Dylan Thomas wrote some eminently quotable lines on the subject of death. The most familiar and powerful are also the most troubling.
“Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
This ringing summons to courage in the face of one’s approaching end betrays an all too common attitude toward death. In this perspective death is and remains the last enemy. However much one may rage against it, death ultimately achieves its victory; it inevitably makes felt its sting.
More to the point is a line Thomas penned in 1942, while war was ravaging Western Europe and North Africa. Each stanza of this pained yet hope-filled piece begins and ends with the same word of assurance:
“And death shall have no dominion.”
In this Paschal season these words come to mind, and they elicit a certain sadness. Behind the call to courage and the sense that in a mad and violent world something good will remain, there lurks a persistent fatalism in the face of the inevitable. Sooner or later, every personal existence will come to an end. The fierce tears of rage are no defense against “that good night.” One day dead mens’ bones will be picked clean, and lovers will indeed be lost, even if love is not….
Prevailing pressures in Western societies for euthanasia and physician assisted suicide are symptomatic. They reflect a culture obsessed with physical death. Obsessed with it and in dread of it, because death signifies the frustration of individual ambitions and the demise of personal achievements. Its finality proves that life itself is devoid of meaning. Hence the frantic concern to “die with dignity,” which means to die without suffering, without inconvenience, without noticing it.
It also means to die without the Cross. Jesus, on the other hand, did not die with dignity. He died with an anguished cry on His lips and a body wracked with pain. And by that death, stripped of every shred of “dignity,” He gave every life and every death the possibility for infinite meaning.
Where do we locate that possibility, and how do we actualize it in the course of our everyday life? In his letter to the Romans the apostle Paul provides us with the only reasonable answer to that question. There, in chapter six, he makes the point that our real death occurs at baptism.
We were buried with [Christ] by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.
Prior to baptism the life we lead is strictly biological. We are born in the “old Adam” and continue in him until we die. That death, for the great majority of people, is itself biological: it comes as the result of an irreversible cessation of brain and cardio-respiratory function.
For those who are baptized into Christ, though, the matter is very different. Their actual death occurs at the moment they are plunged into the baptismal waters. Co-crucified with Christ, they are “co-buried” with Him (Col 2:12)—and raised up into a “newness of life.” From this point on, they lead what can be called “eschatological existence”: dwelling on earth in the dimensions of time and space, they share at the same time in eternal life: a radically new, transcendent mode of being. United to Christ as members of His Body, they commune already, here and now, in the peace, the righteousness and the glory of the Kingdom of God.
For such people, physical death is no longer a source of dread. It no longer signifies the end of personal existence, and with it the frustration of our hopes and ambitions. It no longer means that life is devoid of meaning, that we await nothing more than the return to dust of our mortal bones.
For those among us who have died in baptism and risen to newness of life, the imminence of death no longer portends the dying of the light. Through the victory of Pascha, our physical death translates us precisely from darkness into light, into the glory of the everlasting Light that illumines all things. So rather than dread death, we embrace it. Rather than flee, deny and curse it, we welcome it as the final stage of our earthly pilgrimage, our life in Christ, that gives ultimate meaning and value to even the smallest tasks we accomplish with faithfulness, the most personal relationships we assume with love.
For those who die with Christ in baptism and rise with Him in newness of life, that life has value and meaning beyond all they can hope and imagine. Their flesh may well return to dust, and their bones, picked clean, may one day disappear. Their earthly ambitions may remain unfulfilled, and their suffering in this present age may go unexplained.
Their approaching end may still provoke anxiety and their infirmity bring with it dependency, pain and doubt.
But one thing above all preserves them from despair and the temptation of suicide. It is the absolute certainty, grounded in their experience of the inexhaustible love of the Crucified Lord, that for them, just as for Him, death indeed has no dominion.