Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit. (John 12:24)
Do you wish to advance in the spiritual life? If so, you must “die to self.” This basic axiom of spirituality seems counter intuitive: In order to find new life we must experience a type of “death?” Those who have committed themselves to the spiritual life will quickly affirm that new life comes through death. Whether it be confronting a moral struggle, overcoming our fear of doing God’s will, or embracing a life of prayer, there is first an inner moment of humbling one’s self to become the “grain of wheat” that falls to the ground and dies before the “tender green shoots” of new life in Christ begin to emerge. When approaching this spiritual death, one often experiences fear and resistance toward the unknown of who they will become at the end of this journey. However, after completing the journey, one discovers great beauty in the process of dying to self that was necessary for new life to take root.
As Christians, this dying and rising should be no surprise in light of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. One of the prophecies most often quoted by Jesus himself was that he would be denied, handed over, suffer, die, and then rise on the third day. This mystery was met with resistance, not only by Christ’s disciples, but by Jesus himself, expressed in a moment of hesitation when offering his prayerful distress to the heavenly Father with the words, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet, not as I will, but as you will.” (Matthew 26:39b) Of course, we know the rest of the story, a story about the most stunning event in human history: The Resurrection. With the mystery of the empty tomb, we see the death of God in the person of Jesus Christ leading to a glorified reality, expressed beautifully and simply in the book of Revelation, “Behold, I make all things new.” (Revelation 21:5b)
Therefore, our spiritual journey of dying to self and rising to new life is a type of analogy of the mystery of the dying and rising of Jesus Christ. As deep a mystery as it is to experience a spiritual death that brings joy, peace, and healing, so, too, do we believe that our physical death is not the end and leads, God willing, to eternal glory. Physical death is a part of life in which we pass through a type of “womb” between this life and the next. Therefore, one can interpret each spiritual death as a type of preparation to help us face our physical death with the hope that where Christ has gone, we shall follow. Just as there is fear and anxiety with the spiritual dying and rising of the soul, so, too, there is great anxiety facing the mystery of what this “birth to eternal life” will be like.
As a priest, I have assisted many on this journey. Each death is unique and contains a whole range of emotions, fears, hopes, and joys for the person confronting death and the family that prepares to “let go” of a loved one. As illogical as this may sound, many times death can be given the title of “beautiful” when embracing the inevitable is not met with fear and trepidation, but with acceptance and courage to face the mother of all of life’s journeys. There are some whose acceptance and courage run so deep that they not only become comfortable with death, but in real way befriended death, giving voice to one of the most profound passages of Sacred Scripture: Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? (1 Corinthians 15:55)
These reflections often come to mind when I gaze at the beauty of an emission nebula. The soft pinks of a gas cloud tell a story of death, yet is displayed in stunning beauty. Just as the fall leaves paint the countryside with beautiful reds and yellows before the onset of winter, so, too, do these remnants of stars paint the night sky as if it were the canvas of a contemporary artist. Amid this story of death is also the story of new life in the birth of stars, shining like small jewels in the night. The mystery deepens when we realize that without the death of these stars, the elements needed for life to exist on our planet would not be present. Therefore, there is a necessity to this death, similar to the necessity of a troubled soul needing to die to self, in order for new life to exist. Should it be any surprise that the great mysteries of life, death, and what comes after death should be made present to us in the natural world? Does it not seem fitting that these grand images of nebulas are presented to us like Icons hanging upon a wall, drawing us into the great mystery and hope that our death, too, may be beautiful and give way to new life with God in the state of being we call Heaven? And in these luminous clouds of gas do we not see a metaphor for the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ? These sobering reflections give voice to the sentiment expressed in the third section Psalm 103.
For as the heavens tower over the earth,
so his mercy towers over those who fear him.
As far as the east is from the west,
so far has he removed our sins from us.
As a father has compassion on his children,
so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him.
For he knows how we are formed,
remembers that we are dust.
As for man, his days are like the grass;
he blossoms like a flower in the field.
A wind sweeps over it and it is gone;
its place knows it no more.
But the LORD’s mercy is from age to age,
toward those who fear him.
His salvation is for the children’s children
of those who keep his covenant,
and remember to carry out his precepts. (Psalm 103:11-18)
What are your thoughts on The Paschal Mystery? Do you find hope in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ? Take these questions to prayer and know that my hope is that all of us can discover new life in Christ so that we may savor the eternal bliss that is promised in the life to come for those who love God.