sin. Not one of them could. Jesus was holy before God and man.
Jesus should have left the lighted hall of this life by means of a shaft of life streaming down from the skies leading to heaven's open doors. But He left this life the way our loved ones did: by ugly, painful, dark death. Actually, Jesus left this life worse than our loved ones. He went out guilty before God of all your sins, of all the sins of your loved ones, yea, of all the sins the world. You know the shame of a sin; you know the guilt of a sin; you know what it means to have your conscience bother you. Imagine suffering that way; imagine dying that way; imagine crying out to God that awful "why" question and getting only darkness in reply.
Jesus left this lighted hall into the darkness of death, but He came back! He flew back in from the darkness and in doing so He left a trail of light. He turned on a light, so to speak, in the darkness of death. That light is the Book of Revelation. You want to know where your loved ones in Christ are right now? You want to know what they're doing right now? Revelation doesn't show the dead in Christ moldering away in a grave. It doesn't show them in deep darkness; it doesn't even show them in shade or shadow. Revelation shows those who have gone on ahead in Christ singing the praises of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost who saved them. It shows them praying. It shows them without their pains, greifs, tears or sins.
Revelation shows them in dazzling light, in a city of light and then says this: "The Lamb is the city's lamp." The same Lamb of God that took away the sins of the world is the lamp of the city where all saints live right now. The same Lamb we meet at this altar, the same Lamb that clothes us with His righteousness in Baptism, the same Lamb that sends are sins away from us in Absolution, lights the lives of our dead in Christ.
The Lamb is the connecting portal between heaven and earth, between life and death, between the Church militant and the Church triumphant. Did you see how central the Lamb was in the Epistle reading? The Church is the wife of the Lamb. The Lord, God, Almighty, an expression of the Trinity, is in the Person of the Lamb the temple of the heavenly city. The Trinity is only known in heaven the same way we know it on earth: in the Lamb, Jesus. According to Revelation the Lamb is not only the light and temple of the city, but from Him flows the water of life into the city and only by being written in Lamb's Book of Life does anyone gain entrance to the city.
The Lamb, the Lamb, the Lamb is the center of the saints in heaven. When they left this lighted hall they didn't fly off into darkness but into His everlasting arms. And now they see Him face to face; now the light of the glory of God which Paul tells us we can only bear to see in the face of Christ lightens their faces. And unlike Moses' face, that glorious light doesn't fade.
But how is if for us saints in this present darkness? We don't yet see the Lamb face to face but He did tell us where to look for Him. He promised us before He ascended into heaven where He would meet us on earth. When you look at the waters of Baptism you are to see Jesus' face reflected back. When you hear the words of Absolution you are to see the lips of Jesus moving. And when you see the Bread of Communion you see the Body of Jesus; when you see the Wine of Communion you see the Blood of Jesus.
In the midst of the life we have in Jesus' name, we are surrounded by darkness now, but those Sacraments are like pin pricks of light piercing this dark night. Don't get fooled by the lighted hall. It's not really that light in here. Don't think that life is no more than a dash, a rapid flight through this hall. And don't think that flight from this hall ends in darkness for those redeemed by the blood of the Lamb. Their life ends where it really began in, with, and under the Lamb. That's why at the grave the dead in Christ are signed with the same cross that was put on their head and heart at Baptism.
The medieval story of the sparrow flying through a lighted hall on a winter's night is said to have led to the conversion of Edwin, the pagan king of Norththumbria. It is said that one of the king's men, other accounts say it was the Bishop Paulinius, spoke of the familiar depiction of a man's life as the flight of a sparrow through a lighted hall, from darkness he comes and into darkness he goes. But then concluded, "If, therefore this new doctrine [Christianity] contains something more certain, it seems justly to deserve to be followed" (http://territrimble.livejournal.com/825.html).
Yes, we know what lies beyond this lighted hall called life. A little bird told us. A little bird who is also a Lamb has been there and came back not only to tell us but to get us. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
All Saints' Sunday (20101107) Revelation 21: 9-11; 22-27; 22: 1-5