The Four Last Things: Advent 1 — Death

ADVENT: THE FOUR LAST THINGS
Session 1 — Death

NOTE: These are the notes to the first of four session of the class Advent: The Four Last Things offered at Apostles Anglican Church. TO participate fully with the latter part of the lesson, you will need access to the Book of Common Prayer 2019 which you can find online at The Anglican Church In North America under the MORE and RESOURCES tabs.

The Lord be with you.
And with your spirit.

Let us pray.

O God, who for our redemption gave your only begotten Son to die upon the Cross, and by his glorious resurrection delivered us from the devil and the power of death: Grant us grace to die daily to sin, that we may live with him in the joy of his resurrection; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, now and for ever. Amen.

INTRODUCTION

Begin With the End In Mind
Nearly thirty-five years ago, Steven Covey authored one of the most widely read and influential self-help and business books ever published: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. It presents seven fundamental principles/practices that, generally speaking, “make life work better,” in the sense of making one functional and productive. I’ve read it, and, for what it purports to be, it is quite good.

The second habit — ironically second because you’d think it would be first — is: Begin with the end in mind. This habit reminds you to ask some basic questions before starting a task, questions like:

What am I trying to accomplish?

What is my true purpose, the desired outcome?

What would mark a successful end of this endeavor?

Much wasted effort, squandered resources, and even human tragedy could be avoided if politicians, business professionals, churches, and “regular folk” like us, paused to practice this one habit: Begin with the end in mind. If your purpose is to have a pleasant Sunday afternoon drive — like we used to do when I was a child — then it doesn’t much matter which direction you take or which road you choose. But, if you are trying to arrive at a particular destination, you may need a map or a GPS. In such a case, beginning with the end in mind is essential.

I mention this simply because Advent marks not only the beginning of a new liturgical season, but also the beginning of a new Christian year. What if we followed Covey’s advice here at the beginning of the year: Begin with the end in mind? We might ask such questions as:

What is the church trying to accomplish with the Advent season?

What is the true purpose of Advent, the desired outcome of this four-Sunday observance?

What would mark a successful end of this observance?

Toward what end does Advent point?

Perhaps, the last question is the one we should consider: Toward what end does Advent point? Now, the obvious answer is to say Christmas, since Advent ends with Christmas. Most commonly, Advent is considered the four Sunday, three to four week, season of preparation for Christmas. If the end is Christmas, then that will shape how you think about and observe Advent from the beginning. Themes of faith, hope, love, joy, and peace will dominate your — and your church’s — reflections. Mind you, there is nothing wrong with that, and much right about it. But, that is not always how Advent was observed; it was not always the end toward which Advent pointed. For the greatest part of the history of the season, Advent pointed not toward Jesus’ first coming in the nativity, but toward his second and final coming in the parousia. The end toward which Advent pointed was the end of this world. Recall our Sunday afternoon drive: a different destination requires a different set of roads and directions. If we are headed toward the end of all things, it might not be the thoroughfares of faith, hope, love, joy and peace that we travel. No, the church traditionally gave us a different set of directions called the four last things: death, judgment, heaven, and hell. Back to Covey’s second habit: the purpose of Advent was to prepare us to meet the Lord, either at our death or at his second coming. So, the church invited us to think on the four last things. Traditionally, Advent truly began with the end in mind.

So, that’s what I propose to do for these four Sundays — to observe a traditional Advent by thinking about death, judgment, heaven, and hell. Even as we do this, the other Advent themes of faith, hope, love, joy, and peace will never be far from us. The end of all things should not frighten us, but rather should fill us with expectation — another Advent theme — and hope. With that, we turn our attention today to death, the first of the four last things.

DEATH: A THEOLOGY

The Origin and Nature of Death
The great theologians — St. Thomas Aquinas, for example — tell us that evil is nothing at all. By that they mean that evil is not a created thing, that it has no substance or existence of its own; rather, evil is simply a privation or lack of the good just as darkness is a privation of light, or cold a privation of heat. Evil is an existential vacuum, the lack of anything substantive. Theologically, that is a crucial distinction. If we say evil is a thing with its own existence, then we must also say that God created evil, since, in the words of the Nicene Creed:

We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, visible and invisible (BCP 2019, p. 109).

So, to avoid casting God as the creator and author of evil, we must say that good “is” and evil “is not,” that good exists in a way that evil does not.

I introduce that theological distinction because it applies not only to evil, but also very directly to the first of the four last things: death. Death is not a created thing; it has no substance or existence of its own. Rather, death is a privation, an absence, of life. Life is; death is not. Death was not created by God; it is the unavoidable consequence of the human rejection of life. Death is the deprivation of the good of life.

