Elijah begged God to restore a dead son to a poor widow. Guilt
was the order of the day. She presumed it was either Elijah's
fault or her own that the son had died. But the guilt was overcome.
The prophet, hovering over the lad, called his lifebreath
Jesus, for his part, encountered a widow at Naim. He saw
her in the funeral procession of her only son. Moved with
compassion for her loss, his words were, “Do not cry.” He
touched the litter and said, “Young man, I bid you, get up.” Then Jesus gave him back to his mother.
But did these two children of two widows eventually die
at a later time? Of course they did. This can only mean that the
message behind all those accounts of bringing back to life is
not the perpetual postponement of death. Death will come,
whether now or later. But the healings of the prophets, as well
as Jesus, are symbolic of a deeper healing. The point cannot be
to stave off death. If that were the point, Jesus himself should
never have died.
But Jesus did die. And he was risen up by the power of the
Father. That is the point. No matter what death we endure—even
sin itself—it is not definitive. We are reborn in Christ.
I am reminded of a conversation I once had with a neurologist
who was working at an internationally renowned medical
research center. As we were walking by a huge urban cathedral,
I mentioned to her that many of her colleagues would deem
the church nothing more than a monument to our fear of
death. “They might,” she said. “But the real monument to our
fear of death is the place I work.”
This is one of the paradoxes in the vaunted rhetoric of the
Human Genome Project. It is presumed by the evening news
that somehow we might discover all the genes that make us
susceptible to death. But it is organic life which dooms us to
death. We might even live, purified of cancer, Alzheimer's
disease, and cystic fibrosis propensities, but we will die nonetheless.
Eliminate all of the environmental hazards—secondary
smoke, sun exposure, and all the permutations of salt and
sugar—and we will still die.
There is no physical practice, no spiritual mantra, which
will elude the fate of biological existence. The only hope is
that there is some nonbiological source of our being which
sustains us and will guarantee our endurance.
The miracles of our scriptures are not the occult promises of
some eternal life on this planet. They are, rather, signs of our
destinies beyond it. They are promises that the God who made
this earth is not subject to the limits of it.
We are not made for nothingness after death. But we ourselves,
no matter what the brilliance of our achievements, no
matter what the possibilities of the Human Genome Project,
cannot avoid death's finality. All of our efforts are the glories
of human inventiveness, but our faith and our Gospels are not
the results of our deliberations.
As Paul writes, the Gospel is “no human invention.” Nor is
it received from any human tradition or schoolish training. It
is nothing if it is not the revelation of a God who transcends
human artifact and human death itself, a God who calls us to
share in that eternal life, “by revelation from Jesus.”
John Kavanaugh, SJ
Back to the Word
Kavanaugh was a professor of Philosophy at
Louis University in St. Louis.
His untimely death is a grief for the many people he reached during his lifetime.
1998 by John F. Kavanaugh. All rights
Used by permission from Orbis Books,
Maryknoll, New York 10545-0308
Art by Martin Erspamer, O.S.B.
from Religious Clip Art for the Liturgical
(A, B, and C).
Used by permission of Liturgy Training
Publications. This art may be reproduced only
by parishes who purchase the collection in book
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