Opening the Word: Triumph over death

In his satirical work, “The Devil’s Dictionary,” the 19th-century journalist and satirist Ambrose Bierce — no friend of religion — wrote these dark lines in the entry for the word, “Dead”:

“Done with the work of breathing; done/With all the world; the man race run/Through to the end; the golden goal/Attained — and found to be a hole!”

Macabre, yes. But also fairly honest, coming from a man once described as an “asthmatic, superstitious, bilious atheist.” Bierce is to be commended, to some degree, for his willingness to often face squarely (and with a smirk) the many inconvenient elephants in the murky parlor of modern skepticism. How ingeniously does our society work to avoid the reality of the grave?

Scripture, on the other hand, takes on death as a foe that can, through Christ’s death and resurrection, be overcome and conquered. The author of the Book of Wisdom wrote, “God did not make death, nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living” (Wis 1:13). This echoes the strong words of the prophet Ezekiel: “As I live — oracle of the Lord GOD — I swear I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked … ” His pleasure is when “they turn from their ways and live” (Ez 33:11).

The author of Wisdom, like the later prophets, distinguished between two deaths: natural and unnatural. “Natural death,” explained Father Hans Urs von Balthasar, “is a corollary of the finitude of existence; unnatural death is the result of man’s resistance to God.” Unnatural death, in other words, is damnation, the eternal separation of oneself from the holy presence and divine life of God.

The “destructive drug” mentioned in Wisdom is sin. The devil is the accuser who seeks to destroy God’s creatures and creation — especially men, as St. Peter warned the early Christians: “Your opponent the devil is prowling around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Pt 5:8).

The “envy of the devil” is likely a reference to the temptation of Adam and Eve. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, in discussing the temptation in the Garden of Eden, refers to the “seductive voice” that is opposed to God and seduces the man and woman into sin and “makes them fall into death out of envy” (No. 391). Envy is a capital sin and must be “banished from the human heart” (No. 2538).

Compare the shadowy state of envy with the bright hope that accompanies faith in Christ. The synagogue official was filled with heart-broken concern for his daughter, but he brought his deep anguish to the feet of Christ. Others tried to stop Jairus. After all, the girl was dead. But faith is demonstrated in fortitude, especially in the face of death.

Jesus’ miracle brings to mind the miraculous deeds of the prophets Elijah (1 Kgs 17:17-24) and Elisha (2 Kgs 4:27-38), who each brought children back to life. Yet they were mere men, granted power by God. Jesus is God-incarnate, possessing power over both physical and spiritual death. And so he spoke of his coming death — and of his triumph over the grave (Mk 8:31-38; 9:30-32; 10:32-34).

Bierce also described death as the “ignoble end to all the strife.” For those who die in Christ, death is indeed an end to all the strife. But it is also the beginning of eternal communion with God in heavenly glory.

Carl E. Olson is the editor of