Much of my childhood and all of my teen years were spent living in my grandparents’ home with my mother.
They had all immigrated to the United States from Austria in the early 1950’s. First my mom came over. Her mother and father followed a couple of years later.
They all spoke English to me and German to each other. Well, actually, my grandparents frequently spoke a kind of mixed English and German to me. My guess is that they always thought in German and then struggled to translate using their limited vocabulary and shaky grammar.
For instance, we didn’t usually say, “Good night.” Sometimes we would say, “Gute Nacht!” or “Schlaf gut!” “Good night” and “sleep well” in German.
But more frequently, we would say, “Bis Morgen!” Until morning! Maybe you say, “See you in the morning.”
I’m fond of this phrase. It connotes that we will see each other again after a brief separation. Our connection to each other is not severed even though we are absent from each other’s sight.
My grandparents and my mother died years ago. I dedicated my latest book, Gospel Memories, to them. The dedication reads like this:
To Trudy, Joseph, and Marie… Bis Morgen!
You see, Joseph and Marie were my grandparents. My older brother and my younger sister also bore these same names. They too died years ago.
The dedication in Gospel Memories conveys my sense that—even though they are obscured from my sight—my mother, my grandparents, and my siblings remain deeply connected to me.
“Bis Morgen” expresses my hope that I will see them by a morning light that I have only partially glimpsed. The morning of the New Heaven and the New Earth. A morning that never fades into night.
In other words, I believe in the resurrection. And what I believe about the resurrection shapes how I lead my earthly life.
Let’s take a look at what Jesus actually teaches about life and death.
On his way across the countryside, Jesus comes to a little town called Nain. Just as he gets to the city gate, he runs into a funeral procession. A widow’s only son has died, and they are carrying his corpse beyond the city walls for burial.
Jesus responds with compassion. He understands the widow’s grief because he’s been there. His own mother has been a widow since they buried his earthly father Joseph.
He also understand the widow’s plight. In that culture, a woman without a male benefactor—like a husband or a son—would be destitute. That is perhaps one reason why his mother Mary accompanied Jesus on his ministry.
Jesus’ empathy is no mere feeling. It is the power of divine love. The power to bring bosons, wooly mammoths, and garter snakes out of nothing. The power to heal lepers, to bring sight to the blind, and to make the lame walk. The power to bring life out of death.
And that is precisely what Jesus did. With a few words, Jesus restored the dead man to life.
This is quite a miracle. But it is only a resuscitation. Jesus brought the man back to an earthly life in which he would once again know sorrow, pain, and death.
When Jesus emerged from the tomb, his was a life that had passed through death. He didn’t just come back from the dead. He is on the other side of death once and for all. Jesus came to give us that kind of life.
The kind of life we can give ourselves is no doubt good. We can have family and friends. Material comforts and pleasant entertainments. We can have rewarding careers, undertake fascinating studies, discover cures for dreadful diseases, and create great works of art. We can sing together and dance together and eat crawfish together.
But we can’t bring ourselves back from the dead. And we cannot make a life that is impervious to heartbreak, disappointment, aging, sickness, and plain bad luck.
Only Jesus can give us that kind of life. Only Jesus brings resurrection. And to borrow a phrase from the late Robert Farrar Capon, the story of the widow’s son teaches us that resurrection is only for the dead.
The dead have no pretense to self-help and self-improvement. They are radically dependent upon someone beyond themselves to give them life. And by raising the widow’s son from the dead, Jesus is telling us that his Way is a way of radical dependence upon God.
The new life in Christ begins even now as we surrender ourselves in humility to the power of divine compassion. Neither our moral rectitude nor our rigorous piety nor our well-crafted theologies will give us life eternal. Only Jesus does that.
And when we trust Jesus to give us life eternal, heaven begins to infiltrate earth.
We can begin to know a peace that surpasses anything that our achievements or possessions could possibly convey. And we’re able to nurture people and be nurtured by them in surprising and enduring ways. Charleen Klister is a person like that.
Charleen was my sophomore English teacher at St. Pius X Catholic High School. She taught me not only to write, but how to pursue a dream, the dream of doing good by writing.
She once heard me say something like, “I’ll never be President of the United States.”
Charleen must have seen how I had come to believe that a person with my background and my limitations could never do anything of great worth. Never make a difference.
She gently stopped me and asked, “Why not? Why couldn’t you be President? Of course you could.”
This was not some self-esteem pep talk. She was calling me on my psychological baggage. Challenging me to take risks and to quit giving myself excuses for passing up opportunities to make the world a better place.
A few days ago Charlene contacted me. We spoke for a few minutes on the phone. She has recently retired from St. Pius, and now she is in hospice.
She sounded like the old Charleen I remember. Her voice a bit thinner and weaker, but clear and gracious as ever. She wanted to tell me that I am loved. Above all, she wanted me to know that.
Her love for me—and my love for her—has stretched over these many years and many miles to keep us connected. I realized that her love for me is what changed my life. It was Jesus’ love that flowed through her. And that love flows through me back to her.
She shared with me that, as her earthly life unwinds, God has surrounded her with peace and beauty from the most surprising and wonderful places and people. She was completely at peace with passing from life to life.
At the end of our conversation, she said, “Good night.”
It was still afternoon, and I took this to mean, “Until we meet again on that far shore.”
I said, “Bis Morgen.”
“Yes,” she said, “until morning.”