I found the essay, “On the Theology of Death” by Karl Rahner at a garage sale last weekend, where it was given to me, gratis. I couldn’t resist the title, even though Rahner—though admittedly a brilliant theologian—was a peritas at Vatican II (that confusing but valid, non-dogmatic council of policies; instead of formulating doctrine and house-cleaning, as most councils are intended to do, VII opened the Church’s windows and invited the world to dirty the house some more). Rahner is a golden-boy of the Catholic left. He was admonished by the Vatican to quit advocating for interfaith services. So, I entered this book with some trepidation, even though the title was alluring enough for me, and, as an ex-firefighter, who used to deal with death on a daily basis, I felt compelled to read it.
At the outset, before looking at this book, let’s make very plain the concept of death, since many in our culture seem to forget about its true reality. We live in a materialistic age where matter becomes more significant to the average person than the maker. We all fancy nice cars and i-phones, even while the average person in the world lives in abject poverty. Christ said, “blessed are the poor.” Last Sunday’s reading was on-point, Luke 12: 16 – 21:
The land of a certain rich man brought forth plenty of fruits. 17 And he thought within himself, saying: What shall I do, because I have no room where to bestow my fruits? 18 And he said: This will I do: I will pull down my barns, and will build greater; and into them will I gather all things that are grown to me, and my goods. 19 And I will say to my soul: Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years take thy rest; eat, drink, make good cheer. 20 But God said to him: Thou fool, this night do they require thy soul of thee: and whose shall those things be which thou hast provided?
If any of us love this life, we will “lose it.”
In the context of the modern world, man forgets about his final end. Let’s realign ourselves: Everyone reading this shall die. We all will end in the grave; our bodies will corrupt until they become bones or dust, until the general resurrection at the end of time, which is a dogma of our faith. Your soul will leave your body, our God will draw your soul. Your body will corrupt. Your skin will “leather”, your eyes will shrink, first into pea pods, but then they will crumble. Your hair will matte, and begin to fall out, until all falls away. Your skeleton will remain for a time longer, as it is of stronger substance, but it too will crumble and fall away. Only your soul will live on, and that is for eternity. Eternity is a long, long time. Imagine all of the particles of sand on all of the sea shores on earth, trillions of pieces of sand, to say the least, and pretend that each piece of sand equals a billion years, and pretend that you spend this amount of time in eternity. That, of course, does not equal even one day of your life in eternity; not even one second of eternity’s time, but of course God is outside of time.
I am not illustrating anything new here--even a child can understand that point—but meditating upon this is beneficial in the context of situating our souls to face eternity. Death is the beginning of our eternity either in union or separated from God.
Like I said, I approached Rahner’s essay with great caution. Although Rahner flirts with the heterodox notion that God might have saved humanity in a perfectly non-violent, unbloody, manner, he nevertheless comes to the Orthodox conclusion that Christ’s bloody Sacrifice was not only salvific, but that God could not have saved us by any other means:
“His life redeems, inasmuch as his death is axiologically present in his entire life. And in so far as any moral act of man is to be considered as a disposing over his entire person with regard to his interior destiny, and in so far as such a disposition receives its final character only in death, it is clear (on the supposition that Christ assumed the flesh of sin and death) that we cannot really say that Christ could have redeemed us through any other moral act than his death, even had God been disposed to accept some other act.” (Herder, New York, 1961, pg. 63.)
