In religious language “life” and “death” are poignant, theologically packed religious symbols. This is particularly apparent in the Gospel of John. In my book, A Faith Worth Living, I express it this way:
“Death represents the absence of spiritual life. In a contemporary spiritual sense, it may be symbolic of the darkness of depression; or the enmity, estrangement, and alienation that separates individuals from one another and from their true selves; or a felt absence of love, meaning, and significance.
Life, the antithesis of death, is what one experiences in relationship with God. In a contemporary existential sense, it may stand as a symbol for relationships and experiences that are healthy, vibrant, holistic, and transformative. Life involves freedom from the debilitating power of anxiety, worry, and fear. Life reflects the love, joy, and peace experienced by an individual or faith community when that person or community is delivered from the oppressive power of hate, guilt, and shame.
Life is what happens to us when we open our hearts to the love of God and decide to share and express God’s love to others. Death is what happens to us when we close our hearts to God’s love and decide instead to harbor resentment and animosity” (p. 127).
“Life and death” is a common expression that puts the accent on death as the climax of the story. The gospel of Jesus reverses it. Jesus told his followers that in Jerusalem he would be rejected, suffer, and be killed, but then “raised to life.” Life is the pinnacle of the story.
There’s a lot of death in our world: Rwanda, Darfur, the Gulags, Katrina, Haiti, Japan, war, murders, rape, sex trafficking, genocide, crack houses, spousal and child abuse—death that makes no sense. Like the tragic torture and suffering of an innocent victim. Like the cross.
But death is not the end of the story. In John 20, Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb and finds it empty. Thinking that someone stole the body, she is at the brink of despair. She feels overwhelmed by death. But then something happens. Mary leaves the tomb a witness to life.
(Note: None of the Gospel accounts tell the Easter story the same way. There is little agreement in the details. The one thing they concur on, however, is that the disciples, because of some mysterious encounter/s and experience/s with the living Christ become convinced that he is alive.)
On a mission trip to Haiti in 2010 with undergraduates, Will Willimon reported in The Christian Century that there was widespread agreement that the most disarming thing about the country was the laughter of the children, along with their raucous singing. How could they sing in the midst of all that death?
As darkness fell upon Port-au-Prince ten weeks after the earth shook and collapsed, people danced in the streets and sang hymns. Anderson Cooper on CNN was somewhat incredulous: “Don’t they know what they are saying about how bad it really is?”
It seems to astound us in our American, consumerist, ego-driven culture that people who seem to be so trapped in tragedy can be so full of life. Could they be experiencing the power of life over death ahead of time? The Christian gospel proclaims that life with all its possibilities has broken into our world.
So even when we should be weeping and crying out in despair, we sing: “Christ the Lord is Risen Today, Alleluia!”