The Word Embodied

Triumph over Death

“No mere human invention.”

Elijah begged God to restore a dead son to a poor widow. Guilt was the order of the day. She presumed it was either Elijah's fault or her own that the son had died. But the guilt was overcome. The prophet, hovering over the lad, called his lifebreath back.

Jesus, for his part, encountered a widow at Naim. He saw her in the funeral procession of her only son. Moved with compassion for her loss, his words were, “Do not cry.” He touched the litter and said, “Young man, I bid you, get up.” Then Jesus gave him back to his mother.

But did these two children of two widows eventually die at a later time? Of course they did. This can only mean that the message behind all those accounts of bringing back to life is not the perpetual postponement of death. Death will come, whether now or later. But the healings of the prophets, as well as Jesus, are symbolic of a deeper healing. The point cannot be to stave off death. If that were the point, Jesus himself should never have died.

But Jesus did die. And he was risen up by the power of the Father. That is the point. No matter what death we endure—even sin itself—it is not definitive. We are reborn in Christ.

I am reminded of a conversation I once had with a neurologist who was working at an internationally renowned medical research center. As we were walking by a huge urban cathedral, I mentioned to her that many of her colleagues would deem the church nothing more than a monument to our fear of death. “They might,” she said. “But the real monument to our fear of death is the place I work.”

This is one of the paradoxes in the vaunted rhetoric of the Human Genome Project. It is presumed by the evening news that somehow we might discover all the genes that make us susceptible to death. But it is organic life which dooms us to death. We might even live, purified of cancer, Alzheimer's disease, and cystic fibrosis propensities, but we will die nonetheless. Eliminate all of the environmental hazards—secondary smoke, sun exposure, and all the permutations of salt and sugar—and we will still die.

There is no physical practice, no spiritual mantra, which will elude the fate of biological existence. The only hope is that there is some nonbiological source of our being which sustains us and will guarantee our endurance.

The miracles of our scriptures are not the occult promises of some eternal life on this planet. They are, rather, signs of our destinies beyond it. They are promises that the God who made this earth is not subject to the limits of it.

We are not made for nothingness after death. But we ourselves, no matter what the brilliance of our achievements, no matter what the possibilities of the Human Genome Project, cannot avoid death's finality. All of our efforts are the glories of human inventiveness, but our faith and our Gospels are not the results of our deliberations.

As Paul writes, the Gospel is “no human invention.” Nor is it received from any human tradition or schoolish training. It is nothing if it is not the revelation of a God who transcends human artifact and human death itself, a God who calls us to share in that eternal life, “by revelation from Jesus.”

John Kavanaugh, SJ

Father Kavanaugh was a professor of Philosophy at St. Louis University in St. Louis. He reached many people during his lifetime.


**From Saint Louis University

Kristin Clauson