His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence. His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself, which these dead had one time reared and lived in, was dissolving and dwindling.
– “The Dead” by James Joyce
On the first day of the week, at the first sign of dawn, they went to the tomb with the spices they had prepared. They found that the stone had been rolled away from the tomb, but on entering discovered that the body of the Lord Jesus was not there. As they stood there not knowing what to think, two men in brilliant clothes suddenly appeared at their side. Terrified, the women lowered their eyes. But the two men said to them, “Why look among the dead for someone who is alive?”
– Luke 24:1-5
As the snow falls over Gabriel’s beloved Ireland, and over his own life as well, in the haunting final lines of Joyce’s short story “The Dead”, the reader is perhaps inevitably swept along with the imagery and the emotion to Gabriel’s own “swoon”, the sense that the boundary between life and death has become porous, but not because we have reached paradise.
As I write, we are moving swiftly towards Holy Week, and snow falls over England and Ireland, and over the United States as well, our Lenten observance tinged with a bit more of winter’s cold silence than one might prefer. We find ourselves yearning for spring, for its promise of the sun’s warming rays and of the green shoots that tell of new life rising up.
These final days of Lent come to us as a valuable gift, with their powerful and affecting invitation to walk the final days and moments with the Lord – with the fickle sunshine of Palm Sunday’s festive procession soon to give way to the stark darkness of the Passion. Can we keep these hours with Him? Haven’t we had enough of our own cold, and of our own dying?
The dying we do on the way to the Father, as the constitutions of my religious congregation (the Congregation of Holy Cross) put it, is not Joyce’s dying – not the numbing march of meaninglessness and paralysis of a people gradually realising their rituals are empty and their hopes false. No, the dying of the Christian people is the dying of heroes, the dying of those whom Stephen Spender called the “truly great”: “those who in their lives fought for life, who wore at their hearts the fire’s centre”.
Christian suffering and dying is suffering and dying in solidarity – the suffering of children as they watch a parent leaving this life, and reflect on the decades of sacrifice and hidden giving that made life, made family, and even now in death deepen and enrich that life and family.
It is the suffering of the care-giver who patiently tends to the vulnerable stranger with dementia, honouring her dignity even as the mystery of the memories that have been lost are elusive, but knowing that she is one of us, a neighbour and a friend, even in this cold silence. It is the suffering of the addict who comes to admit in powerlessness that the path of living is surrender, and “forthwith finds salvation”, as Robert Frost put it.
Christian suffering has been transformed by the warmth of dawn and the light of faith, by the glory of the saints who, living as alter Christus (another Christ) down through the ages and today have told a deeper truth than Gabriel’s disillusionment, and allowed the glory of God’s life to pour through their own and touch the lives of others – from the brief holiness of the Little Flower to the decades of selflessness and healing of Padre Pio.
The Christian community is not afraid of death and dying, because, though we know the pain of Jesus weeping over Lazarus, it trusts as surely that we will rise again because we have already been shaped by the Paschal mystery.
The experience of our Communion retells the story of that grain of wheat. Our experience of mercy retells the return of the Prodigal. Our boldly reaching out to others in their pain and despite our own makes real again the triumph over fear of those who left that Upper Room because they had been told “Peace be with you.”
Let these images of Scripture and Tradition remake us in this Eastertide. The Risen One makes all things new. Let us reflect on what we have known of dying but also of living, of the joys that come from letting go and leaning into life with that trust in Providence that has sustained incredible living and incalculable loving so many times, and so undeniably.
Our own stories are meant to join and retell that greatest of all stories, and when we allow it to be so we make Easter real again, again, again. Each paradoxical surrender is a triumph of light over darkness, and of warm communion over cold alienation. May we know it more deeply this year than last, as Easter dawns generally over us.
Fr William Dailey CSC is director of the Notre Dame-Newman Centre for Faith & Reason in Dublin
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