Life in the Midst of Death – Br. Curtis Almquist

Br. Curtis Almquist

Romans 8:35-39
John 14:1-7

We begin the first of five Tuesday evening sermons in Lent focused on “finding God amid all that troubles us in our lives and in the world.” This evening we explore the ultimate terms of life: “Life in the Midst of Death.”[i] I’m going to start with eternity and then move back-from-the-future into the present. First, a disclaimer. My own experience of life after death is limited. I’ll come back to that.

After Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, Jesus said he was going away to prepare a place for us, where he invites us to follow. [ii] This place in heaven is a “mansion” according to the King James Version of the Bible, which is what I learned from as a child. Maybe also you? However the Greek word that was translated into English in the 1500s as “mansion” does not mean what the word “mansion” connotates for us today. For us today, a mansion is like a small palace, like the oceanfront mansions in Newport, Rhode Island. But the Greek word used here is actually much more modest and far more intriguing. The Greek word is simply a temporary dwelling place: an inn for overnight lodging.[iii]Along the ancient Roman roads, travelers’ inns were placed about a day’s journey one from another where travelers would spend the night.

The Greek word for this inn that Jesus prepares for us implies a journey, an ongoing development. Rather than imagining eternity as something static – where we are installed in a private palace – imagine eternity as an adventure in the company of heaven, with travelers’ inns being prepared for us, both for our heavenly rest and for our heavenly adventure, as we move from light to light, from one inn to the next.

Emily Dickinson said, “Instead of getting to heaven at last, I’m going all along.” Quite. Life on earth, with the friendship and companionship, the wonder, the creativity, the joy, the delight, the laughter, the love; the oracles of our senses – eyes, ears, taste, touch, smell – taking in such resplendent grandeur; with the sense of movement, growth, and development in life as we know it on earth… surely is but a foretaste of heaven, what Saint Paul describes as “the eternal weight of glory.”[iv] Heaven, where all God’s creatures meet their Creator and one another.

Jesus says, in the meantime, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.”[v] Many people were and are afraid of death and dying. Our own culture is particularly complicit in the diversions and denials around aging and death with our own apotheosis of youth. But staying young does not weather well. Our mortality is one statistic that cannot be fudged. Here are several sustaining practices that redress fear and that teem with life both in the present and in the life to come:

  • Growing old are the terms of our God-given life. The whole of earthly life revolves around the pattern of birth, development, diminishment, and death. This life-death pattern has been true for every single creature on earth, animate or inanimate, since the dawn of creation. Growing old is a new experience for every A new adventure. Rather than perceiving life as coming to an end with the onset of diminishment and then death, value how diminishment and death are all a part of life, on God’s terms. Life includes diminishment and death. Not to be afraid. From the first century we read, “The day we may fear as our last is but the birthday of eternity.”[vi]
  • Most new things in life we need to practice and rehearse to do them well. How do we rehearse diminishment and death? Two ways: to meditate, then to anticipate.
    • The English word “meditation” comes from the Latin, meditari, which is “to devise, to plan, to rehearse.”[vii] Meditate, that is to rehearse your life from where you have come to get to be where you are and whoyou are now. Meditation can be a kind of rehearsal for the future. Meditate on the miracle of your life and you will be given your stage cues for this new part you will be handed as you grow older. Meditate on your life, which will help you recollect your past and rehearse for your future in the play of life.
  • Meditate, then anticipate. Embracing the inevitable diminishment and then death that is ahead in life is to anticipate. When we are young, life expands horizontally as we gain new understanding, learn new skills, explore new territories that are unknown. Life when we are younger is exhilarating and expansive and sometimes intimidating because it’s all so new. In later life the axis shifts from horizontal to vertical, from breadth to depth, where we can plumb the deep things of life. Living life in a deeper way is enlightening and sometimes quite humbling. Paradoxically, one of the great helps for plumbing the depths in life is experiencing how doors close on us. As we grow older, more and more doors will close, sometimes close by the hand of another person; sometimes close by our own hand because of our own awareness of limitation; or sometimes close by the mysterious hand of
  • In our Rule of Life, in a chapter entitled “Holy Death,” there is one sentence that I remember and rehearse every day: “Hardships, renunciations, losses, bereavements, frustrations and risks are all ways in which death is at work in advance preparing us for the self-surrender of bodily death.” These old-age experiences of detachment are rehearsals for the final letting go of dying, so that it will be less strange and terrifying to us. We increasingly lose control. So you are no longer able to do something, you are no longer enlisted to help with something, you discover you cannot control or hold onto something or someone? These detaching experiences can be very difficult, but they may not be bad at all. These experiences can actually be quite inviting and liberating. They are rehearsals for what Saint Augustine calls “the end which is no end.”[viii]
  • At the close of Lent, with the great pageantry and passion that informs our celebration of Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, then Easter Day, one day is not given much tribute. This is Holy Saturday, the day of preparation for Easter. In the Apostles’ Creed we remember on this day how “Christ descended into hell.” The German theologian, Jürgen Moltmann, describes how “[Christ] became the brother of the dead… opening the world of the dead for the future of the resurrection and eternal life.”[ix] In the iconography of Holy Saturday, we see Christ breaking down the gates of hell, unshackling the prisoners, leading the lost and damned into the liberty and love of eternal life. Adam and Eve are at the head of the line as Christ yanks them and the others right out of hell. It’s a glorious scene. As Saint Paul says, “Nothing will separate us from the love of God, neither death nor life….”[x] This is what we call “the hope of heaven.”
  • And then, lastly, in the funeral liturgy, we affirm that at death, “life is changed, not ended.”[xi] In their new life, a departed person may visit us. Have you ever had this experience? Someone who has died and whom we love may visit us in a way in which only we would know: a sense of their presence in a word that comes to us, a question, some guidance, some reassurance, some precious quality of silence. A poem, some music, a fragrance, a photo may bring someone departed strongly to our awareness. Surely those who have known us in this life, who have loved us in this life, have an abiding love for us once they depart this life and begin life anew. Jesus said, “I am with you always… to the end.”[xii] I think Jesus, who is with us, is sometimes companioned by departed people who have loved us. They, too, are with us. The grief of missing someone who has died may be inspired not by their absence but by their presence. They are companioning Jesus who promised to be us always, even to the end. The presence in our lives of Jesus and these loved ones is some of why Jesus said to us, “Don’t let your hearts be troubled; don’t be afraid.” Why? We are not left alone.

