She died at work. A massive heart attack seized her as she stood behind the grocery store’s deli counter. Maybe she was slicing pastrami for a customer. Or making potato salad. Or just daydreaming. Her coworkers found her lying on the floor and called 911. The EMTs couldn’t revive her.
That’s how my mom died.
No one at the store knew how to contact me. So an ambulance transported her lifeless body to the morgue. A day later somebody remembered that I was serving as a chaplain at a nearby hospital. They called the office on my day off. My supervisor B- got hold of me.
My wife Joy came with me to claim Trudy’s body. The attendant left us alone with the cold, silent corpse that was once my mother. A woman who loved to laugh and eat and watch cartoons. Who loved cats and Live Atlanta Wrestling and her only living son.
I sobbed like a child. My chest and shoulders heaved uncontrollably. Joy cried and held me until I could breathe normally again.
Death is stark and final. There’s no negotiating with it. No overpowering it. No take-backs. One minute we’re streaming Netflix or walking the dog. The next minute we’re gone. Only a fleshly husk remains. And there’s no pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps from the grave.
Facing death is harrowing. Mostly we avoid thinking about it. That’s completely understandable. Dwelling on our mortality can be a serious buzz kill. And yet, the Christian tradition teaches us that confronting life’s brevity is the key to a rich and meaningful life.
For instance, the Psalmist writes, “Teach us to count our days/ that we may gain a wise heart.” (90:12) And each year we begin our journey through Lent with these words: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
Ancient Greek and Roman philosophers like the Stoics recommended the reflective practice of memento mori: remember death. Remember that you will die.
Their point was that you should make the most of the time you have. You should live honorably and should leave behind accomplishments as a memorial that you once had counted for something. Still, don’t get too carried away with yourself. The rich and the poor, the mighty and the lowly all end up worm food or buzzard bait.
By contrast, Jesus teaches us not only to face death but to embrace it. That’s because he decisively redefines death by enduring it himself. That’s why Paul yearned to be “like him in his death.” (Philippians 3:10b) As paradoxical as it may sound, in the resurrection Jesus transforms dying into the key to living.
Mary of Bethany glimpsed what Jesus was up to even before his crucifixion. She had watched Jesus raise her brother Lazarus from the grave and recognized the lesson conveyed by that miracle. Jesus offers a radically different kind of life. What he called eternal life. A life that begins—albeit partially and imperfectly—right here, right now, and that extends beyond the grave.
Mary demonstrated her grasp of Jesus’s meaning a few days after Lazarus had emerged from the tomb. Jesus and the disciples joined Mary, her sister Martha, and Lazarus for dinner. Just as everybody else was sitting down to eat, Mary broke open an expensive bottle of perfumed oil, got on her knees, anointed Jesus’s feet with the oil, and then wiped his feet with her long hair. (John 12:1-8)
Fast forward six days. Jesus hosts his friends for the Passover meal. Before they eat, Jesus makes them all take a seat. He rolls up his sleeves, kneels before each of them, washes their feet, and wipes their feet with the cloth he had draped over his shoulder.
Jesus then instructed his disciples to do the what he had done. Or, strictly speaking, he told them to do what Mary had already done. Make your life an embodiment of love. Devote yourself—direct all your actions—to making this world a better place for everybody, including you.
To love is to give your life away for the sake of the other. As Jesus put it, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13)
That’s what Jesus did on the cross. It’s what Jesus calls you and me to do. To give our lives away because that is the way of love. And the way of love is the way of dying and rising. The way of eternal life.
You see, God is love. And when we love, we are allowing God’s love—God’s very own person—to inhabit the core of our existence. Our love for others joins us to God at the hip. Nothing—neither heart attack nor stroke, car crash nor cancer—can sever that bond.
Oh sure, one day we’ll breathe our last and our hearts will stop beating. But because of the power of love death will only mean that life has changed. Not ended. Jesus has made death the birthplace of eternal life. And strictly speaking, that change has already begun—if only in fits and starts—in the love you give in your everyday life.
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