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franciscan - September 1998

© Copyright, The Society of Saint Francis, 1998

Death and Ageing
How shall we face the biblical challenge?

by Ralph Woodhall SJ

The Thessalonians were enthusiastic about the prospects that Paulís preaching had opened up for them but worried about members of their congregation they had loved and lost. Paul tells them not to grieve Ďas those who have no hopeí but to comfort one another (I Thess 4.13-18). Now, this teaching comes as the culmination of a long development of biblical wisdom, just as death comes to us as the last of a series of crises in life.

The series in our lives begins with weaning where the child faces the challenge of growth. The child needs to be reassured by loving parents so as to have hope. A need for similar reassurance continues through adolescence and beyond. Again and again, through the changes that come to us, we have to face a degree of uncertainty about the future and we need hope to face it. These changes make up the challenge of life. But what about the last challenge of all?

Down the centuries, people have sought reassurance: they have speculated about another similar life succeeding this. Are you, now, attracted by the thought of living through a succession of lives? Concerning friends whom you have known and accompanied through the struggles of life, do you like to think of them starting again, being re-incarnated and rebuilding the character you knew? This would diminish the significance of this one unique life of ours but perhaps, if it was the only prospect, we could reconcile ourselves to it. There is something better, however.

The child is reassured not so much by what parents say about the future but by the love expressed in what they say. It is the same with the reassurance offered by biblical teaching. Paul says, Ďit has not entered the heart of man to conceive what God has prepared for those who loveí (I Cor 2.9). The bible records the spirituality of a people learning Godís ways, gradually, in the course of their history. The psalms reveal the thoughts and feelings of worshippers in the early temple. It is instructive to notice how they never reflect on life after death but focus on Godís loving presence to us now. Read, for example, Psalms 73 and 16 and see how they express confidence in a close relation of mutual love with the Creator God, without any reference to life after death.

Perhaps you could say that the psalms imply that such a close relationship would not be broken by death but the conclusion is not drawn at this stage. Books like Daniel represent a later stage in the growth of wisdom in Israel: here, through reflecting on the martyrs who had died for their fidelity to Godís law, the prophet is led to a clearer expression of hope in resurrection, a mysterious risen life after this. The prophets had all along been urging the people to make God their king and to be subject to his rule alone. At this stage, they began to reflect on what a perfect expression of God reigning over them could be. The imagery used to express this mystery is called apocalyptic. It is the language of people who are reassured by Godís gift of hope and love. They are full of confidence but also sure that the future will surpass all that they could possibly imagine. The imagery was used by Jesus and his disciples to confirm the hope but with warnings not to take the images as precise prediction, as a calendar of future events.

What does this teaching tell us about the last stage? We each have Ďonce to die and after that the judgementí (Heb 9.26). This judgement is a mysterious event described, as far as it can be described, in apocalyptic imagery. It is easy to see that the images of resurrection and of judgement in the eternal kingdom express the importance in Godís eyes of the lives of each of us; we should also see that it is a judgement based on the love which gives meaning and value to our lives. See how this is expressed Ė again with apocalyptic imagery Ė in the parable of sheep and goats (Matt 15) where the quality of our whole life is put to the test. The test, as the parable indicates, is the quality of loving relationships in all we have done. These bring us closer to Christ, whether we realise it or not, as the parable says, but it is better for us to realise that through these relationships Jesus is building the kingdom which in the end he will hand over to his Father (I Cor 15). In the crisis of his death and resurrection, Jesus showed his disciples that he had overcome all the evil associated with death: they had a foretaste of the full victory which would be the establishment of the perfected eternal kingdom.

Many have puzzled over this proclamation of the kingdom: did Jesus speak only of an eternal reign of God at the end of time or did it mean God ruling in the present time? There is no need to choose. There is a transcendent hope which gives meaning to all events in time, a meaning which will be fully revealed in the Last Judgement. But Godís gentle and merciful rule is manifested also in the present time. The parable we quote and many other passages show that there is a close and necessary connection between the two, in the way God is leading us towards the final consummation.

How does this help the agèd? The joyful experience of the disciples was a brief anticipation of the glory of the eternal kingdom, where Godís rule is all in all. As the parable shows, good loving relations are essential to Godís rule. We are right to look forward to the perfect kingdom, but we are reminded that God is already building that kingdom: we seek his will in everyday encounters with our neighbour.

So the task and privilege of the agèd is to gather, appreciate more deeply and treasure the hints of Godís presence that they have known and generously to share the wisdom that they have received as gift from God. It may be that the wisdom is still implicit: they have not quite appreciated how important have been those occasions in their lives where they have helped others or been helped by others. Older members of the community should have no need to be independent; they can help others to realise how inter-dependence is part of Godís plan for our lives, for building his kingdom. This can make the agèd very precious in the Christian community. We live in hope: Christian hope looks forward to unimaginable glory but does not detach us from concern for the present. §

Ralph Woodhall is a Jesuit priest. His ministry formerly was in inner city Liverpool, and he is now on the staff of the School of Mission, Selly Oak, Birmingham.


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