The Wisdom of Solomon makes this clear:

Wisdom of Solomon 1:12–16 (RSVCE): 12 Do not invite death by the error of your life,
nor bring on destruction by the works of your hands;
13 because God did not make death,
and he does not delight in the death of the living.
14 For he created all things that they might exist,
and the generative forces of the world are wholesome,
and there is no destructive poison in them;
and the dominion of Hades is not on earth.
15 For righteousness is immortal.
16 But ungodly men by their words and deeds summoned death;
considering him a friend, they pined away,
and they made a covenant with him,
because they are fit to belong to his party.

The Wisdom of Solomon, pictures death as a false friend whom godless men summoned and with whom they made covenant. This is literary technique; it isn’t intended to imply that death is really a being or even that death exists. No, the text’s primary insistence is that God is not the originator of death; man invited death by the work of his own hands. God did not make death, nor does he delight in it. Rather, God created all things that they might exist. That means that we cannot truly understand death as a thing with its own existence; we cannot understand death on its own. Instead, to understand the nature of death, which is not, we must begin with life, which is. Specifically, we must consider human life as God created it if we are to understand human death. And that takes us to Genesis 2, to the creation of man.

Genesis 2:5–9 (ESV): 5 When no bush of the field was yet in the land and no small plant of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain on the land, and there was no man to work the ground, 6 and a mist was going up from the land and was watering the whole face of the ground— 7 then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature. 8 And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed. 9 And out of the ground the Lord God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

As the Nicene Creed tells us, God is the creator of two realms: things in heaven and things on earth, things visible and things invisible, things material and things spiritual.

In the creation account in Genesis, man is formed to be a macrocosm, a bringing together of all of God’s creative action, of all things in the two realms, in one new being. Man is physical, formed from the dust of the ground; we have this materiality in common with the animals. Man is spiritual, enlivened by the breath/spirit of God; we have this spirituality in common with the angels. Man is an essential unity of body and soul, of inanimate matter with anima/soul, and because of this man is the pinnacle of creation, higher than both animals and angels, because man has something that both of them lack: physicality/materiality which the angels do not have and spirituality which the animals and inanimate objects do not have. This unity is essential for a right understanding of Christian anthropology and death; what God has joined together was never meant to be put asunder. Apart from the soul, we do not have man in the fullest sense, but only the body of a man. Apart from the body, we do not have man in the fullest sense, but only the soul of a man.

This is the icon of human life given in Scripture: man as the joining together of heaven and earth — material and spiritual — essentially united. This is life, and anything less is “not life.” But, note this: life is not inherent in man; it does not properly “belong” to man. Instead, it is the gift of God and is maintained only by constant communion with God (presence) and obedience to God. This lies at the heart of God’s instruction/warning to Adam in Genesis 2:

Genesis 2:15–17 (ESV): 15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. 16 And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”

Man was placed in the Garden — signifying communion with God in God’s presence — and given a single rule to obey, really more a warning than a rule. But you know how the story goes downhill in Genesis 3: disobedience and exile. And, in the very day that Adam and Eve disobeyed and were exiled from God’s presence, they died because they were cut off from the source of life, cut off from a life-giving relationship with God. We might call this a spiritual death. The sign of that was their exile outside of Eden. Later, Adam and Eve experienced a second death, a physical death, the separation of the body and soul with the subsequent decay of the body. What God had joined together, man, in his sin, put asunder.

Now, with all this background, we can finally begin to define death, or at least to describe it better. Death was first of all the severing of the intimate relationship with God, the loss of a relationship of perfect innocence, perfect communion, and perfect obedience. It was the darkening of the spirit, that part of the soul that knows God directly and that rightly governs the soul and body. That was the death about which God warned Adam: for in the day you eat of it you shall surely die. In that sense, all of us after Adam are born dead, which is precisely why Jesus tells Nicodemus he must be born again, born of water and Spirit if he is to enter the Kingdom of God. But there is a second type of death derivative of the first: the rending apart of body and soul, the violent separation of that which defines man and constitutes man as a living being. At this death, the body, lacking the animating energy of the soul, loses its own material integrity, experiences corruption, and returns to the dust from whence it came. And what of the soul? The Old Testament is ambiguous and not univocal about the “fate” of the soul. Some writers seemed to think that the soul vanishes just as the body, that the human is truly and finally gone. Some seemed to think that the soul languishes in a dim, half-life in Sheol, the place of the dead. Some seem to think that Sheol is divided into two distinct regions — one in which the righteous are rewarded and the other in which the wicked are punished. This latter scheme was common among Second Temple Jews and is evident in Jesus’ parable of Dives, the rich man, and Lazarus. Even in this way of thinking, though, man was not fully man after death because the soul and body were separated. It also seems that even righteous men, in this understanding, are still not in full communion with God; they are, after all, in the land of the dead, and not of the living.

