In the history of religious thought, from the primitive times until now, a consistent theme has breeched the thought of every sort of believer: death. Is this all life is? Is death really the end? Does my existence take me, in the final stage, to nothing? Without a doubt, death has been a subject of intense inquiry from the earliest times of religious and philosophical, indeed human, thought.
Pope Benedict XVI, in his homily given on Easter Vigil, confronts this question, and does so positively. The Bishop opens his homily with a brief summary of an ancient Jewish legend from the apocryphal book The Life of Adam and Eve, in which Adam, “in his final illness…sent his son Seth together with Eve into the region of Paradise to fetch the oil of mercy, so that he could be…healed”. Eventually, after some time searching and prayer, the Archangel Michael appears to them and explains that they will be unable to obtain “the oil of the tree of mercy and that Adam would have to die”. Such a myth “lays bare the whole of humanity’s anguish at the destiny of illness, pain and death that has been imposed upon us. Man’s resistance to death becomes evident: somewhere—people have constantly thought—there must be some cure for death”.
But, is “the cure for death” really want we want? Do we want to live a life forever and ever, going through in a cyclic cycle the processes of pain, anguish, stress? “Humanity would become extremely old, there would be no more room for youth. Capacity for innovation would die”, explains the Holy Father. Perhaps more precisely, then, man does not want to postpone death indefinitely; contrarily, what man wants is life. He wants to live life abundantly and joyfully. Man wants to be happy. He wants paradise. Thus, “the cure for death” cannot be found in some sort of medical elimination of it, but rather in the very opening of death itself—the conquering of it, we could say. It must be a cure that answers death and gives it meaning; a cure that approaches death, therefore, with confidence and hope. A true cure for death must be about fulfillment, an opening into an even more abundant life. This hope, however, must penetrate the present, transforming man and giving him a taste, an ecnounter of Paradise. The Bishop explains this, preaching too, the distinction of Christianity among other religions: “The true cure for death…cannot lead simply to an indefinite prolongation of this current life. It would have to transform our lives from within. It would need to create a new life within us, truly fit for eternity: it would need to transform us in such a way as not to come to an end with death, but only then to begin in fullness. What is new and exciting in the Christian message…was and is that we are told: yes…this cure for death…does exist. It has been found. It is within our reach.” God, entering into the sphere of human existence in Jesus Christ, conveys Himself, who is Paradise, to humanity and creation. Thus, Jesus Christ opens the path toward fullness and so true happiness. He is Paradise, the Incarnate Tree of Life where we find that “oil of mercy”, the source of death’s cure, which is the very substance that brings us into God, who is Life itself, of whom we are restless without (to echo the thought of St. Augustine).
Furthermore, this “medicine” that we really long for is given to us in Baptism, in which begins an internal and ontological process of theosis. In order to illustrate a picture of this internal process that begins at Baptism, the Pope uses another ancient Jewish text about the patriarch Enoch: “‘Then God said to Michael…“Take Enoch and remove his earthly clothing. Anoint him with sweet oil and vest him in the robes of glory!” And Michael took off my garments, anointmed me with sweet oil, and this oil was more than a radiant light…its splendor was like the rays of the sun. When I looked at myself, I saw that I was like one of the glorious beings’ (Ph. Rech, Inbild des Kosmos, II 524)”. The Holy Father continues, explaining that “precisely this—being reclothed in the new garment of God—is what happens in baptism…[And] this changing of garments is something that continues for the whole of life”. The Christian message about human anthropology and eschatology can be stated, thus, as such: at Baptism we are hatched into true life; in the Eucharist and sacraments, by encountering and receiving God, man matures in this life, continuing to robe himself in the garment of the Light of the Son; and finally, at death, man is—hopefully—dispatched into the arms of God. Baptism, consequently, “makes us”, in the earliest stages of ontological development, “fit for eternity, in such a way that, robed in the garment of light of Jesus Christ, we can appear before the face of God and live with him for ever”.
Continuing to preach a theology of Baptism, the Holy Father explains that Baptism is both a “no” and a “yes”. It is, specifically in the rite of the early Church, a “no” to “the devil, to his pomp and to sin”. Pomp refers to the “devil’s glamour…[i.e.,] the ancient cult of the gods and of the ancient theatre, in which it was considered entertaining to watch people being torn limb from limb by wild beasts”. Ultimately, “what was being renounced was a type of culture that ensnared man in the adoration of power, in the world of greed, in lies, in cruelty”. Simultaneously, as a result, Baptism is also about a “yes”. Renunciation of the devil, his pomp, and sin is a “yes” to God; this “yes” was—and is—“liberation from the imposition of a form of life that was presented as pleasure and yet hastened the destruction of all that was best in man”. So, in Baptism, in this “yes”, we “hold out our hand to Christ, so that he may guide us and reclothe us”.
Herein lies the essential element of a “newness of life” in Christ (Rom 6:4). Can death not enter into the sphere of the present in forms of “fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing and the like” (Gal 5:19ff.)? Of course it can: these are the old garments that we begin to remove with Christ in Baptism. Contrarily, the new life, the new garments fit for eternity that we begin to allow Christ to dress us with at Baptism, are “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal 5:22). Jesus Christ is the medicine to death: He opens a path of renewal, repentence, and, almost literally, a way to re-dress oneself. In Christ, man finds true life, which is eschatologically oriented toward the eternal with God, yet which penetrates and fulfills even the present.
All of this points, theologically and Christologically, to the Eucharist, as the Pope makes clear: “In this sacrament [the Eucharist] we receive the body of the risen Lord and we ourselves are drawn into this body, firmly held by the One who has conquered death and who carries us through death”.
The door that is death is no longer closed and so completely unknown, and a cause for fear. It has been opened by Jesus Christ. It has been opened by the God-man: He, in becoming man has paved a path into the Divine that can be walked by human feet. Yet, not by ourselves is this walk possible. Only with the proper clothing, which God gives in Christ, is man fully able to partake in that great adventure the mystics know so well: the journey into God—theosis.
The final words of Benedict are touching and inspiring. “Indeed, the cure for death does exist. Christ is the tree of life, once more within our reach. If we remain close to him, then we have life.” An abundant life, a life of happiness and joy is possible because God is near us now, and He gives joy, which can never “be commanded…[but] only given”, for authentic joy is “true life”, and this means a life oriented to and heading toward God, which requires the divine aid of Jesus Christ.