The Book of Wisdom (1:13-15, 23-24) states:
God did not make death, nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living. For he fashioned all things that they might have being… For God formed man to be imperishable; the image of his own nature he made him. But by the envy of the devil, death entered the world, and they who belong to his company experience it.
When a loved one dies I am asked so many times: “Why? Why does God allow death to come to us? Why didn’t God create a world in which death does not exist?” It is a mystery. Or is it? Maybe there are some clues we should take a look it. So today I would like to do just that… take a clear-eyed look at that part of reality that so easily overwhelms us and yet is a part of life.
One clue is to recognize that, even apart from the eyes of faith, the study of natural sciences faces us with death and rebirth in the universe that surrounds us. Galaxies die while others are born. Stars flame-out even as new stars come into being. One day our own sun will burn itself out.
Here on our earth nature has its own death and rebirth cycles. Every year we have spring, summer, fall, and winter. Isn’t it a law of nature that matter breaks down only to be recycled? Having a physical body subjects us nature’s physical laws. Matter breaks down, living cells break down, but all the while there is a cosmic force of recycling at work. It’s all a part of existence. Rebirth exists.
The study of theology gives us a perspective that science does not. The theological insight is expressed in the words we just heard: For God fashioned all things that they might have being.” God’s original intention for human beings, those He made in His own image and likeness, was that His sons and daughters would have life and life everlasting with Him.
All of this leads us into the world that God had in mind in the beginning. All of this leads us into the Book of Genesis with its story of Adam and Eve and God’s original blessings and then our first parents’ original sin, their original turning away from God, the Source of the everlasting life that was their destiny. Who among us cannot say that we have not, by our own decisions, shared in the sin of Adam and Eve? Is not their sin our sin?
Therein we find the second clue that gives us insight into death’s mystery. God’s purpose and plan cannot be thwarted by human rebellion, by human sin. God’s love for us overcomes the consequences of our turning away from Him. The very freedom of choice found in Adam and Eve is found in the freedom of choice we all have for ourselves. Repentance, sorrow for our sins, and giving ourselves over into the care of God can restore us into God’s original purpose and intention that we have life, everlasting life. God is the God of the living; God is the God of life. God is the God of love, a love so powerful that it overcomes even death itself.
The catch is that in order to have that everlasting life with God we have to respond to His offer, we have to receive His gift because there is another fundamental law of the universe: God offers and we respond. A gift is not a gift unless and until it is received. Love offers and then waits to be received.
Science does not deal with such things. Science deals with the laws of nature. Spirituality deals with what is found in our hearts and souls. Spirituality deals with the substance of relationships, our personal relationships, our relationships with other persons, and above all our relationships with the Persons of God.
It’s a matter of curiosity to me that while science reveals to us that all of nature points to recycling, while all of nature points to a fundamental law of extinction and rebirth, theology does the same. Theology reveals that everything is touched by death and resurrection. Both science and religion have their separate visions, their distinct approaches to death and rebirth. They just use differing categories of thought in their wrestling with the fundamental laws of all things that exist.
It is often claimed that science and religion are opposed to each other. Our Catholic faith teaches us otherwise. Our Catholic faith tells us that faith and reason complement each other. We need to note that our present Pope Benedict and Pope John Paul II both have spoken frequently about that; they both have written extensively about the complementarity that exists between faith and reason, religion and science. Death and rebirth are seen through the lens of science and likewise seen through the lens of religion.
But to return now to the main thought of this homily, God is a God of the living. Death is something that is only temporary; it is a departure for a while, not an ending. A famous English saint, St. Bede, once wrote some thoughts that seem appropriate to share with you here.
We seem to give them back to you, O God, who gave them first to us. Yet as you did not lose them in the giving, so we do not lose them by their return. Not as the world gives, do you give. What you give you do not take away. For what is yours is also ours. We are yours and life is eternal. And love is immortal, and death is only a horizon, and a horizon is but the limit of our sight.
Human choices have introduced suffering, loss, pain, and death into our world, into the world God has given us. It was not God’s choice that we should suffer. In Adam and Eve’s Garden there was no pain, loss, suffering and death. Nevertheless, these things are now found in our human existence. What is so stupendous is the fact that God Himself became one of us; God Himself has, out of love for us, entered into and taken on our sins and our suffering in order to offer us His life once again by redeeming us from all that is evil, even death itself.
Which is why we can with hopeful hearts hear once again the defiant words of St. Paul when he cried out: O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting? (1 Corinthians 15:55)
My final clue to offer you today is to point out the many miracles of Jesus and to note that they all dealt with overcoming human loss, pain, suffering, and death. Today’s reading is about the raising of the little daughter of Jairus. Others were about the widow’s son whom Jesus raided from the dead. And then there was that final miracle of Jesus when just before He Himself was to suffer and die He raised Lazarus from the dead three days after his burial.
And so to return to where I began: God did not make death, nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living. For he fashioned all things that they might have being… For God formed man to be imperishable; the image of his own nature he made him.