Only when we have felt the terror of the matter, can we recognize the incomparable kindness.
On the day that Elizabeth Edwards was laid to rest in Raleigh, North Carolina, Mark Madoff hanged himself in his SoHo apartment, his two-year-old son sleeping in a nearby room. Two very different kinds of deaths and, one can safely presume, very different kinds of lives.
The untimely end of each of these public figures captivated our fame-obsessed culture, and media reports dominated the airwaves — at least for the 24 hours generally allotted such news. (Celebrity worship seems to be a correlative of short attention spans — or vice versa). We are intrigued by celebrities (two of my first four posts on this blog dealt with the sudden death of Michael Jackson in 2009) because we imagine them to be so unlike ourselves: no worries about money; the beautiful homes, cars, and clothes; the world travel and the live-in help.
But perhaps we find their deaths fascinating because, for all the presumed glamour of fame and material success, we see that death is the great equalizer. Despite access to the best health care, breast cancer killed Elizabeth Edwards, just as it cruelly takes the lives of the poorest of the poor. Even with vast resources at his disposal, Mark Madoff couldn’t stave off the hopelessness that drives both the powerful and the powerless to suicide.
Here, curiously, is where our culture’s celebrity worship and its concomitant denial of death meet the stark reality of our collective mortality: these famous people are dead and we will be too someday.
In the season of Advent, not unlike Lent, we ponder things like death. Not because of a morbid fascination with dying or even a healthy acknowledgement of its inevitibility, but because the comings of Christ (past, present, and future) cannot be apprehended apart from it.
Jesus was born into a world of evil and death in which power conspired — from the beginning of his life till its end — to destroy him. Through word and sacrament and “in every person that you meet” (Bonhoeffer), Jesus comes to us now, offering life to us and our death-dealing ways. In his final Advent the power of evil and death will be broken forever. This is a mystery we cannot solve or explain (because it’s a mystery); we can only confess it, abide in it, rest in its promised gift.
In a Christmas Eve meditation from a few years ago, Fleming Rutledge notes that “a famous painting of the annunciation in the Cloisters in New York shows the embryonic Jesus slipping down a shaft of sunlight toward Mary — and he is already carrying his cross.” The baby in the manger is the Suffering Servant; Incarnation cannot be separated from Death and Resurrection (nor from Creation, Salvation, Ecclesiology, Eschatology . . . ). Christmas and the Cross are of a piece.
“Our whole life,” says Bonhoeffer, “is Advent” — a learning to wait and abide, to prepare and be present, to anticipate a future we’ve been given a glimpse of. This would be too much for us without the Christ who comes — Emmanuel (“God is with us”) — and even so it’s damn near impossible sometimes.
For in the time between the times we experience all the tedium and terror that earthly existence offers. Death comes for strangers and friends. It will come for us. It is, after all, the great equalizer. But we pray with the psalmist: “Restore us, O LORD God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.” In Advent and in all the seasons of our lives we affirm, as a recent creed has it, that “in life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us. We are not alone.”