If this is your understanding of death — either non-existence or a dim, shadowy half-life — then death is the dread that awaits us all, a thing to run from as long as you can, a thing to be avoided at all costs.

Summary

Let’s pause here for a summary with just a few additional points thrown in for good measure.

Death is nothing. Instead, it is the absence of life.

Death was not the intent or desire of God from the beginning. To that extent, death stands athwart the will of God and is therefore an enemy of God and man. And yet, God did weave death into the fabric of creation, not as a punishment for disobedience, but as a consequence of it. Let me give an example. Consider the statement, You must eat and drink; if you do not, you will die. You must eat and drink is not a rule that must be obeyed, but rather a statement of the truth of created reality. Likewise, you will die is not a punishment or a curse, but simply the natural consequence of failing to do what is required to maintain life.

So, the narrative of creation, fall, and death has this pattern:

WARNING
Statement of God’s will and warning of the consequences of disobedience (Gen 2:16-17)

DISOBEDIENCE (Gen 3:6)

CONSEQUENCES
Spiritual Death: loss of intimate communion with God (exile); man incurvatus in se rather than man turned outward toward God

Physical Death: separation of body and soul and the corruption of the body

One final point in this summary: because death stands athwart God’s original intent, death stands in relation to God and man as an enemy. And yet, as he does so often throughout salvation history, God uses the enemy to accomplish his purpose for the good of man; he turns the enemy into the unwilling ally. How is death in any way used for the good of man?

1. Death keeps man from living eternally in a state of sin and exile. In this sense, death keeps man in-check by limiting the chronological scope of his fallen power. Imagine an immortal Hitler or Stalin or Pol Pot. Death protects the world from limitless evil.

2. Death is an impetus to repentance. Why repent if all will continue as it is? But, if there is an end to this existence and if there is a judgment following it, then I just might become serious about repentance. This is made clearer in earlier editions of the Book of Common Prayer, e.g. the BCP 1662, than in more modern revisions. For example, there is this prayer for the sick in the BCP 1662:

Hear us, Almighty and most merciful God and Saviour; extend thy accustomed goodness to this thy servant who is grieved with sickness. Sanctify, we beseech thee, this thy fatherly correction to him; that the sense of his weakness may add strength to his faith, and seriousness to his repentance: that, if it shall be thy good pleasure to restore him to his former health, he may lead the residue of his life in thy fear, and to thy glory: or else give him grace so to take thy visitation, that, after this painful life ended, he may dwell with thee in life everlasting; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Our modern prayers for the sick are typically more “upbeat” than this, and that is not necessarily a good thing. God uses the certainty of death — and the uncertainty of its timing — to add strength to our faith and seriousness to our repentance. That is the way that God turns the enemy of death into an ally for our spiritual welfare.

But, we can’t stop here with death. As Christians, we must move from death to life.

LIFE: THE GOSPEL

The Gospel
I start with this central notion: Death is the problem for which the Gospel is the solution. While that is true, it is only part of the truth. More completely we should say that the Gospel is the solution to three existential crises facing man: (1) the rule of the demonic powers — Satan and his fallen angels — over man, (2) death, both spiritual and physical, and (3) sin. The Gospel is the proclamation that, in and through the life, death, resurrection, ascension, and parousia of Jesus, God has begun to deal with and finally will deal with these three crises. All three are related and really need to be discussed together, but that must be a story/lesson for another time. Our focus in this lesson is on death. So, I say again: Death is the problem for which the Gospel is the solution.

You see this proclamation all throughout the written Gospels. Just a few examples from the Gospel according to St. John will suffice to make that point.

John 1:1–4 (ESV): 1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. 4 In him was life, and the life was the light of men.

John 10:27–28 (ESV): 27 My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.

John 11:21–27 (ESV): 21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” 23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” 27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”

The theme of the Gospel is life, and that changes forever the way we approach death. The proclamation of the Gospel as the solution to the problem of death begins — as everything in the Christian life does — with baptism:

Dearly beloved, Scripture teaches that we were all dead in our sins and trespasses, but by grace we may be saved through faith. Our Savior Jesus Christ said, “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God’: and he commissioned the Church to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Here we ask our Heavenly Father that these Candidates, being baptized with water, may be filled with the Holy Spirit, born again, and received into the Church as living members of Christ’s body. Therefore, I urge you to call upon God the Father, through our Lord Jesus Christ, that of his abundant mercy he will grant to these Candidates that which by nature they cannot have (Holy Baptism, The Exhortation, BCP 2019, p. 162).