Rahner is a notoriously hard read, and you can almost see him strain to say the words, but he did: even God, according to Rahner, could not have saved us through any other means then through the death of Christ, His Son, the Second Person of the Trinity. Some Christians tend to meditate exclusively on Christ risen (even some Bishops do this). It’s much “cleaner” to think of Christ this way. It’s more happy-clappy, feel-good. They think of Christ’s earthly ministry, His miracles, and on the periphery acknowledge that Christ’s blood washes away our sins. But, strangely, they steer from the Passion Narratives in the Bible, even though this is the summit, the apex of why Christ came among us. We don’t like to think of bloody death, but Christ and the martyrs teach us otherwise. Even Rahner dedicates the last forty pages or so of his essay to the Christian martyrs, because they were the perfect embodiment of what it means to be Christian: giving up one’s life on earth in a Christ-like sacrifice:
“[A] martyr is one who freely accepting his death in faith, is killed by powers inimical to Christ, and bears a noble testimony as a ‘witness’ to faith in Jesus Christ…Martyrdom has to do with death. In order to understand martyrdom, death must be understood. And so the mystery of death enters into martyrdom, and makes martyrdom itself a mystery. One only dares approach the subject of death hesitantly. For the hidden incomprehensibility of death is also concealed from the average everyday mind, by the fact that death happens daily, and the dullard thinks that what happens every day must be understandable.” (pg. 82-83).
But the average Christian must, too, die in Christ to attain everlasting life. Every action that we make has everlasting impart:
“But the affirmation of faith concerning the definitive ending by death of the state of pilgrimage means, as well as the survival of man’s conscious personal existence, that the fundamental moral decision made by man in the mundane temporality of his bodily existence, is rendered definite and final by death. This doctrine of the faith involves taking this earthly life with radical seriousness. It is truly historical, this is, unique, unrepeatable, of inalienable and irrevocable significance.” (pt. 27.)
Rahner doesn’t shrink from the concept of original sin; what else explains the often absurd dimension of sin and suffering on earth?
“[D]eath is a visible expression of the disharmony between God and man in man’s very being which supervened at the beginning of his spiritual and moral history. Because man has lost the divine life in union with God by grace, his earthly existence also disintegrates. Man’s subjection to death is the manifestation of his disharmony with God.” (pg. 34).
“The end of man, considered only from man’s point of view, presents an inseparable and irreducible unity an ontologically dialectical opposition of elements…with no assurance that it [death] will strike him at the moment in which interiorly he has completed his life. Death is a blow of fate, a thief in the night, an emptying and reducing of man to powerlessness, in fact, the end.” (pg. 40).
“It [death] will always, therefore, include the character of a divine judgment among its notes. But it is sin that is manifested in death. The emptiness, hopelessness, the transitoriness, indeterminateness, the inextricable confusion of noblest action and most humiliating passivity, of plain meaning and ultimate ambiguity, all these characteristics of the death which we must actually die are nothing but the manifestations of sin, to which in some higher and hidden dimension these characteristics analogically belong. Because a creature belonging to God, it shrinks back, by a movement of its very essence, from this last mystery of emptiness, of finality, of nothingness, form the mystery of iniquity. Because this same creature, whether holy or sinful, is driven as long as he lives by the power of the divine life which calls him and works in him, he will always experience a mysterious horror of death, which can never be explained by himself, or from what he can observe in himself. In this horror of death, there emerges on the visible surface of human life, the horror of that death which alone is true death. If men try effectively to hide the reality of this horror from themselves by explaining it away by their manner of life, by taking refuge either in frivolity, despair or tragic heroism, then by this very act they make of it what they will not admit terrifies him in it, the beginning of eternal death. Death and man’s attitude towards it, which of course is really part of its very nature, is not abolished or extinguished by is permanently transformed only when in the light and power of Jesus Christ who died and rose again, it is seen and borne as what is can be, the darkness of that night of the Cross in which eternal life penetrated in death the very depths of the world, in order to give life to the world.” (pg. 55).
The Bible is full of passages concerning death, and the Christian’s relation to it. (Cf. Rom 1:32; 7:9-10; 6:16, 21, 23; 7:5; 8:2; James 1:15 and much of St. John, etc.) But it’s Christ’s death, and dying in Christ, which is the refuge, the final hope of the Christian:
“A Christian in the state of grace dies a different death from that of the sinner…the Council of Trent…states…that the death of the Christian in the state of grace no longer has the mark of a punishment for sin, but, like concupiscence in the justified man, has the character of a mere consequence of sin (poenalitas sed non poena)” (pg. 67).
