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Trivializing death

My friend John Gibson graduated from high school in 1942, as the United States was throwing itself into World War II. He thought of entering the Jesuits, but his parents objected—fearing that he might be sent as a missionary to the far-off Philippines. John was not sure either about his vocation, so he waited, was drafted into the Army, and in March of 1945, was killed in action at Fort Stotsenberg, behind what is now Clark Field; he is buried at Fort McKinley. He was 20 years of age.

Gene Dorn was another childhood friend, also a year younger than I; we used to have wrestling matches in the backyard. He went into the Air Force, became a navigator for a “flying fortress” bomber, and was shot down over Germany—also at 20 years of age. I do not know whether his remains were ever recovered.

The stories are more poignant because John and Gene were so young, at the very threshold of adulthood; but death, whether that of a 20-year-old or a 90-year-old, is never trivial. Neither for the one who dies nor for those whom he or she leaves behind. Here I quote some lines written by another friend, Fr. Walter Burghardt—priest, Jesuit, renowned preacher and specialist in the Fathers of the Church, now deceased. Walter wrote: “I am fearfully aware of death’s darkness, the blank face of death. Death breaks the whole person. In death a unique ‘I,’ an irreplaceable ‘thou’ is destroyed, a wondrous wedding of spirit and senses. I who lift my eyes to mountains and the moon; I who catch with my ears the tenderness and the thunder of Handel’s ‘Messiah’ and throb to the music of a loved one’s voice; I who breathe the life-giving air in the smog of Washington and whose nostrils twitch at the odor of spaghetti Bolognese; I who cradle Christ on my tongue and gently caress the face of a friend; I whose mind travels over centuries and continents to share Plato’s world of ideas, Augustine’s vision of God’s city, and Ghandi’s passion for peace; I who laugh and love, worry and weep, dance and dream, sing and sin, preach and pray—this ‘I’ will be lost to the world, this ‘thou’ lost to those who survive me.”

Yet death is trivialized, as it has been in many cultures down through the ages. In war, we do not speak of people like John or Gene; instead we report “body counts.” “Shoot-’em-up” movies and TV shows show men and women being mowed down without a thought of remorse. We are hardened to accounts of terrorist attacks, mine disasters, floods and earthquakes and their thousands of dead. Favorite Christmas presents for small boys are toy guns, the more realistic the better.

It all comes to a head, it seems, on Good Friday. I recall from my youth in an Irish-American family that there was silence in the house, no loud talking or playing of the radio, from noon till 3 p.m. as we recalled the three hours of the Lord on the cross. Today in the Philippines—and it may well be the same in the United States as it is even in Rome with the city full of tourists and the shops doing business wildly—Good Friday is for many simply a holiday. Manila grows quiet, not  for the most part because people are contemplating the Lord’s Passion—although there are indeed many Holy Week retreats—but because so many decamp to Baguio or to the beaches. Overcrowded bus stations and clogged highways are indicators of this.

Yet the Passion of the Lord is central to our faith and to the whole meaning of our lives and of history. Without it, we are simply chance products of evolution in a meaningless universe.

It is also something terrible and wonderful to behold. Here are the words of Karl Rahner, one of the greatest theologians of the past century.

“Jesus surrendered himself in his death unconditionally to the absolute mystery that he called his Father, into whose hands he committed his existence, when in the night of his death and Godforsakenness he was deprived of everything that is otherwise regarded as the content of a human existence…. In the concreteness of his death it becomes only too clear that everything fell away from  him, and in the trackless dark there prevailed silently only the mystery that in itself and in its freedom has no name and to which he nevertheless calmly surrendered himself as to eternal love and not to the hell of futility…. He who came out of God’s glory did not merely descend into our human life, but also fell into the abyss of our death, and his dying began when he began to live and came to an end on the cross when he bowed his head and died.”

After quoting Rahner, Burghardt adds: “And for all that he was God’s unique son, this man died not with the experience of resurrection, not with an unassailable syllogism; he died with faith in his Father, with hope of life forever.”

The Resurrection did come, the sign that the absolute mystery at the heart of the universe, whom Christ called his Father, is a mystery of love, more powerful than the mystery of evil evident in the forces that surrounded Christ and in our world as well, and that in the end life will triumph over death, good over evil, love over hatred.

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