In the Profession of Faith required at baptism, there is a series of renunciations. These, too, are a Gospel proclamation because they show how baptism implements in the life of the baptizand the victory of Christ over the three problems we mentioned earlier: the rule of the demonic powers, physical and spiritual death, and sin:

Question: Do you renounce the devil and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God (the rule of the demonic powers)?

Answer: I renounce them.

Question: Do you renounce the empty promises and deadly deceits of the world that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God (physical and spiritual death)?

Answer: I renounce them.

Question: Do you renounce the sinful desires of the flesh that draw you from the love of God (sin)?

Answer: I renounce them (BCP 2019, p. 164).

And, of course, baptism brings one back into union with God who is the source of our life. As we lost that communion in the Garden, we regain it in baptism. This is the beautiful spiritual paradox of this: death is used to overcome death and to bring forth life:

Romans 6:3–11 (ESV): 3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.

5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6 We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. 7 For one who has died has been set free from sin. 8 Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9 We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. 10 For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. 11 So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

This is the real reason that no Christian need ever fear death: we have already died and been born again.

If we fear death, perhaps we have not yet already died sufficiently to the world, the flesh, and the devil.

That obviously doesn’t mean that we can avoid physical death, the separation of body and soul. But is does mean that the true death, the separation of the soul from God, has been overcome on our behalf by Christ and that we are united to that victory over death in our baptism.

DEATH AND LIFE: A LITURGY

But, what of physical death? How is a Christian to understand and deal with physical death? Here, it is helpful to turn to our Anglican rites and prayers in the BCP: lex orandi, lex credendi.

REGARDING CHRISTIAN DEATH AND BURIAL
Let’s begin with the introductory material to the burial rites, Regarding Christian Death And Burial, BCP 2019, p. 246. [Distribute the Apostles Funeral Planning Customary.]

RECEPTION OF THE BODY
Next, note the first prayer on p. 247. What three things are we praying for? Notice that we are offering this prayer for someone who is dead. What sense does that make? Return to the first paragraph on p. 246. There is no past tense for the departed faithful; their life is changed (improved!) but not ended. Nor is our love for them ended. That is why we continue to pray for them. This practice also implies that the life after death and before resurrection is not static; our departed may move from one degree of glory to another and may grow in grace, knowledge, and service of the Lord.

THE BURIAL OF THE DEAD
Notice the first and last anthems said during procession of the body (pp. 249-250). How do they set the theme for Christian burial?

Consider the prayer At The Burial Of An Adult (p. 250). What do you note of significance?

The Prayers of the People (pp. 253-254)
Notice the emphasis on the unity of the Church in the first petition; the Church consists of those faithful still in this mortal life and those faithful departed who are now with the Lord. We are separated from one another only materially, but never spiritually. The material separation is the source of our sorrow, but the spiritual unity is the source of our joy.

N. T. Wright says, rather tongue-in-cheek, that heaven is important, but it’s not the end of the world, that life-after-death is important, but that life after life-after-death is the point. He means simply that we are not destined to live in heaven as disembodied souls throughout eternity. The resurrection is the point, in which we will be given resurrection/spiritual bodies (more real and substantial than our current bodies!), in which we will dwell at the intersection of the new heavens and the new earth. This is hinted at in the second petition (p. 253) and the sixth petition (p. 254).

Note again the emphasis on the dynamic nature of the life of the departed in the final petition (p. 254).

AT THE EUCHARIST
What is the special significance of the Eucharist in The Burial of the Dead?

THE COMMENDATION
As far as I’m concerned, this part of the rites of burial alone is adequate justification to be an Anglican. [Discuss the various prayers noting especially the description of the state of the departed in the prayer beginning “Into you hands…” (BCP 2019, p. 256).]

THE CANTICLES
Discuss the Nunc Dimittis and the Pascha Nostrum. [End the class by saying the Pascha Nostrum together.]

About johnaroop

I am a husband, father, retired teacher, lover of books and music and coffee and, as of 17 May 2015, by the grace of God and the will of his Church, an Anglican priest in the Anglican Church in North America, Anglican Diocese of the South. I serve as assisting priest at Apostles Anglican Church in Knoxville, TN, and as Canon Theologian for the Anglican Diocese of the South.
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