We didn’t know that her name would be Marie. We didn’t know that she would be a she.
Before the era of sonograms, my mom was massively pregnant. And three-year-old me wanted a baby sister. So, with Mom’s help, I grabbed a crayon and wrote Santa a letter asking for a baby sister.
Memories from that age are gauzy and piecemeal for me. I remember writing the letter and leaving it on the front stoop for Santa. I remember eagerly anticipating a baby sister.
And I remember Mom telling me that Marie had died.
Marie’s death presented me with my first spiritual challenge and my first theological question. And by “first” I mean more than the first in a chronological sequence of challenges and questions. I mean basic. Enduring. Definitive for how I look at life.
Living and dying are intimately connected. We live. We die. And that is more than some brute fact. It is the defining mystery of our existence. It is where God is most profoundly at work in our lives.
Initially, I just wanted to know why Marie died. As a three-year-old, I saw death as an unfair intrusion, even a sort of theft. Someone or something had taken my sister. Why would they do such a thing?
Soon I asked what happens after we die. My mother’s answer was that Marie is in heaven. She changed celestial addresses, but we will see her again someday.
During my childhood, that’s about as far as my reflections took me. And after years of pastoral work, I understand that many of us pass through these questions—often in more sophisticated ways—when we endure the loss of a loved one.
Why did she have to die? It isn’t fair.
Is there life after death? What is like? Will we see each other again?
These questions revolve around our final breath. Our last heartbeat. Death, from this perspective, is only our chronological endpoint. You live and then you die. Time’s up on this planet. Death is the opposite of life.
But I’ve experienced a different sort of death many times over the years. To borrow Marcus Borg’s way of putting it, I’ve died to narrower life and rose to a wider life over and over again. And I don’t think that I’m alone in this.
For part of my life, resentments toward those who had wounded me kept my gaze fixed on me. As I gradually came to see that those who injured me were themselves broken, I began to think about how to make a world that doesn’t injure people.
Education, visiting foreign cultures, meeting people from vastly different backgrounds. Experiences like these have led many of us to the death of a narrow self who fears strangers or hates difference. As a result, a new life emerges. A wiser, stronger, deeper life. A more compassionate, broader, more tenderly connected life.
Death is not the opposite of life. It is the birthplace of life. Dying and rising are the pattern of eternal life. Right here on planet Earth. In other words, resurrection is already etched into the patterns of our ordinary existence. This is God’s work. And yet, it requires our participation.
Shortly before his death and resurrection, Jesus taught a lesson about dying and rising in a very personal way to his closest friends. When Mary and Martha sent for him to heal their ailing brother Lazarus, Jesus delayed his arrival until Lazarus had died and been laid in a tomb. His corpse had begun to decay by the time Jesus got there.
Jesus miraculously revived and restored his friend. But it is crucial to recognize that Lazarus did not escape death. Jesus brought life out of death. Eternal life only emerges from death. As Robert Farrar Capon put it, resurrection is only for the dead.
Jesus taught us the paradoxical truth that if we seek to save our life we will lose it. But we lean into eternal life when we give our lives away to heal the world. If you want to get to the empty tomb, you have to go through the cross.
Jesus came to heal the world of violence and poverty, of oppression and exploitation, of greed and competition. The only power great enough for that kind of healing is love. And there is no greater love than giving your life away so that others can live the life that God dreams for us all.
At a dinner party a few days following the miracle at Lazarus’s tomb, Jesus and the disciples are eating supper at the home of Mary, Martha, and their newly-resuscitated brother Lazarus. Sending shock waves through the room, Mary breaks open a bottle of perfumed oil, anoints Jesus’s feet, and dries them with her hair.
Her actions are an extravagant display of love. Selfless love. And it is in loving like Jesus that we are genuinely following him. That we are starting to get the point. The point that life is about extravagant love, the love that brings life from death.
Will I see Marie? Join her in some way that is even more real than I can imagine? I hope so. I believe so.
And from time to time, in the midst of some small gesture of love, I smell the hint of crayon and hear a little girl’s laughter.