 “My life is ending.” This is the old monk, Father Zosima, speaking in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Father Zosima says, “My life is ending, but every day that is left me I feel how earthly life is in touch with a new infinite, unknown, but approaching life, the nearness of which sets my heart quivering with rapture, my mind glowing, and my heart weeping with joy.”[xiii]

“Your life is hidden with Christ in God.” [xiv]

[i] “In the midst of life we are in death,” a phrase from the “Media Vita,” a Gregorian Chant dating to the 1300s, sung at the SSJE monastery on Holy Saturday:

In the midst of life we are in death of whom may we seek for succor,

but of thee, O Lord, who for our sins art justly displeased?

Holy God, Holy mighty, Holy and merciful Savior, deliver us not unto bitter death.

[ii] John 14:1-7 KJV.

[iii] When the New Testament Greek word μοναὶ was translated into the Latin Vulgate, it was rendered as mansiones. This became the root of the English word “mansion”; however this is not how the word is used in Latin. In Latin mansiones is simply a place to stay, an overnight stopping place for respite.

[iv] 2 Corinthians 4:17.

[v] John 14:1.

[vi] The words of Annaeus Seneca (4 BC-65), a philosopher and statesman of ancient Rome.

[vii] Prayer, Living with God, by Simon Tugwell (1975).

[viii] Saint Augustine in The City of God writes: “We shall rest and we shall see, we shall see and we shall love, we shall love and we shall praise, in the end which is no end.”

[ix] Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ; Christology in Messianic Dimensions (1990), p. 191.

[x] Romans 8:35-39.

[xi] This phrase is from the Preface “Commemoration of the Dead” used in the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, The Book of Common Prayer (1979), p. 382.

[xii] Matthew 28:20.

[xiii] The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky (1950), p. 348.

[xiv] Quoting Colossians 3:3, the late Archbishop of Canterbury, Arthur Michael Ramsey, writes how this “suggests that heaven is not only the goal towards which we journey but the treasure locked in our hearts and one day to be made visible to our eyes.” Loves Redeeming Work; The Anglican Quest for Holiness (2001), p. 667.

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  1. Susan McLeod on March 6, 2024 at 07:14

    Thank you, thank you, thank you, Br. Curtis! Turning 80 in a few months has given me such pause! Gratitude for excellent health, a large and loving family including kin and beyond, especially my church family, have been gifts beyond measure. And the gift of this sermon is precisely what I need to read and hear as I find myself dwelling more and more on what lies ahead now and beyond.
    Thank you to you and all of the Brothers for this daily gift, and especially this timely sermon.

  2. Jennifer on March 3, 2024 at 11:22

    Thank you so very much, Brother Curtis. Having just come through a life-threatening illness and living with the knowledge that it could return at any point, I am so incredibly uplifted and encouraged by your message. I am also moved by your description of loved ones who’ve passed on still bringing us encouragement, as I have experienced that throughout this illness (and even before). I am grateful.

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