What is death?

What is death?  How can it be that at one moment life isn’t visible and that at the next we stand holding a living, breathing, wriggling infant in our arms?  And where does life go, when the child we hugged goodbye as he left for school suddenly lies before us without movement or awareness or a spark of that life which made him so real to us?  This spirit which animates each of us uniquely and individually, which provides a personality to each of us which is so unlike any other living being’s, can it suddenly cease to exist or disappear into nothingness?

No.

That life, that anima is eternal, and for just a moment we may glimpse its presence in our lives, for just an instant we may be graced by it as it passes through one stage of its life.

Like the wheat seed we keep treasured in the grain elevators in our communities, the life of our loved ones is present in the stage in which we best understand it, can best hold it in our hands, only for an instant.  Trying to explain his coming death to his disciples Jesus said, “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat.”

What does this mean?

Before the great mystery of life and death we are told not to hold on to the present way of seeing, not to try to hold back the growth and transformation of life as it breaks forth into something new, unimagined, and for us, for now, unseen.

Try to hold the wheat seed for ever in the grain elevator, and, at best, it only remains a seed; at worst, never being freed to its purpose, it becomes corrupted.  But once hidden in the ground, the mystery of life itself is revealed, and the life within is set free: free to sink new, deep roots; free to sprout in hope; free to leap joyously sunward.  The seed in the ground appears flat, emptied, where once it was full and rounded to our touch, only because the life within it has sprung exponentially forward into such a miracle of life unleashed that we would marvel over it in every chance meeting, every cup of coffee at the Dairy Queen, if only it weren’t so seemingly commonplace in the yearly cycle of our agricultural lives.

“But if it falls to the ground and dies, it grows and becomes much wheat,” Jesus continued to try to explain to his disciples.

Much wheat.  We can only imagine now how our physical beings are like the seed, holding within an eternal life that is waiting to explode into abundance of life when our physical being falls to the ground and appears empty and flat to those who see us “die”.   We can only imagine, believe, trust, and know in our hearts and faith that which has been promised to us, that which Christ tried through parable to explain to ears that couldn’t quite believe.  The passing of the body here is not the end; it is only the beginning of a new and greater life beyond, a life our loved ones who have passed from us enjoy in abundance and a life which we too will share in our own time.

So I believe with every fiber of my being.

Why?

I remember a time when I glimpsed for a moment that which was beyond this husk, this stage of physical life.  I remember the moment when driving from the ranch to Stratford the hole in the road suddenly appeared before me, and, before I could react, my car flipped.  I remember the impact of the roof in the soft soil of the bar ditch, the spray of glass and soil which struck my face as the windows exploded, the oddly calm thought which crossed my mind, “Well, darn. This is it.”

Yet more real than any of this is what I remember next:  the light, warm and bright, which rushed toward me from a point over my gear shift and which expanded to envelope me like a shield; a presence there of great comfort and peace and joy; a Love that invited and yet simply waited for me in loving patience.

How much time passed in that realm of light?  I would have said to you, years. It felt like, I believe it to be, years.

At some point however, the light changed, became like the ending of a hug withdrawn, and moved away until it disappeared entirely, and I was left to find myself unharmed, hanging upside down from the seat belt, the next verse of the song tinkling from the still playing radio.  The life before the roll, the return to life after, these were that which was unreal; it was the life within that light that was all that was reality.

Love is waiting for us to welcome us into the greatest reality of life, a life so vibrant it is beyond our imagining.  This I know; this I have seen; this I believe.

And I know that sometimes we are given the grace to glimpse this joyous life, that sometimes we are given clear signs which point us with great joy toward the certainty of that life.

I remember the small girl, four or maybe five, who sat bewildered in my school atrium, bewildered because everyone around her was saddened by the presence of her grandmother in hospice.  She had been with me as we had explored the gesture of the preparation of the chalice for the Eucharist, the mixing of the water and the wine.  She had listened to a classmate whisper in wonder, “If the wine is Jesus, then are we the water, hugged in the chalice by him?”  That day they came to pull her out of class, because the family thought the worst had come.

The next time I saw her was the week following the funeral.  As she and her mother entered the preschool doors she saw me, and, running to leap upon me in a flying bear hug, she said, “Miss Kay, my grandma died.”

I hugged her close and said, “I know.  I’m so sorry.”

“No,” she admonished me before bursting out in joy, “Miss Kay, we went to church for my grandma, and my grandma was dancing in the chalice with Jesus!”

Let us become as a child.  Let us see with a child’s eyes the miracle of life which surrounds us.  Let us grieve for the passing of what we could hold in our hands, and let us rejoice with all our being in the Life that goes forth into glorious abundance.  Let us honor the spirit which animated our loved one.  We know the source from which it came; let us not doubt where it has gone.  It is, it lives, and we shall meet again amidst an exaltation of joy.

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One thought on “What is death?

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