As one so often does just before sleep, I was thinking again of death last night — neither morbidly nor morosely, but theologically and liturgically. Earlier in the day, standing at the altar with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven and with the host of faithful at Apostles Anglican Church, I proclaimed with the Church universal: By his resurrection he broke the bonds of death trampling Hell and Satan under his feet (BCP 2019, THE PRAYER OF CONSECRATION, p. 133). It was those words I pondered yet again as I lay in the darkness somewhere between waking and sleep.
In what sense has Jesus broken the bonds of death, not for himself, but for me, for you? If Christ tarries, I will die. It seems, then, as if some remnant, at least, of death’s power and of my bondage to it remains intact even after Christ’s resurrection. What bonds, then, were broken?
Hebrews 2:14–15 (ESV): 14 Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.
Death itself has not yet been destroyed (1 Cor 15:26). While we have not yet fully been delivered from death — we will experience it — we have been delivered from bondage to fear of death. Christ’s resurrection has revealed death to be the Wizard of Oz: terrifying and manipulative when hidden behind the curtain pulling levers, but laughable and impotent — all blue smoke and mirrors — when revealed as the charlatan it really is. It is fear of death that drives us to seek power and riches and pleasure and honor, fear of death that enslaves us to the prince of this world. Break those bonds of fear and what do you have? Martyrs who can stare death in the face and back it down with faith. Confessors who facing great persecution can shout for all the world to hear, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!” Great saints who show us how to die in sure and certain hope of the resurrection. And “ordinary” Christian folk who go about the business of living for Christ in a dying world. As Anglican priest and poet, John Donne, wrote:
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.
But there is more, as St. Athanasius writes in his On The Incarnation:
For these reasons, then, with death holding greater sway and corruption remaining fast against human beings, the race of humans was perishing, and the human being, made rational and in the image, was disappearing, and the work made by God was being obliterated. For as I said earlier, by the law death thereafter prevailed against us, and it was impossible to escape the law, since this had been established by God on account of the transgression. And what happened was truly both absurd and improper. It was absurd, on the one hand, that, having spoken, God should prove to be lying: that is, having legislated that the human being would die by death if he were to transgress the commandment, yet after the transgression he were not to die but rather this sentence dissolved. For God would not be true if, after saying that we would die, the human being did not die. On the other hand, it was improper that what had once been made rational and partakers of his Word should perish, and once again return to non-being through corruption. It was not worthy of the goodness of God that those created by him should be corrupted through the deceit wrought by the devil upon human beings. And it was supremely improper that the workmanship of God in human beings should disappear either through their own negligence or through the deceit of the demons.
St. Athanasius here envisions death as an eternal state of corruption equivalent to nonbeing. As God called forth man from nothing and granted him life, death — through sin — bids him return to nothing: nonbeing. But now, through the resurrection of Christ, Christian death is not corruption leading to nonbeing; it is the temporary rending apart of body and soul — the body consigned to the earth from which it came and the soul returning to God who gave it — in expectation of the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. We are free from bondage to corruption and nonbeing.
So, yes, we will die if Christ tarries; death is not yet destroyed. But we not, even now, live in fear of it; that bond has been broken by the resurrection. And we must not think of it as nonbeing, but rather as a brief respite on the way to the resurrection.