We are winding up another year overshadowed by the coronavirus pandemic, and as we do so we are accompanied by hymns and carols heralding the advent of the infant king. Approaching Christmas we remember how the Christ child was born offering us redemption and completing His creation, but another theme has been acutely present to our minds over the past two years: our own mortality.
The birth of the son is the death of the Father, wrote the German philosopher GWF Hegel. This cryptic statement reveals a concise and profound notion, because without the birth of the Christ child, He could not have been crucified on the Cross later in his Earthly sojourn. One must, however, tread carefully here, for it was Christ in his divinity who died on the Cross and not the divinity itself. Through sending His only son, God the Father participated in the agony of his son, and the son in turn offered Himself to His father for our sins.
During Christmas, many people will gather with loved ones; these gatherings are often surrounded by their own customs and rituals. Especially in times like our own, shrouded by the coronavirus, with some having lost those close to us, the significance of family and friends is enhanced. The rituals with which we encapsulate our most significant holidays serve a purpose, elevating us beyond quotidian concerns. But for many others, Christmas may be a time of sorrow, associated with the death of loved ones and loneliness. Here it can be a true source of consolation to reflect on the meaning of Christmas, which shines the light of Christ around the world, pointing to the redemptive sacrifice on the Cross. On top of that, we must also recall Christ’s ultimate triumph over death.
So this Advent and Christmas season is a good time to reflect on the subject of mortality. Christianity centres around a specific death. On the Cross we meet the death of the second person of the Trinity, which was a “stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles”. This death was not a failure as so many contemporaries had thought, but the greatest triumph – death had been conquered by God Himself, providing mankind with the hope of eternal rest with that same Crucified God. According to St Philip Neri, “true servants of God endure life and desire death”. Life can no doubt be difficult, fraught with diseases and disappointments, but we endure the days finding ways of spending them well, and a life well lived according to ancient wisdom is spent contemplating true knowledge, or – for Christians – knowing Christ, who is the word (Logos) made flesh.
Christ’s death is motivated by love. He lived His life in obedience to the Father, and death on the Cross was part of this obedience. In order to reach this crowning point, He had to enter our world, condescending to our frail state. We humans had sinned against God in our original disobedience in the Garden, and only through Christ’s taking on and redeeming of the flesh could the world be put right. The humbling reality is that He did not come in the form of a worldly emperor or king, but as a child in need of care from other humans. This vulnerable child would turn out to be the king of kings, dying at the hands of men who knew not what they did. In the infant’s birth, the crucifixion of the Redeemer is prefigured, for the very reason He was born into the world would be manifest at Golgotha.
Christianity takes place within this tension between the humble origins and the agonising death on the Cross. But so do all our lives, when we understand the underlying significance of the events of Christ’s life. The Eternal word becomes flesh, showing us what it means to be fully human, living a life of virtue. He walked amongst men and through His actions corrected wrongs and set an example. Although we hope the end of our lives will not be as painful as the death of our redeemer, there is an element of fear when we confront death. The redemptive act on the Cross, however, shows us that the path is still open to a life of virtue and forgiveness, despite the frailty we carry with us. Christ came to offer us salvation and redemption, correcting the fault of our first ancestors, but the condition which we were left in still remains; we are imperfect beings in need of perpetual help. For this reason we have recourse to the sacraments which strengthen us and carry us through life, abounding in gifts of grace.
Through God’s free gift of grace we share in His divine life, and our lives are given a supernatural element. But in the very example of Christ, the second person of the Trinity made flesh, we can see what a life well lived should be like. Christ is therefore a concrete example to us, from birth to burial. According to a medieval German adage, the moment we are born, we are old enough to die. Earlier, Seneca had stated that as soon as we are born, we begin the process of death. Every day that passes, we are one step closer to the grave, the body eventually bending down with age as if to greet the soil in which it will one day dwell. Bounded as life is between life and death, we have the opportunity to live in abandonment to the present moment, giving the gift of ourselves to those we love.
In chapter 21 of the Apocalypse of John we are told that death will be no more. It is again important to remember that death had entered the world as a punishment for sin. We are told in Genesis 2:17 that we will “die the death”. We all face anxiety over death, for our finitude presents us with a temptation to despair. Yet here we are told death will be no more, that the very thing which so universally represents our anxieties is overcome, if you follow the path of Christ.
For those who do not repent and choose to follow Christ, a “second death” awaits. That thing which causes us despair and anxiety will still be present to us. Surely, this “second death” is not to be equated with the mortal death we experience in this life, but the loneliness and despair which it represents. We face death alone, and this isolation at the face of mortality can raise the superficial question of the banality of existence. Existence takes on an absurd character only if we refuse to see the underlying Truth in which we partake. Only by conforming to Christ and allowing Him to dwell in us is this loneliness finally and fully overcome.
The ancients lacked this deeper and ultimately liberating view of death. There was a harsher understanding of both life and death in antiquity. Take “Silenus’ wisdom” as an example, named after the mythical figure Silenus who was the father of the god of drunkenness, Dionysius. It is quoted among others by Aristotle in his Eudemian Ethics, claiming that the best thing is not to be born, and the second best thing is to die young.
In antiquity, death was represented everywhere, whereas we now put the act of procreation on public display. The ancients depicted the afterlife, philosophers wrote about it and poets sang about it. Life was, in short, a preparation for death. Today, it would seem, everyday life is an attempt to avoid this perceived terrible and dreaded consequence. We would do right in asking ourselves if the ancients were not on to something, even if they missed the full implication of the insights they had gleaned using reason in anticipation of Revelation.
Another lamentable development in contemporary life is the seeming de-Christianisation of the world. As Christmas approaches we hear wishes for a “happy holiday” or “end of the year”, rather than traditional Christmas greetings. Archbishop Gómez of Los Angeles recently criticised this phenomena while addressing the forthcoming 23rd Catholic and Public Life Congress in Madrid, stating: “With the breakdown of the Judeo-Christian worldview and the rise of secularism, political belief systems based on social justice or personal identity have come to fill the space that Christian belief and practice once occupied.” With the potential erosion of our heritage and faith, we risk losing sight of the deeper meaning which permeates and underlies our lives and culture.
The key is surely not to fear death, nor to pre-empt natural death, but rather to embrace it as the liminal presence that it is, the “most possible certainty” in Heidegger’s words, due to be greeted when the time is right. Everything can be put right except death, said St Josemaría Escrivá, and death puts everything right. But this presupposes a life rightly lived, in pursuit of the transcendentals – truth, goodness, beauty – which we hope to enjoy perfectly in eternal beatitude.
This article is from the December 2021 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
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