Our Lord seems to have had a strange relationship with death. Often the way he acted around it was not … normal. At least, not how we would consider normal. Case in point: remember the funeral procession of the widow’s only son? He stopped the procession and put his hand on the bier. That’s not normal. If some random dude stopped one of my funeral processions there would be a right rhubarb in the street. Remember Jairus’ daughter? By the time he got to her house she was dead, but Jesus said she was only sleeping. That’s not normal. They actually laughed at him for that comment. Remember Lazarus’s stone? “Roll it away? But Lord, he stinketh.” He doesn’t care. Let the foulness of death waft over the crowd. He has work to do.
But the real uniqueness of Jesus’ relationship with death comes from his obsession over his own. Several times in the Gospels he predicts his own death and resurrection, and every time the apostles don’t get it and respond with various levels of ignorance or incredulity. How could the God of the living die? Why would the Way, the Truth, and the Life be killed? But unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies … Jesus is single-minded: Must. Go. To. Calvary.
Human beings live under the universal curse of death inherited by our first parents. Try as we might to pretend that death isn’t so bad or that it’s just a part of life (when it is literally the opposite), all of humanity seeks to avoid it. It’s the one thing we have in common as a race—self-preservation. But we aren’t obsessed with the opposite of death (life), we are simply obsessed with not dying. There is a world of difference between the twain.
Don’t believe me? Look around. Health clubs are on every corner, nutritionists are giving advice, stickers are on the floor telling you how far apart six feet is. The doctor in the white coat has replaced the preacher in the white robe as the Holy Man whose advice you must abide under the implicit threat of death. (And if he has a New York accent you must genuflect when he appears on the telly.) Yeah, all that’s well and good, but how’s it going to end after all that advice? The futility of the obsession is inevitably laid bare … when you die.
We need to be more obsessed with death than with not dying. More specifically, we need to be as obsessed as Jesus was with his own death. Christians are well suited to this. After all, we bedeck our houses, churches, and chests with crosses—symbols of death. And by these crosses we know that Jesus was so obsessed with death because he is so obsessed with you. He has done something remarkable and strange for you: he has already killed you. He has drowned you, in fact:
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. –Romans 6:3–5
These verses are recited at the outset of our funeral liturgy to remind us that Christ suffered, died, and went to hell so you don’t have to. In your baptism he has owned your sin as if it were his, and until the resurrection of all flesh, death for Christians is like falling asleep. Death has no more dominion over Christ, and if you are in Christ then death’s days are numbered.
Don’t get me wrong, you shouldn’t not try not to die. Health and wellness are good things to be concerned with. Take care of yourself. Eat well. Exercise. Get whatever vaccine you want (or don’t; it’s really none of my business and I couldn’t care less and please stop asking me if I’m getting it because it’s none of your business either). But caring for your health is mere stewardship of a body God has given you, just like caring for the ground you walk on and freshness of the air you breath. Making your life’s prolonged temporality as if it were the most important thing turns it from stewardship to idolatry. Obsess, rather, over that with which Jesus was obsessed:
That wonderful, beautiful cross, and the Son of Man, whom God raised from the dead.