One of the most well-known aspects of the thought of Martin Heidegger is his idea of “being-unto-death” (Sein-zum-Tode). Annunciated in his 1927 masterwork Being and Time, the notion is meant to point to the actuality of one’s death as a present component of one’s existence, serving as a “horizon” which delimits and structures one’s way of being in the world. Though death is in some sense incomprehensible as an experienced event, it nevertheless conditions the manner in which one approaches and makes sense of every other event in one’s life. For Heidegger, death is isn’t simply an admonishment against hubris, as the ancient adage “memento mori” might suggest; rather it is a fundamental dimension of our being: we are the kind of beings who die—“death-beings,” as it were. Our existence and experience in a sense takes place within death, unfolding in accordance with the dynamics of finitude and mortality.
I have to say that this idea is a particularly powerful articulation of the pervading view of human life in today’s world. It is not necessarily a peculiarly modern way of seeing things, at least if ancient Greek tragedies are any indication. Yet all the same, it is a decidedly anti-Christian understanding of human existence. If anything, Christianity has only heightened and sharpened the Hebrew Bible’s ontological protest against death. For all the expressions of existential angst in Ecclesiastes and the Psalms, the Bible never really voices any settled resignation to the loss which death entails, both for the individual and for those she leaves behind. The cry that rises from the earth after the first death in Genesis 4 never really stops until the very End (Revelation 7), when the Lamb upon the throne wipes away every tear.
Twice God says through the prophet Ezekiel that he intends to “open your graves and have you rise from them” in today’s first reading. “I will put my spirit in you that you may live, and I will settle you upon your land; thus you shall know that I am the Lord.” The God of Israel expresses over and over again his unrelenting commitment to life, his unrelenting determination to preserve the life of his people and to extirpate anything and everything that could possibly inhibit true life. So many of us too easily accommodate death as a part of this life which God creates and intends for us, but “from the beginning it was not so.” As the Catechism itself still unabashedly teaches, after sin entered the world through the disobedience of our first parents,
The harmony in which they had found themselves, thanks to original justice, is now destroyed: the control of the soul’s spiritual faculties over the body is shattered; the union of man and woman becomes subject to tensions, their relations henceforth marked by lust and domination. Harmony with creation is broken: visible creation has become alien and hostile to man. Because of man, creation is now subject “to its bondage to decay”. Finally, the consequence explicitly foretold for this disobedience will come true: man will “return to the ground”,for out of it he was taken. Death makes its entrance into human history.
To put it more simply: “God did not make death” (Wisdom 1:13). It is extremely difficult to wrap our minds around what that could possibly mean, but the Bible provides no easy answers to us which might quiet and satisfy our reason. What it does offer us, though, is the unrelenting protest: “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord!” “Save me… for who can praise you from the grave?” (Psalm 6) “The creation waits with eager longing,” writes St. Paul, “for the revealing of the children of God.”
for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. (Romans 8:19—23)
So when we say or sing the response to the Psalm for this week, “with the Lord there is mercy and fullness of redemption,” what we are actually saying is not that God will bring our lives to a merciful end and give us some other, fundamentally different form of existence. The redemption in question is not from bodily life, but from sin. The mercy here is not to aid our escape from the materiality that conditions our existence, but rather to bring us back into harmony with it. The fullness of redemption is the perfection of our own peculiar form of life, with all its bodily “limitations.”
It is true that we are much more than our material existence. We are not “mere bodies”. Yet as the epistle clearly explains, neither is our spiritual nature exclusive of our materiality. On the contrary, it our spiritual elevation that brings our bodies to their full perfection: “if the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also.”
Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances often suggest that the glorified body is a kind of ghostly, ethereal thing: it can disappear, disguise its appearance and go through locked doors. But if it is true, as Gaudium et Spes declares, that “Christ fully reveals man to himself;” if, in other words, Jesus shows us what it truly means to be fully human, then one would have to conclude that Jesus’ glorified body is not less physical, but more physical that what we now understand as “mere matter.” It is human bodily existence in its elevated and perfected form. After all, Jesus isn’t less human after the resurrection; if anything, he reveals himself to be more so!
God’s desire, as expressed in the actions and words of Jesus, is to bring us back to ourselves, to restore us to a life that is truly our own. To put it negatively: death does not have the final say. Death does not structure or determine our self-understanding. We are not in fact “death-beings,” scurrying around to avoid or delay the inevitable annihilation of our being. Our world is not a “death-world,” but rather a “life-world” which has been tragically—but not irredeemably—wounded by the rejection of life. The drama of salvation is not so much the conflict between rival directives about how to live, but rather about whether or not to live.
“I have set before you…” not this way of acting or that way of acting, but “…life and death” (Deuteronomy 30:19). We must choose to either embrace life as if it is worth lasting forever, or to reject it by acceding to the qualifications and limitations which death places upon it.
It is astonishing to me that, once Jesus’ intention of raising Lazarus begins to dawn upon Martha (ever the pragmatist), she expresses her worry about the stench! “My brother will be alive… but he might stink!” What was she afraid of? I submit that her fear is emblematic of the attitude many of us possess toward life in the modern world: “it’s nice while it lasts, as long as it’s nice while it lasts.”
Jesus is doing some new, disruptive and deeply unsettling when he raises Lazarus. He is beginning to liberate humanity from its bondage to decay, to death. No one said it would be neat and clean and pleasant-smelling. Nobody said the glorified body would bear no wounds. But one thing is certain: God will bring those of us who bear his image to life. God will make us alive again, and give us the gift of everlasting life. The question we should ask ourselves each day, however, is whether that life will be a blessing or a curse for us, whether it will be for us something that occasions everlasting beatitude or everlasting despair.