" ... whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul ... "
These words, in the opening sentence of Moby Dick, strike a responsive chord in those of us who live in northern climes. We know how bleak November days can be. For us it seems natural to celebrate the feasts of All Saints and All Souls in November and to complete the liturgical calendar near the end of this month or at the beginning of December. I have often wondered how the liturgical calendar fares in the Southern Hemisphere where November is the heart of spring. Be that as it may be, the November weather and its feast days do face us with the end of life and with the end of the world (whatever that might mean). I propose that we meditate on the "last things" in the light of the feast days of November.
In his Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker says: " ...the idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is a mainspring of human activity--activity designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny for man." He then goes on to argue that this denial is so pervasive and pernicious that it is the source of our modern psychic and social ills, and he makes a very good case for his argument. Death faces us with annihilation, the loss of self and all that gives meaning to life. What I fear depends, of course, on what I see as myself. If I am my body, then I will do everything to preserve it. Is this fear behind the cult of the body in our culture? If I am my family or race, then I will do everything to preserve them. In our century we have seen the horrors to which a cult of family or race or country can lead. Rather than explore these different ways of defining the self, I would like to assume, with the Scottish philosopher John Macmurray, that to be a person is to be in relationship, that the unit of the personal is the I and the You.
Without some You, I am not a person, says Macmurray. In other words, I need You (and You and You ... ) in order to be myself. To get an inkling of the truth of this statement, recall how we cling to important relationships even when they are destructive or when the clinging is destructive. If this statement is true, then what I most fear in dying is the loss of all relationships, which would be the equivalent to the annihilation of myself. Thus the fear of death is fear for oneself and vice versa.
Yet to be human is to die. But, someone may argue, death entered the world of the human only with sin. Some modern theologians would, however, say that sin did not bring death into the world; rather, sin changed the way death is experienced. This is, for example, the argument of Sebastian Moore, O.S.B., in Let This Mind Be in You. In other words, because of sin, death--which is human destiny, part of what it means to be human--is experienced as the threat of annihilation. In this understanding, God created human beings whose reality included dying. Hence, death is not annihilation, but the final consummation of life and an opening to more life. Death, then, is not the loss of all relationships, but an opening to much wider and deeper relationships. Sin makes the experience dreadful, not creation itself.
TO GET A PURCHASE on this notion, let us look at the death of Jesus. Jesus, as the sinless one, has no illusions, no rationalizations. He has no progeny as He faces death. He can intuit the doom that faces His people from the Romans, so He cannot comfort Himself with the triumph of His race. He is betrayed by one of His closest friends, denied by another and abandoned by all. His body is stripped of all dignity; crucifixion is a horrible way to die. His mission is a failure; He is mocked and derided by Jew and Roman alike. Even His Father seems distant as He cries out: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" The universe seems to hold its breath. Will He accept what J.R.R. Tolkien calls the "doom of men" willingly, with trust and love? Or will He finally despair? Lukes Gospel seems to capture this feeling. "It was now about the sixth hour, and darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour, for the sun stopped shining. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two" (Lk. 23:44-45). We sense the sigh of relief of the universe as Jesus calls out with a loud voice: "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit" (v.46) and breathes His last.
Sebastian Moore speaks of the chosen passion, not in the sense that Jesus as the sinless one did not have to die, but rather in the sense that Jesus trustingly accepted the "doom of men." He trusted that God is His (and our) Abba (dear Father, dear Mother) and that not even death could change who God is. If God is, for all eternity, our Abba, then Jesus and we will be for all eternity Gods sons and daughters. Thus Jesus was the most fully human person who ever lived because He accepted with trust and love the full reality of being human, which included accepting the truth that death is the only way to be fully human. In Macmurrays terms, Jesus trusted that He would always be a person even through death, that He would always be in relationship. In fact, only through death could He be more a person, in more relationships, deeper and stronger relationships, not only with Abba, but with all of His brothers and sisters who had gone before Him and would come after Him.
Perhaps we can now understand better the profound meaning of these words in Johns Gospel: "The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. Those who love their lives will lose them, while those who hate their lives in this world will keep them for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me. Now my heart is troubled, and what shall I say? Father, save me from this hour? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name!" (Jn. 12:23-28). The only way that Jesus can live, that is, be more fully a person, be glorified, is to die. So in a real sense He does, as Dylan Thomas poetically resisted, "go gentle into that good night"; He does choose death.
For the disciples, of course, the crucifixion was the shipwreck of all their hopes. We can hear the pathos in the words of the two disciples who met the stranger on the road to Emmaus: "But we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel" (Lk. 24:21). They had lost the one You who gave meaning to all their Is. With Him gone, who were they? Yet in this very moment of despair something happens that makes their hearts burn within them. Could it be? Whatever it was, they did not want to let this stranger out of their company, and they prevailed on Him to stay and eat with them. They felt all the old stirrings of life and warmth and challenge and hope that--could it be?--they had felt in Jesus presence. "When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight" (Lk. 24:30-31). With this experience they had themselves back, as it were. The one You who made all the difference to who they are is alive and well. And the vital importance of these first witnesses for us is that they testify that they are experiencing the same Jesus whom they walked and talked and ate with, the same Jesus whom they had abandoned or denied, the same Jesus whom they had seen die so horribly. Thus, they assure us that the Jesus whom we experience in prayer, in reading the Gospels, in the sacrament of reconciliation, in the Eucharist, is Jesus of Nazareth, Marys son.
For that is the heart of the matter in this November, damp and drizzly or not. Our hearts do burn within us at times. We do sense the presence of the mysterious Other whom we name Jesus, and we know with faith and hope and love, at least in those moments, that death has no sting. In those moments we have no doubts either that it is right for the church to celebrate the feast of All Saints because we know that no one who has died in Christ is lost, annihilated. Rather, we know that "we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses" (Heb. 12: 1) and that we have even more relationships than we could ever count. In those moments too, we know that it is right for the church to celebrate the feast of All Souls, because we can hope that all our loved ones are, like Mary, in Christ and, therefore, whole and entire and in relationship with us and everyone else. Indeed, it may be a measure of our faith and hope that we pray to (that is, converse with) not only Jesus, Mary and the saints, but also those of our loved ones who have gone before us into that good night.
BECAUSE WE HAVE experiences of God the Father, of Jesus, of the Spirit, of Mary, of the saints and of our loved ones who are saints, we can say with St. Paul: "What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all--how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?... For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Rom. 8:31-39). Perhaps at such times we can even say that death is not the doom of humankind, but our boon. For only death will take away the blinders that keep us from seeing the whole of our reality, that we are in communion with all human beings because we are in communion with the eternal Community, Father, Son and Spirit, the one mystery we call God.