John Dunne, Holy Sonnet Number 10
“Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.”
1 Corinthians 15: 19-22, 25-26
“The last enemy to be defeated is death.” Those words find themselves in the two highest selling books of all time. The first obviously being here in the Bible, they also show up in the Harry Potter series, that verse is on Harry’s parents’ tomb stone in the last book. This idea of death as an enemy is pretty common, the last season of Game of Throne (Season 7) based all its marketing around this conversation:
“Death is the enemy, the first and the last.”
“But we all die?”
“The enemy always wins. We still need to fight him.”
Death captures our minds and our fascinations like few things can. I googled “quotes about death” just to get a feel for what was out there – nine hundred seventy-two pages of results. It flows throughout literature, it shows up in pop culture, every year there’s some horrible movie about teenagers who fall in love and one of them is sick and ends up dying at the end and for some reason people go to see it. That’s the great irony, death scares us and captivates us, we want to avoid it and yet we find ourselves drawn to it, it is inevitable and uncontrollable, always lurking in the background. The first enemy and the last. The one thing we can’t overcome. The battle that looms before us that we know we won’t win.
That got depressing for a minute there. So what do we do? How do we face this last enemy? One option is to fight it. I don’t know if any of you still watch the Big Bang Theory, but there’s an episode where one of the scientists has a health scare and becomes convinced that if he never leaves his house he can survive until technology gets to the point where his consciousness can get put into a computer and he can live forever. As you might imagine hilarity ensues as he tries live his life through an Ipad on wheels. Most of don’t go that far. But what are all the diet plans and self-help books and tricks to look younger if not attempts to deny the reality of where we’re headed? Death might be the enemy and the enemy may always win but maybe we can put it off for as long as possible if we try.
Some people try to fight death, try to fend it off, some people choose instead to ignore it. That was the Greek way, the reality for the folks Paul was writing for. In the Greek understanding of life and death if you weren’t exceptionally good or evil the afterlife was just a matter of shadow wandering aimlessly. Heroes got rewarded, villains got punished, the rest of us just kind of were for eternity. So what do you do if that’s what you have to look forward to? You try to make every moment before that count. You get the most out of life. You live the best possible life, whatever that means to you. Maybe you try to accumulate wealth, maybe you constantly seek pleasure, maybe you try to build something that will last, maybe you work to be as good a person as possible, there are any number of options but at the end of the day they don’t mean anything. “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” We can be good people who do good things, we can live this life to the fullest that we can, we can pretend that the last part, that last enemy, isn’t lurking at the end, but just like trying to fight it trying to ignore it ends up failing us as well.
So what do we do? If fighting and ignoring death don’t work, is the only option left despair? Not quite. “Death, be not proud, though some have called thee Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;…One short sleep past, we wake eternally and death shall be no more, Death thou shalt die.” Later in this chapter Paul asks “Death where is your victory, Death where is your sting…Thanks be to God, he has given us victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Death might very well be the enemy, the first, the last, the greatest, but our victory has already been won. The tomb is empty. He is risen. Hallelujah, he is risen indeed. And so we don’t have to fight, we don’t have to avoid or ignore, we don’t have to despair. Death has been swallowed up. The last enemy has been defeated. Christ lives: then, now, and forever. And because he lives we can face tomorrow. Because he lives all fear is gone. Because we know, we know, who holds the future. And life is worth the living, and death is not worth fearing, because he lives.