We don’t much like to talk about death.
In an age where medical breakthroughs extend life far beyond what has historically been possible, death becomes an ever-present fear. Death means loss and mourning; it means great unknown. In a linear trajectory of life, death is the end of the game.
And yet, death always precedes life.
In studying food, it is impossible to ignore that life can never exist apart from death. It is the decomposition of plants and animals that feed the soil which fosters life. In every bite of apple, of greens, of meat, generations of plant and animal life have succumbed to death in order to foster new growth. Death is not the end of life, but a necessary step in its creation.
This past week, I was unable to attend any Holy Week services. Out of town on Palm Sunday, in school on Maundy Thursday, working Good Friday and through Saturday’s Easter Vigil. In the 40 days before, I viewed my busy schedule as an excuse to be lax in my Lenten fast. Thus Easter came without any preparation. Suddenly I was in a service celebrating resurrected life without any recognition of the preceding death that made such resurrection so incredible.
When I was first introduced to the liturgical calendar in college, the purposefulness with which I was asked to attune my body to the ebbs and flows of the Gospel narrative opened up the faith tradition to me. Focused times of fasting met with days and days of feasting, periods of mourning followed by long seasons of rejoicing. Walking through the calendar calibrated my body to the tensions of what God has already done alongside what is yet to come.
So this year, when I was suddenly met with a celebration of life before coming to terms with the death that made it so, my participation felt incomplete. The utter joy I should have felt in the resurrection was stilted by a lack of focus on the death from which that new life came.
In Jesus’ resurrection, death did not (at least yet) cease to exist. Death continues to play a necessary role in the cycle of life. Rather, Jesus proved His own power over death, a power He commands over all of creation. He proved that the darkness, the grieving, the mourning that infiltrates death, that threatens to infiltrate life as well, crumbles before Him.
Perhaps, then, our Eastertide response in celebrating life is to attune ourselves to death as well. Not as a time of mourning, not as a time of grief, but a time of thanking the wheat, the berries, the soil, the fields that hold firmly to death in order to bring forth new life. An Eastertide attuning to the care of creation.
I’ve been on a bit of a Wendell Berry high of late, whose poetry so beautifully captures the complexity of creation. In The Peace of Wild Things he allows creation to calm his anxieties and fears. This Eastertide, I look to the rhythms of death and life all around to calm my worries and remind me of the power with which Christ crumbled darkness. Just as that darkness no longer infiltrates death, neither can it threaten to infiltrate life as well.
The Peace of Wild Things
by Wendell Berry
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.