Triumph through Death?
On Palm Sunday, the Church recalls the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. However, Jesus approached the holy City not just as a Jewish pilgrim. Also, he entered Jerusalem as the triumphator. Yet, his triumph is achieved not through power, but through his obedient death on the cross. It sounds very strange, doesn’t it?
To us, death is the ultimate defeat! Of course, it is if there is nothing beyond death. Hence, death is an unwelcome event that needs to be avoided at any cost. Nobody wishes to endure pain. Often people argued that one should have the freedom to end death. In one of my many writings on dying and death, I argued that death is the end of everything, including the end of freedom [see Joseph Lam Cong Quy, ‘Euthanasia-the right to die well and beautifully?: A theological plea’, in The Australasian Catholic Record (2017)].
If the fear of pain or if the dying is confronted with terminal illness, then the argument of freedom of death is ambiguous since whatever choice the dying will make, the dying cannot avoid death. This means that our freedom is conditioned by death which is inescapable for us. Whatever is conditioned is never fully free! Whether we call it euphemistically “a beautiful death” or “dying with dignity”, the beauty or dignity is already shattered by the experience of suffering. And suffering is never beautiful or is there any dignity to be found in suffering. Rather, this kind of freedom is perceived from the perspective of individuals, and less from social-relational perspective.
When facing the end of his life, Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple, said: “No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet, death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it, and that is how it should be, because death is very likely the single best invention of life. It’s life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new.”
As far as I know, Steve Jobs did not believe in Christ, even he held the view that there exists a somewhat higher consciousness. It is no surprise to me because Jobs is familiar with artificial intelligence or a higher cosmic energy. How could he believe otherwise since he is the maker of many digital and smart devices?
Like any person, Jesus suffered, died, and was buried. More, the Scripture tells us that he died through torture and death on the cross. He also experienced loneliness and abandonment. For the wise of this world, Jesus’ death just manifests God’s foolishness and powerlessness. For Paul, it is quite the contrary since he argued: “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” (1 Cor 1:18-19) For sure, those who have no hope, death means the destruction of everything, including the wisdom that attempts to justify the freedom from death.
For us Christians: What then is death? Our belief said that death leads to transformation! The process of transformation is not just a process peaking in the resurrection. The love and grace from God are freely given and we must also “make of ourselves a free gift to others,” Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI said. “In this way we know God as we are known by Him, … and we pass from death to life like Jesus Christ, who defeated death with His resurrection thanks to the heavenly Father’s glorious power of love.”
Hence, Christians see in death a transformation that the wise of this world cannot grasp, unless the wisdom of the Crucified Christ penetrates the hearts and minds. The freedom that God gives is not a negative freedom (a freedom forced on individuals because of the inescapability of death), but a positive freedom, a freedom that does not ignore the reality and gravity of suffering and death but chooses to live for others because suffering and death are understood as opportunities of transformation. The Letter to the Galatians 5:17-18 calls it a life according to the Spirit: “So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.”
Fr Joseph Lam is the parish priest of St Finbar’s Parish, Glenbrook.