Medicine for an Anxious Heart: a Christian Meditation on Death and Fear

Court-of-death

 

Peter Lawler stated in a recent article, “Philosophy is learning how to die, to get over obsessing about your personal significance. Being (existence) itself is not in our hands.” Lawler aligns himself with great thinkers such as Plato, Cicero, and Montaigne in believing that Philosophy has the purpose of preparing oneself to die. Shakespeare even incorporates this thinking into his many plays. But, I am convinced that philosophy can only do so much to sooth man’s soul, and I would like to assert that one should replace Philosophy with Christianity. And, I am fully convinced of this: Christianity is learning how to die.


This past year has been quite a year. I graduated from college debt free. My brother was married. I became an uncle. I was offered a job that I wasn’t qualified for. And most importantly, this year, I married my beautiful wife, Stephanie. God has been gracious and kind to me.


But, although this year has been filled with joy and happiness, I found myself deeply saddened. April 15th, 2016 marked the 18th year anniversary of my father, John Francis Elliott’s, death. It can easily be deduced that my father was not at my graduation, at my niece’s birth, at my brother’s wedding, or at my wedding. His death still has a real affect on my life, even though it was 18 years ago. So much so that in April of last year, I had an anxiety attack that landed me in the emergency room of Sacred Heart Medical Center in Spokane, Washington. Having too much caffeine from coffee and to much stress from school, work, and wedding planning resulted in the anxiety attack, but I am convinced the root cause was my deeply rooted fear of death. Let me explain.


Because of my father’s early death, I have always feared a premature death, myself. My dad died of a heart attack when he was forty-one, and I was so scared that my anxiety attack was a heart attack that I literally tricked my body into thinking it was going to die. The doctor told me that I had experienced a hypochondriac reaction. I had convinced myself I was dying, and my response consisted of being frantic, afraid, and scared.


But, this brings me back to my original point. Christianity is learning how to die, at least a large part of it. Death is the great equalizer of humanity. Every one experiences death. Naked we enter this world, and naked we leave. From dust we are formed, and to dust we return. No matter who you are, you will die. Death is scary, and the fear of death has many tangible reactions. Anxiety, denial, and ignorance are just a few.


I am afraid of death. I am afraid of being separated from my family. I am afraid of the pain I might face in my final hours. I am afraid of not being there for my children. And, every year I remember my dad’s death, and what he has missed, it incarnates that fear even more into my life. Fear is not something that mankind merely experiences, it is a part of our nature. Although a concept, fear incarnates itself into our reality in a concrete way. How does mankind conquer fear and its many consequences? The Apostle John with such sublime and simple words tells us that, “Perfect love casts out fear.”


But, how does love cast out fear? Often the answer to this question places the action on man to love and not act out of fear. Preachers often tell us, “You, human, in your own capacity, do not fear. You, human, in your own capacity, love other.” But this is the wrong way of understanding this concept. Fear has incarnated itself as a part of our human nature. The only thing that can overcome the human incarnation of fear is a divine incarnation of love.


The question one should ask is not “how do I with love cast out fear?” but rather, “how does perfect love, the Triune God, cast out fear?” The Father gives us His Son, Jesus Christ, through His Spirit. And, the presence of Jesus Christ in our souls casts out human fear. Christ casts fear out, because He is perfect love. And, as Christ casts out demons who controlled the men and women they indwelled, so Christ cast out fear from his church’s body. The God who calmed the raging waters of the Galilee Sea, can assuredly calm the fear in his children’s heart.


Therefore, the answer to fear is Christ himself. Christ went through death for humanity. God experienced death. As Peter Leithart eloquently explains in his article Lord over Death, “He (Jesus) is not only Lord over the safe confines of heaven…Not only Lord over galaxies, but Lord in the world of hunger and thirst. Not only the Lord over nations, but the Lord in suffering, injustice, and pain. Not only the Lord over life, but also the Lord and tamer in death.” Christ did this as our brother, a partaker in humanity. Adam sinned and brought death, destruction, and fear upon all mankind. But, through Christ, the God-man, mankind has life, redemption, and love. As Leithart states in another article, “The Lord of life becomes Lord of death. God’s throne is a tomb… Any old god could put up a throne in a temple. The true God must reign also in the midst of hell, among the ruins, or he doesn’t reign at all. He is no living God if he isn’t the living One among the dead.” Our God not only became man, He experienced the dirty, messy, humiliating act of death.


Modern society views death as man’s weakest point, that great adversary of mankind. Death is the point of human existence in which human will and ability can do nothing to stop the impending destruction of life. Death is in its nature a humiliating moment. Perhaps this is why euthanasia is becoming so appealing to many; human will can exercise its power one last time. Human will desires to be lord of its own peaceful death. But, that subject can be tackled at a later time.


In Christian thought, death receives a new nature and purpose. Death is man’s act of victory; man’s final experience of pain and sorrow, becomes its moment of victory. Death is still humbling in Christianity’s understanding, but it is humbling because we submit ourselves to God in humility with faith that he will raise us up incorruptible. Christian’s go to the grave not fearing death, for in death’s humiliation we are exalted to the heavens into the throne room of God. God made his throne the grave, so that man’s grave could become his throne. This is why a large portion of Christianity is learning how to die. For, Christianity teaches that in death we have life if we place our faith in the power of our Savior, Jesus Christ. We literally preach the gospel of Jesus Christ in our very death. Man is sinful and weak and deserving of the punishment of death, but through faith in Jesus Christ man is restored to a divine life that is incorruptible. This is the message of the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 15.


