Thursday, November 7, 2013

Ars Moriendi

The church in America does not much care for death.  I don't care for death, either, it's an offense to God's image in man, it has no place in the New Heaven and New Earth, and it is the last enemy to be overcome.  But that's not quite what I was getting at.

The American church likes people to be happy, healthy, and feeling good, and death is rather a downer.  It's not what the kids want to hear.  It won't get people in the doors.  It's certainly not in keeping with the style of if-you-want-it-then-God-wants-it-for-you "preaching" that is so very popular nowadays.  It does not lead to high self-esteem.

By contrast, the church used to take death and dying rather seriously (but then, the church used to take a lot of things rather seriously).  The Roman Catholics have a sacrament about death.  Luther (among many others) contributed to the Ars Moriendi, the literature on the art of dying, in his 1519 Sermon on Preparing to Die  (I am indebted to Austra Reinis for her work Reforming the Art of Dying).  Glossing the substantial differences in how the Romanists and Protestants sought to prepare their flocks to face death, we may conclude that this task was not taken lightly, much less avoided, by Christendom for a great deal of her history.  Even into the 19th and 20th centuries, it was popularly understood that "prepare to meet your Maker" was an exhortation with meaning, which could be meaningfully undertaken (viz "The Wreck of the Deutschland" etc.).

This topic recommended itself to me just yesterday, when I got a promotional email about a mother-daughter harp duo who gives concerts interspersed with anecdotes the mother has collected about people on their deathbeds and how they get "glimpses of heaven" or some such.  As a reformed presbyterian, this seemed a little beatific-vision-y for my taste, but it reminded me that some people do still contemplate the ars moriendi

To flip a Schaeferism, how shall we then die?

We are not Stoics.  Death is not the inevitable result of life, to be taken with apatheia, and we do not go gently into that good night (which is not good, anyway). 

We are not mystics.  Death is not the gate to an unknown plane of existence in which the human can explore, reign, oppress, or otherwise carry on being some kind of translated free agent.

We are not pagans.  Death comes to man as to the beast, says the preacher, but by golly we take it a good deal more seriously than they.

On this blog we are not even Roman Catholics.  Death comes once, and then the judgment.  The dead are beyond the reach of the living as king David well expressed the matter.

No, death is the last enemy.  It is bitter.  It is hard.  It is the wages of sin. It severs, sometimes cruelly, the living from those who go down to the pit.

But it is conquered for the Christian in Christ.  He drained it dry, and if we rest in His work, there is confidence.  Not a confidence in ourselves, our life's work, our legacy, no confidence that death is illusory or an existential cessation.  A confidence in Jesus Christ, the living one who has died, a confidence in our God who promises that he will spread a feast on his mountain and will himself swallow up death forever (Isa. 25 - go read it).  The Christian faces death as a soldier confident in victory.  Perhaps I die today, O death, but at the end of days, you will die and I will live.  We cannot break the fangs of death, but Christ has sucked the venom for us, and will at length fully and finally slay Leviathan the fleeing serpent, the murder from the beginning, and death will be no more, neither will there be mourning nor tears, for the former things will have passed away.

So let us face death.  It may be profitably contemplated, a la ars moriendi, insofar as it is also a meditation on the work of Christ.  Sermons about death must be sermons about Christ (just as sermons about sin, marriage, work, or assurance all must be sermons about Christ).  To live in the shadow of the cross is to live in the shadow of death.  But let it not be our own death that preoccupies us, but the death and resurrection of our great savior, Jesus Christ.