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In the Midst of Death

Br. James Koester


 

It’s not unusual for me to get something in my head, convinced that I have it correct, only to discover that I have it wrong. Recently I have found myself repeating in my mind a phrase, which I was positive I had right: In the midst of death, we are in life. The phrase comes to us from the Prayer Book burial rite, and we Brothers sing it at the midday service on Holy Saturday.

The problem is, I have it backwards. What the text actually says is, “in the midst of life we are in death.[1]

Yet I think that the trick my mind has played on me has some merit. These past years seem to have been one long, long season of death. While the pandemic might seem to some a distant memory at this point, it surely remains achingly present to the minds of those who have loved and lost one of the 1,151,435 people who have died in the United States from this disease.[2] In the midst of death.

Nor may it surprise you to hear that since the beginning of the year, there have been 565 cases of mass shootings.[3] In America, we lose 121 people every day to gun-related violence, which has taken the lives of 35,000 people so far this year, and is the leading cause of death for American children.[4] In the midst of death.

We see unfolding in the news every day reports of violent death: police brutality and racial violence; wars in Ukraine and the Holy Land; and hate crimes on the rise in the United States. In the midst of death.

With so much practice, you might say we are good at dying. We know what to do in the face of death. We know what’s expected, even when gripped by shock and grief. In the midst of death.

In this way, we are no different from the three women who made their way to the tomb, that first Easter morning. They, too, knew what to do when confronted with death, even a death as horrific as the one Jesus had suffered. “When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb.[5] They had the supplies, they knew how to perform the rituals, and carry out the customs that went with a death. They came prepared, with the necessary spices. They knew what to anticipate, and at least one of them was practically inclined in her expectations, for we read that “they had been saying to one another, ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?’[6]

Like us, these women had seen death. They had lived with death, and they knew what to do, what was expected of them, how to behave. Death, it seems, is simply part of living. In the midst of death.

You might imagine that these three women, even when numb with grief, were beyond shocking. Death, even a horrific death, could not shock them. Yet Mark is quite clear that when they reached Jesus’ tomb, these women were so alarmed, terrified, amazed, afraid, and speechless that they fled, probably dropping the spices, “and they said nothing to anyone.[7]


It was life that terrified them;
it was life that made them speechless.

 

 

 


What is significant here is that it wasn’t death that frightened them. No, what shocked them was life, and the possibility of life. It was life that terrified them; it was life that made them speechless.

Whether it comes quietly, after a long life, well-lived; suddenly, in a blaze of bullets; shockingly, dragged from your home and killed by terrorists; tragically as bombs rain down from above; agonizingly, with a knee at the neck; or slowly, gasping for breath, alone in a hospital room, death no longer shocks us. Yes, we may grieve, but no, it does not shock.

What shocks, alarms, terrifies, amazes, and makes us afraid and speechless is life, and especially the kind of life Jesus offers us in the resurrection.


A life given away is a life given back.

 

 

 


SSJE’s founder, Richard Meux Benson, reminds us that “our coming to Christ changes everything.[9] If, as Father Benson encourages us, “we live in the world as [people] who have been with Jesus,[10] then the risen life of Jesus is no mere abstract idea, but a concrete reality. Such a life is shocking, terrifying, and alarming, because it manifests itself not in some conjuror’s trick with a bag of missing bones, but in Spirit-filled lives which are unpredictable, risky, and reverse the ways of the world. A Spirit-filled life reminds us that life does emerge from death, joy can be found in sorrow, and a life given away is a life given back.

No wonder the women fled in terror: something told them that following the Risen Jesus to Galilee, even in the hope of seeing him again, would cost them their lives. And it did. And it still does.

Life is so much easier when we know what to do, what is expected of us, how to behave. But a life empowered and emboldened by the Spirit of the Risen Jesus is unpredictable and risky, for that life is no longer ours, but Christ’s, who lives in us.[12]

That life, that Spirit-filled life – Christ’s risen life lived in us – should alarm, terrify, and amaze us; it should grip us with fear and render us speechless. This is the life which will shock us back to our senses and rouse us from death.

In the midst of death, we are in life, because we are willing to take the risk that Jesus did, and give our life away, only to have God give it back in unexpected and unpredictable ways.


To Consider:

Does death still have the power to shock you? How so?

Where in your life are you in the midst of death? Where are you in the midst of life?

What steps can you take to embrace the Spirit-filled, unpredictable life that the Risen Jesus offers, even if it means taking the risk of stepping into the unknown?

To Try:

If you have never done this before, spend some time praying the Burial Office.

Where the Prayer Book provides space to add a name, add your own name. Reflect on the reality of your own death and what a life risen with Christ might look like for you.


[1] In Media Vita, Book of Common Prayer, 1979, page 484

[2] https://covid.cdc.gov/covid-data-tracker; downloaded 3 November 2023

[3] A mass shooting is generally defined as an occasion when 3 or more people have been injured. (https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2023/10/u-s-hurtles-toward-new-record-for-mass-shootings-says-atf-director/)

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_mass_shootings_in_the_United_States_in_2023; downloaded 3 November 2023; https://abcnews.go.com/US/116-people-died-gun-violence-day-us-year/story?id=97382759; downloaded on 3 November 2023

[5] Mark 16: 1 -2

[6] Mark 16: 3

[7] Mark 16: 8b

[8] Mark 16: 6,7

[9] Spiritual Readings: Christmas, page 260

[10] Ibid, page 260

[11] SSJE, Rule of Life, Engaging with Poverty, chapter 8, page 16.

[12] Galatians 2: 20

[13] In the midst of life we are in death; of whom may we seek for succor, but of you O Lord,…

[14] For a slightly different take on this text, see The Unsettling Power of Easter by Esau McCaulley at https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/02/opinion/easter-celebration.htmldownloaded 4 April 2021.

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