Thursday, December 24, 2015
Facing Our Immortality In The Light Of Christmas
Anyone who has ever received an unexpected diagnosis of cancer or some other serious disease knows the power of the experience to suddenly and radically change the inner world in which we normally live. Anyone who has lost a loved one especially without warning, experiences the same thing. Perception, understanding, the hierarchy of what we have up to then considered important suffers a seismic shock and shifts the plates of our current existence into a completely changed landscape which can seem foreign and strange and certainly frightening in many ways.
Having been through this myself several times, and watching those around me, I've come to realize that the shock comes not so much from facing our own mortality as it does from not having faced our immortality. That's the real problem. To say we now are brought to a place where we have to face our own mortality is actually to stand before an untruth and feel forced to embrace it. Our whole being revolts against it and all the classic stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and resignation follow.
And with good reason. We are not mortal, and the light of Christmas announces that definitively. Jesus doesn't come into our darkness to commiserate with us. He comes into our world to rescue us from the fetters of our darkness, including the weight of our own corruptible bodies, so that time, (however much we have), in its proper place, can launch us safely and happily into eternity.
It is true that death is a kind of limit, the line past which nothing more can be done in this world in our present state. But it is not the end. We are immortal, and it really is not necessary to defend this belief because anyone truly in touch with themselves knows deep in their being that something infinite, something eternal abides in their very substance. And this something is personal. It is not an energy or a memory or a force. It is of the substance of who we are, how we know ourselves, and how we are known. It is our very person, and it is never lost by trial or suffering or disease or death. The person does not die. The body gives way for a time. But we do not die.
Because our body is corruptible in this fallen world, we shed it in dying, in order to be completely healed and made ready for immortal bodies which we will receive, at the end of time. And like anyone who goes through the decline of their own bodies in aging, sickness, losing parts here and there, I've come to understand that it is in keeping with God's plans to hold fast to the promise of eternal life and the glorified body rather than trying to hold on to our present existence, attempting by our own might to make our bodies immortal as though we can somehow transfigure them under our own power. Sickness quickly disabuses us of the illusion that we have the capacity to do this. But it doesn't take away from us the desire to be completely restored, whole and transcendent.
The other darknesses we hold onto in our lives are also often rooted in this failure to embrace our immortality. At Christmas Jesus comes to us, “to a people who walk in darkness” to show us a great light. To those of us living in a land of gloom, His light shines.” Is 9:1 This is a light that comes from eternity and causes joy and great rejoicing. It doesn’t matter if I live in the gloom of a corruptible body which I am losing piece by piece or in the decay of old age. It doesn’t matter if my darkness is the bondage of alcoholism or weariness, doubt, indifference, fear, wounds, worldly aspirations, pride, unforgiveness, bitterness, depression, a hard heart. This is a light that actively seeks out every darkness in order to dispel it and banish it forever. It is the light of the promise of immortality which we are created for and which Jesus comes to restore to us if we can just let go of our mortal clingings.
I cannot tell you exactly why I am no longer afraid to die. It is not imminent at the moment that I know of. I have, as I said, faced my own death before. The first conscious time was full of all the shock and fear that is normal for anyone who receives an indefinite diagnosis and is told they may die. “If the disease is anywhere else in your body then all bets are off.” That is the way it was put to me. All the human emotions and questions coursed through me at that time, leaving me sleepless and isolated within myself, knowing no one else could really stand with me in the place I had suddenly found myself.
The most frightening realization had to do with time. Time, always seemed without limit. There seemed to be plenty of it. Without measure. Now it was quantifiable. There was only so much left. How is it I was not used to thinking of time here as something limited and then gone forever. To manage time now seemed overwhelming. A great number of things which had always seemed possible, now had to be definitively rejected. They would not, could not be done any longer. My mother, as she was dying, recognized this watching a slide show of Hawaii. She said matter-of-factly and somewhat sadly: “I guess I will never get to see Hawaii.” And we in our denial said: “Well, let’s see. Maybe.” The fact was she never got to see Hawaii. And she knew it.
My fear in relationship to time had very much to do with its ending for me. I was frightened by my lack of preparedness for what would come next, for what would come as soon as the measurement of things in this world was no longer the reality I lived in. The most unsettling thing was the thought of suddenly standing before God, Face to face, and not knowing what I could possibly say to Him, fearing He would be so utterly disappointed with me for having done nothing, really nothing of any importance for Him! My fantasies of accomplishing great things were suddenly wasted hours of vainglorious daydreaming, all dissipation, nothing of substance to present, because I had only been thinking of myself. And nothing of the accomplishments or achievements I held within me amounted to much in this different light of eternity. They didn’t have much meaning there, as far as I could tell, not because they were without value, but because I would have done them for myself and now I, as I knew it, was coming to an end. The prospect of death has a funny way of de-centering you from yourself, causing you to step outside yourself, making you realize at a deeper level than you have ever been aware of before that you are not the nexus for meaning in life. Our egoism runs much deeper than we think.
I did not come to a reorientation in my awareness until, in the peace of an evening sky in which the Father’s presence was written large, I, as small as a child, touched by His majestic power, was lifted out of myself, above myself, into another embrace of reality that made my whole life different…….In an instant, there was peace in living or dying. It didn’t matter which it would be. I would be held in this love and nothing, not even death, was frightening in that love. Whatever happened would come from that love; and in that love I was always/already held.
Time was no longer the same issue because I now knew with my very being that,
“… when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to ransom those under the law, so that we might receive adoption. As proof that we are children, God sent the spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying out, “Abba, Father!” So we are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.” Galatians 4:4-7
This is what His love for me, and for you, is really about. This Gift is always being offered. Christmas is always present. Our deepest regret at the end of time will not be what we did or didn't do. It will be how deeply we underestimated and misunderstood the infinite goodness and love and mercy and tenderness of our God. Christmas lights up this incredible love of God.
Jesus came, says the Liturgy of the Hours in Evening prayer I of Christmas, to "bring joy to all peoples with the promise of unending life.." In the fullness of time, He came to break the boundaries of time by giving the hope of heavenly birth to each of us. He did not cling to His time here. He was born to die for us that we could live with Him for all eternity. And Mary, most of all, knew this bittersweet mystery from the time She said: Fiat!.
The old catechism tells us we were created “to know, love and serve God in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in the next.” But, it does not tell us what was in God’s Heart as He created us. Christmas does. Our older Brother Jesus, the First Born of all creation, comes to rescue us, to bring us back into the Family, our Family, the Father’s Family. We were created because God wanted us to be a part of His Family, and that’s where we belong. Christmas is that promise of rescue finally made Incarnate, finally come to us in the Flesh that is the Way to our true home.
May your Christmas be filled with the sweetness of God’s love made present in the light of the smile of the tiny Christ Child. And may that smile be ever present to you all the days of your life to lead you to your everlasting homeland!
Sr. Anne Marie, SOLT. 12/24/2015