A Time to Be Born, A Time to Die
Birth and death, those two rather important events in everyone’s life, never seem to come at a very convenient moment for anyone else. In a world that worships convenience, in a world that serves the clock, nothing is more upsetting to the schedule than someone being born or someone dying. Everything has to stop to acknowledge that a new soul has either entered or left the world. And that is as it should be.
There is something that makes us not only stop and think, but also stop and give reference whenever we are touched by a birth or a death. Though the birth of a baby is a wonder that cannot be fathomed, as a new set of eyes suddenly gazes with astonishment at the universe, there is something even more profound when those eyes close at the end of a life.
G.K. Chesterton says, “There will always be religions so long as certain primeval facts of life remain inexplicable and therefore religious. Such things as birth and death and dreams are at once so impenetrable and so provocative that to ask men to put them on one side, and have no hopes or theories about them, is like asking them not to look at a comet or not to look out the answer of a riddle.” Chesterton says that the dead man is always sacred even to an atheist: “It is a strange and amusing fact that even the materialists who believe that death does nothing except turn a fellow-creature into refuse, only begin to reverence a fellow-creature at the moment that he has been turned into refuse.”
As I was on my way to a funeral just a few days before Easter, it suddenly occurred to me why Christmas is more popular than Easter. Never mind that Christmas is easier to commercialize than Easter. Christmas is about a baby being born. Everyone can understand that. Easter is about death and resurrection. No one can understand that. Death, says G.K. Chesterton, is a distinctly exciting moment, but it belongs entirely to the dead person. Even though we have all encountered death by having the experience of burying someone we love, none of us (at least nobody that I know), has had the experience of being the one that has died. Nor has any of us experienced resurrection. Though death is a thing we are sure of (even if we don’t want to think about it), resurrection is a thing we can only hope for (which is why we should think about it).
In Ecclesiastes, we are told that it is better to go into the house of mourning than into the house of mirth, “for herein lies the end of all men, and the living will lay it to heart.”
This is to take nothing away from the joy of celebrating a birth. Or even a birthday. Chesterton says, “A man’s birthday reminds him that he is alive, when his immediate affairs would only remind him that he was at work or at play, in business or in debt.…” The point is, even though we celebrate life and enjoy life, it is a good exercise to remember that we must die. Memento Mori. It makes us live better. Not recklessly, but religiously.
It is by preparing for death that we prepare for resurrection.
During his brief earthly ministry, Jesus raised several people from the dead. The most famous was his friend, Lazarus, who had been dead and in his tomb for four days. It was this dramatic miracle that inspired the religious leaders in Jerusalem to start looking for a way to kill Jesus. A rather strange reaction to something so wonderful.
The Bible tells us that after he had been raised from the dead, Lazarus had supper with Jesus six days before the Passover. But what happened to Lazarus after that? For the answer, we have to go to early Church history, which is largely tradition. That tradition tells us that Lazarus eventually traveled to Cyprus lived in the town known as Kition (or Larnaca) for 30 years. While he was there he was visited by the apostles Paul and Barnabas, who ordained him as the first bishop of Kition. Lazarus died at the age of sixty and was buried in a sarcophagus at Kition with an inscription "Tetraimeros, friend of Jesus Christ." The word "tetraimeros" is translated the "fourth day," the day on which he was brought back from the grave. But just as Lazarus did not remain in his first tomb, he also did not remain in his second. In 891 the emperor of Byzantium Leo VI decided that Lazarus should be buried in Constantinople. To placate the residents of Larnaca for removing their patron saint, the emperor built a beautiful church at Larnaca devoted to St. Lazarus, which is still standing today. But Lazarus also did not stay in Constantinople. His body is now in Marseilles. I don’t know when or why it was moved. I suspect it happened during the Crusades. At any rate, Lazarus doesn’t seem to be able to stay in whatever grave he is given. I believe he will also not stay in his present grave.
Lazarus is an important symbol. He is a mortal man who came back to life. He represents the ultimate gift that God has given to us: victory over death.
Interestingly, on the day Chesterton was received into the Catholic Church, he wrote a poem that ends with the lines:
The sages have a hundred maps to give
That trace their crawling cosmos like a tree,
They rattle reason out through many a sieve
That stores the dust and lets the gold go free:
And all these things are less than dust to me
Because my name is Lazarus and I live.