To die in a state of grace we must frequent the Bread of Life. In John 6:54-59 Christ tells us:
Jesus said to them: Amen, amen I say unto you: Except you eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, you shall not have life in you. 55 He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath everlasting life: and I will raise him up in the last day. 56 For my flesh is meat indeed: and my blood is drink indeed. 57 He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, abideth in me, and I in him. 58 As the living Father hath sent me, and I live by the Father; so he that eateth me, the same also shall live by me. 59 This is the bread that came down from heaven. Not as your fathers did eat manna, and are dead. He that eateth this bread, shall live for ever.
St. Paul writes in 1 Cor. 24-26:
24 And giving thanks, broke, and said: Take ye, and eat: this is my body, which shall be delivered for you: this do for the commemoration of me. 25 In like manner also the chalice, after he had supped, saying: This chalice is the new testament in my blood: this do ye, as often as you shall drink, for the commemoration of me.
26 For as often as you shall eat this bread, and drink the chalice, you shall shew the death of the Lord, until he come.
This is why the traditional Latin Mass is so important, and has been the source and training-ground of so many Catholic Saints. In it, we “shew the death of the Lord.”
“The second sacrament which repeatedly and visibly reveals and deepens this companionship in suffering and death with our Lord, by grace throughout the whole course of the Christian life, is the sacred mystery of the Eucharist. This is the continuously renewed celebration of the death of the Lord, making that death present here and now in our lives. In the Eucharist, according to his command, we announce his death, which is our death and our life, again and again until he comes once more and it is no longer revealed in ritual sign but in the radiance of his visibly manifested glory, that in his death our death is swallowed up by the victory of life. What is done in this mystery is the sacramental enactment of Christ’s death, and what we receive in this mystery is the grace which became ours, n his death…In this sacrifice and sacrament, not only is the mystery of the Cross brought near to us in a spatio-temporal relation, but it actually produces its effect on our own lives, drawing us into itself, subjecting us to its own unfathomable laws and communicating its strength to us. Of necessity, therefore, anyone who takes part in this mystery in divine worship, announcing in it the death of the Lord, must also announce this death in his own life, by experiencing it in himself in the reality of his life…For we must consider as the effect of this sacrament all that Scripture means by our communion in the passion and death of Christ: that we must suffer with him, in order to be glorified with him (Rom 8:17; that though participation in his passion we are conformed to his death (Phil 3:10); that he has to be glorified in our bodies in life and in death (Phil 1:20); that for Christ’s sake we are constantly delivered into the power of death (2 Cor 4:10f.); that with him who was crucified in infirmity, we also are weak (2 Cor 13:4); that it is a grace, not only to believe in Christ, but also to suffer for him (Phil 1:29; that only if we have died with him shall we live with him (2 Tim 2:11). We share his death because we daily celebrate and receive the sacrament of his death.” (Pg. 76-77)
I will end by quoting that beautiful passage in the Bible of the raising of the twelve year old daughter of Jairus Luke 8:41-55:
41 And behold there came a man whose name was Jairus, and he was a ruler of the synagogue: and he fell down at the feet of Jesus, beseeching him that he would come into his house: 42 For he had an only daughter, almost twelve years old, and she was dying. And it happened as he went, that he was thronged by the multitudes.
49 As he was yet speaking, there cometh one to the ruler of the synagogue, saying to him: Thy daughter is dead, trouble him not. 50 And Jesus hearing this word, answered the father of the maid: Fear not; believe only, and she shall be safe.
51 And when he was come to the house, he suffered not any man to go in with him, but Peter and James and John, and the father and mother of the maiden. 52 And all wept and mourned for her. But he said: Weep not; the maid is not dead, but sleepeth. 53 And they laughed him to scorn, knowing that she was dead. 54 But he taking her by the hand, cried out, saying: Maid, arise. 55 And her spirit returned, and she arose immediately. And he bid them give her to eat.