Death, Where Is Thy Sting? | Adrienne von Speyr | From The Mystery of Death
Death will retain its penal aspect until the end of the world. In death's mirror man recognizes how perverse and sinful he is. But in this whole dimension of punishment, he should also see the Father's solicitous care for man. The same Father who, as Creator and Lord of the Old Covenant, appointed death, also permits death under the New Covenant. God does not surrender his rights as Creator and Owner; this explains all the measures he takes in dealing with man. The sting of death is that it is a punishment. But just as our being sinners is transformed by the Son's coming, so death's penal aspect is also transformed. From the moment the Son surrenders himself for us, not only humanity as a whole, but each individual with his whole destiny and death is personally contained in the Son's sacrifice.
The Son did not come to put an end to the Father's work, to the measures he has taken, but to show them to be based on the love of the Trinity. When, as a final sacrifice to the Father, he gives his life for sinners and dies the death of the cross, it is quite natural for him to love this sacrifice, to love his own death, since it expresses the love in which he makes himself an offering to the Father. He loves the work he performs on the cross because it is to bring the world back to the Father. This cross is the last achievement of his so-inventive love, its highest achievement. And even though it is bought at the price of the greatest suffering, there remains that unity between death and resurrection, between love for the Father and love for men, between the joy of the incarnation and the bitterness of dying.
So we are presented with a twofold contemplation of death: we see ourselves dying as sinners, punished by death for our sins; but at the same time we are privileged to know that our death is kept safe in the Son's death, that it shares in the work effected by the Son's death, and that therefore, together with him, it is going to meet the resurrection. Thus its bitterness becomes blessedness. Yet the bitter side is not simply identical with the blissful side; the two are not confused.
There remain two ways of looking at this, corresponding to two experiences which every human being has to undergo in some way or other. For even when a believer is dying the most painful death, receiving no consolation in the midst of his dying, he cannot say that faith never consoled him in any way. And as for the person undergoing an easy death, perhaps not even aware of it, he cannot say that he never had any misgivings at the idea of having finally to leave this life. What the Son achieves through death rests on the foundation of what the Father has done; it neither cancels it out nor coincides with it. The bitterness of the punishment can be both contemplated and experienced separately from the joy of the resurrection. The a Son did not come to give us a life of faith that is proof against all difficulties and doubts, a kind of oblivious happiness removed from everything that is hard and painful. Such a life would not be a following of Christ.
All Christian sacraments wear this twofold aspect of death; they cannot be put into the straitjacket of a one-sided truth. They are so much the expression of the Son's life, as he lived it, that they contain both elements: his sacrifice and the joy in which he makes it. This goes right through everything, even to the requiem: the mourners, who as yet hardly realize the full extent of their loss, know all the same that the deceased rests in God's hands, sharing the destiny of the children of God, no longer subject to the vicissitudes of this world. And if we were to try to incorporate Saint Paul's vision of death into our faith, we would come across the same twofold aspect: according to Paul, death is like a battle between the mortal and heaven; its outcome is the victory of heaven, and the battle itself exhibits various successive phases that are indecisive, because man himself is invited to join in the struggle concerning his own death.
In other words, man must collect "merits" with a view to his death. It is not simply a case of doing good in order to please God; rather—and this is the Pauline aspect—he is to appear before God as a faithful soldier, bringing him both the work of grace (the Lord's resurrection) and the work of the sinner who has fought his way through to God (and suffers death as a punishment). Ultimately, furthermore, this is the only way man can face himself. The Christian should not be surprised by death nor even by the thought of death, for his whole life is a diligent preparation for death. All that he does in this regard rests on grace, for the Christian could not fight unless Christ, the Risen One, were living in him. It is the Lord's death that helps him die his Christian death; indeed, it so incorporates him into the Lord's dying that the Christian can suffer "what is lacking in Christ's afflictions".
The sting of death is sin; as long as there are sinners the relationship between sin and punishment will remain. But we must also say, "as long as God stands over against sinners". For in this case, punishment is a preliminary stage leading to sanctification through the Lord's death. The death of each individual sinner has to point to the Lord's death and is vanquished in it. The mystery of the communion of saints in the Church has a parallel in this communion in the Lord of the deaths of all sinners. In reality no one dies his own death, for the death he is to die is swallowed up in the Lord's death. Furthermore, through the cooperation of Father, Son and Spirit, the Church has a role in the administration of death, just as she has in the administration of prayer. The man who knows he himself is kept safe in the Lord and in the Lord's cross and death, sharing in his resurrection, also knows that every one is his brother, present with him in the same Lord. There is no confusion in the Lord, but a lively interaction whereby the Lord, who dies for us all, can give each individual the very death the Church needs at this particular time.
So, if we endeavor to live for the Church, we can be sure that we will be privileged to die for her too. Not in the sense of some heroic deed, not that we shall have a total picture of the task laid upon us, not through being mistaken for someone else nor as a result of our own arbitrary choosing: our dying for the Church will be part of our being chosen, part of our self-surrender for the sake of service, which may attain that fulfillment in death which was denied to it in life. This means that we cannot attempt by empirical means to extract the sting of death, that is, the effect of sin in death, from our own death. Certainly we can say, "The Lord has died for me; he has absolved me from my sins through the sacrament of penance." But he has also done the same for others, and our faith's ultimate task is to renounce not only every exclusiveness but all personal prerogatives whatsoever. Just as a religious puts his fruitfulness at the Church's disposal and a nun may have to be a mother to countless orphans, we too can entrust what is ultimate and most personal to us, the significance our death may have for humanity, to the anonymity of service in the Church. This is how we give our death for the Church.
In the Lord's earthly life, all his fruitfulness is summoned up at the cross with a view to his death; since his incarnation signifies fellowship with us, we too, within the Church and together with him, may gather up our Christian willing and hoping with a view to his cross. In personal terms this means that our death, whatever form it may take, is to be seen as the final concentration of our surrender to God. Just as religious, as part of their self-surrender, try to renounce controlling their own work and setting their own goals, we too can do something similar with regard to our death, dying not our death but the death given us by the Lord through the Church. In this way the sting of death—that is, death as experienced—can be compared to the sting of work: ultimately it is no concern of ours, for in Christian terms it is one of God's mysteries that our death has the particular face he gives it, just as, if we have chosen to follow the Lord, our life's work has the particular face God gives it. Renouncing a personal death, a death we have envisaged and manipulated, is only the counterpart of renouncing a life we ourselves have fashioned.
Related IgnatiusInsight.com Links/Articles:
Doctor, Convert, and Mystic: The Life and Work of Adrienne von Speyr | IgnatiusInsight.com
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Reincarnation: The Answer of Faith | Christoph Schönborn
Father, Son, and Spirit | Deborah Belonick
The Point of It All | Peter Kreeft
Adrienne von Speyr was a 20th century Swiss convert, mystic, wife, doctor and author of numerous books on spirituality. She entered the Church under the direction of Hans Urs von Balthasar. Her writings, recognized as a major contribution to the great mystical writings of the Church, are being translated by Ignatius Press. Read about her life and work on her IgnatiusInsight.com author page.
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