All Souls Day and the Shock of Death
Margaret are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for…
Ah! As the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
And then you will weep and know why.
No matter child, the name;
Sorrows springs are the same.
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for…
These beautiful and mysterious words are taken from a poem by the renowned English Catholic poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. The title of the poem is “Spring and Fall.”
The poem is about a young child who looks upon the golden leaves of autumn with delight, only to be crushed with disappointment when she realizes the golden leaves fade and fall, leaving the trees apparently lifeless. The child mourns this loss and the poet understands the child’s grief to be a harbinger of greater sorrows—the first realization that everything in this world passes away. The child sees in the fading and falling leaves her own future. One day, Margaret, like the bright, yellow leaves of Goldengrove, will fade and pass away.
Life is beautiful, but contains within it sad inevitabilities. Attempts to isolate ourselves from the sad facts of life also deprive us of life’s beauty.
Hopkins’ poem is about a reality of our existence that the philosophers and theologians call contingency. Contingency is an elevated way of saying that nothing in this world lasts. Death is integral to existence and the realization and acceptance of this truth is the beginning of wisdom.
There are different strategies that human beings have employed to cope with the reality of contingency and the inevitability of death.
In ancient times, death was worshipped as a god. This makes sense if you think about it. The ancient gods were personifications of the natural necessities of existence, and death is both natural and necessary. It was hoped that the power of death might be appeased and even controlled through worship.
However, it became clear to many that human attempts to appease or control death, though perhaps comforting, prove to be impotent (powerless). Death, like the other ancient gods, just doesn’t care about our pleading and can’t be bought off by our sacrifices, our gold, or our prayers.
Thus, some of the ancient philosophers proposed that the best we can do is live as well as we can while we can and find some delight in the time that we have been allotted. Why waste precious time on something we cannot predict, control, or change?
But what of hope? Is this as the ancient Greeks surmised, merely a curse inflicted on us by the cruel gods?
Modern man shifted from faith in the gods to faith in ourselves, from hope in the supernatural to hope in the natural. Through some elixer, therapy, or technology, we believe we can forestall death and perhaps, eventually, cure ourselves of this affliction.
But in the meantime, as we wait for that cure, it is best to live in denial and exile the reality of death along with other unpleasant facts of life, such as growing old, getting sick, being vulnerable or a burden. We have institutions in which we can sequester such unpleasant things, lest they disrupt a positive environment and provoke bad feelings.
And even when we can no longer deny death’s reality, we can still insist that there be no tears or somber words. We will celebrate the life of the deceased. The last thing we want in a funeral is that it be funereal.
The denial of death is a relatively recent phenomenon. Christians of former times were instructed to be mindful of death in practices of prayer and recollection called “memento mori” (remember death). This mindfulness often became morbid, but it was not intended as such. The purpose was to instill in us a sense of gratitude for life and prepare us for heaven. With death, the opportunities to love and forgive are ended. Refusals to love and forgive are very dangerous; as we grow older it becomes harder to set things right and make amends. The time for getting to know Christ is now, so that when we meet him, we are not meeting someone that we spent our lives treating like a stranger.
Christ himself insists that, in terms of our refusals to love and to forgive, his response to us will be “you did it to me.” A sobering realization indeed!
I know that nowadays every funeral seems like a canonization, but this misses a point that our ancestors understood better than we do—that it is a risky thing to live in such a way that you will be completely and utterly unprepared for what awaits us on the other side.
Why all this talk of death?
Today is the solemn commemoration of All Souls.
The modern understanding of this holy day is that today we remember, or memorialize, the dead. I suppose this is true. But the point of today is not just to remember the dead, but to pray for the dead—a signal to us that heaven is not as easy as we might think to attain and that we all have to help one another to get there.
But really, today is about more than remembering deceased loved ones (after all, the deceased live on in a far more important place than our memories) or even praying for the dead.
Today is about the off-putting truth that God in Christ permitted himself the experience of death. In fact, this is the reason that God accepted, in Christ, a human nature and lived a real, human life. God in Christ united to himself the fullness of what it means to be human, and as such, it is true to say that God came into this world in Christ so that he could die.
If that revelation doesn’t stun you, then you aren’t really thinking about what it means.
And as remarkable as it is that God in Christ came into this world to die, it is even more remarkable that he did this not because he was somehow obligated to or needed to, but because he loves us and wanted to show us that he is with us in all the events and circumstances of life—even in suffering and death. But even more remarkable than even this, through his death he showed us that his love for us is stronger than death.
This is why Christians reverence the cross: it is because of the cross of the Lord Jesus that we have faith that death is not the final end of who we are, and that we hope that because of Christ’s cross that death has been transformed into a new kind of beginning.
The meaning of the cross is not that Jesus gave up his life for his cause, but that God in Christ, in permitting himself to die, transformed death from an end into a beginning.
Our act of faith and hope in Christ’s cross, a tree upon which God allowed himself to die, takes us back to Hopkins’ poem and the fading, falling leaves of Goldengrove.
The reality of death is not something we Christians deny, but it also does not drive us to despair. Instead, death prompts us to remember the cross of the Lord Jesus. It is through the power of the cross that we are given hope and receive a promise from God of a life that is greater than death, greater than memories, greater than anything we have known or possessed in this passing, contingent world.