So, when fear attempts to reincarnate itself into the hearts and minds of men, man is to think of Christ. Think on that perfect love, who incarnated himself on this earth and in your heart. Think on Christ, who descended into the grave and rose victorious. And, pray. Pray for Christ to give you His Spirit. For through His Spirit, we receive the power, presence, and love of Christ, the Eternal Son. Our God, came to this earth as one of us, and conquered not as a powerful King, but as a dying servant. And, through this we have peace. Our anxieties and fears can be calmed, for God has accomplished the work of salvation through His Son, Jesus Christ. And, with this peace, man can truly live. Understanding the true nature of death leads to true life. Anxiety, stress, and despair slowly fade.


My fear of death still exists, and my heart is still anxious. Every year when I remember my father’s premature death, my heart will become heavy with fear and anxiety. But when my heart is heavy, I think of the word’s of Christ, “Come to me all who labor and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” Christ speaks to my heart through his Word, through His Church, through His Communion, and through Prayer. He tells me to have no fear, for he has conquered the grave. And, slowly, very slowly, I am learning how to die.


Title Painting: The Court of Death by Rembrandt Peale. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2012645626/

The Road to Emmaus: Reconsidering the Eucharist as a Spiritual Meal

Luke 24:13-35 tells the story known as the Road to Emmaus. In this story, the recently risen Jesus Christ comes along two confused and saddened disciples, who are struggling with Christ’s recent crucifixion and subsequent death. In this account the disciples do not recognize who Jesus is, because their “eyes are restrained;” (Luke 24:16 NRSV) they only think him to be a stranger. Thus, God blinded their vision from knowing Christ’s identity, for in the Greek we see that the verb used is a divine passive. (1) God does the action of blinding.


Christ then comes along, undetected, and dialogues with them asking them what caused their sadness. The two respond that their hope in Christ, who was a great prophet of God, being the Messiah was dashed by recent events, which ended with His death. These disciples had heard the resurrection account from the women, Mary, Mary, and Martha, but did not believe. Hearing these things, Christ explains to the disciples that throughout the Old Testament scriptures the Messiah was always to suffer. Beginning with the Law and ending with the Prophets, Christ explains and expounds on the Messiah’s true task. When they reach the village of their residence, the disciples ask the stranger (Christ) to lodge with them and to continue the dialogue. Again, the disciples did not know this was Jesus. As the group sat down to eat, Christ blessed the bread and gave it to the two disciples to eat. In this moment the two realized it was the risen Jesus. As Luke records, “Now it came to pass, as He sat at the table with them, that He took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they knew Him; and He vanished from their sight.” (Luke 24:30-31) Therefore, one can see that Christ did not reveal Himself to the disciples until the moment they broke bread together.


On this narrative Leroy A. Huizenga exposites, “Luke’s language is patently eucharistic, recalling the institution of the Lord’s Supper in Luke 24:14–23. And it is precisely when the risen Jesus begins to celebrate the Eucharist that “their eyes were opened and they recognized him” and he then “vanished out of their sight.” (2) If it takes the risen Jesus to reveal the ultimate coherence of the Scriptures, it then takes the Eucharist to reveal Jesus. Thus one can see that from this post-resurrection passage, that Christ bestows a certain spiritual food in and through the eucharist, which nourishes the individual to see Him because of it. Scriptural word is always paired with eucharistic liturgy. The revelation of God is made manifest in both; the eucharist then involves a spiritual revelation or feeding in a sense. The bread is not only bread, it is the very Word of God, the incarnate Christ.


And if this is not enough, Luke makes it even more explicit. The last verse in the Road to Emmaus passage states, “They began to relate their experiences on the road and how He was recognized by them in the breaking of the bread.” (Luke 24:35) The passage explicitly states that the disciples connected the breaking of bread (which was the first commonly used name given to the Lord’s Supper) with Christ’s presence. Their eyes were shut by God, and they were opened by Christ. This is what the Lord’s Supper is; it is God revealing Himself to His Church. It is not a Christian naturally, as with his own brain function, remembering Him.


What does this mean? Well, it means that the eucharist hinges on a correct understanding of salvation itself. Salvation is the act of God on man; it is the continual act of God on man. The work of salvation encompasses ones life. From regeneration to justification, to sanctification, to glorification, Christ is at work. Every act in the ordo salutis (3) is built on the the nature and will of Christ. Therefore, when one approaches the eucharist, he must ask, “How does God work in this?”


The Church knows that the bread and wine give life, and it understands that it cannot give or receive life apart from the work of the Creator. Humans as creatures respond to how God acts upon us. Therefore, one must allow for the specific work of God in the eucharist. From Scripture, one can see the beauty of the eucharist. It reveals Christ to fallen man. Human eyes, which are so often blinded to the truth of God, receive light. The preaching of the Word becomes a reality and not just a series of facts. The same way the eternal Word entered humanity to give them eternal life, so Christ spiritually presents Himself in the elements. Christ feeds His sheep, and unites them under his head. Thus, when one partakes of the eucharist, he is dependent on God and the faith which he bestows upon man to receive the grace of Jesus Christ through the Spirit. It is not man working to God, but God working in and through man for “His good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:12-13) Behold, the resurrected Jesus is standing at the door and is knocking. (Revelation 3:20) The Savior, Jesus Christ, desires His Church to realize that it personally partakes in a spiritual meal with him, where he gives himself to his Church through the power of the Spirit to the glory of the Father. Amen.


1. Huizenga, Leroy A. “The Tradition of Christian Allegory Yesterday and Today.” Letter & Spirit 8.1 (2013): 77-99.

2. Ibid. 

3. Latin for “order of salvation.” This does not describe a chronological order of events in salvation, but rather a logical progression in the way the the Triune God works to give an individual salvation.