My shoulders have felt heavy this week—like I can’t stand up straight. A wise friend once observed how grief is stored in the body, and I’ve felt that lately. Like so many others, my circle of friends is being gripped by specific grief, named grief. No longer is this a pandemic of generalized suffering. In these winter months, the pain has become strikingly personal, and much too close for comfort.
On Wednesday, a coworker who is dear to me lost his mother to COVID. Five days later, her companion of many years passed as well. Our company sends funeral memos whenever an employee loses someone close, and this week, there have been too many in my inbox. The influx leaves me wondering how best to carry hope, and how maybe to ease the burden for others.
I was asked that question in a different form when someone in the acute stages of grief asked me in despair how to process their loss. Though I’m not objectively qualified to field such a tender question, the issue of life in the midst of death is central to why I am Christian. The bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ is the time-splitting event that forever disrupted the oppressive reign of death and empowered each of us as agents of renewal. We speak of Christ’s death on the cross as the pivotal moment of Christianity, but it was his resurrection that changed the game. When faced with the dismay of a seemingly final death, it is Christ’s resurrection to which I turn, with its very tangible hope that death is not the end.
When we spend too much time on death, fixating on its looming presence, we risk negating the value of our lives, and worse, nullifying the present hope of Christianity. After all, if death gets the final word, what’s the point of developing my own character or sacrificing my own comfort for the betterment of another decaying person? If all of creation is spinning towards destruction, why does anything matter at all?
I am far from the first and not even close to the smartest person to follow this line of thought, but as the title above suggests, I believe that this is more than a question for philosophers. The issue of life, death, and what happens to all of us in the end is of urgent importance to every single person. We can’t possibly hope to live well or to endure the harsh presence of death in our lives without giving serious consideration to where all of this is headed.
Please, at some point, read N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope, but until then, feel free to read on for my own skeleton paraphrase. Wright reminds all of us that the early Christians believed very much in the bodily resurrection of Christ and that the resurrection was essential to their joy because it confirmed what God had been proclaiming to the nation of Israel since their enslavement in Egypt: God is reliably, tangibly, and powerfully on the side of the oppressed. God is with those whose shoulders are heavy, whose eyes are weary of crying, and whose lives feel far from joyful. God is with everyone who has ever feared death. God is with everyone who has ever feared anything.
In his resurrection, Christ tossed death off the throne, and reclaimed the original order of things: people, working hand in hand with God to create new channels of goodness in an already perfect creation. Practically, this means that God has planned for us the same resurrection that we witnessed in Christ. We will be raised to new life and continue the work that we have begun. Without that reality, any attempts at altruism would be ultimately meaningless.
Wright says it like this:
What you do with your body in the present matters because God has a great future in store for it. … What you do in the present—by painting, preaching, singing, sewing, praying, teaching, building hospitals, digging wells, campaigning for justice, writing poems, caring for the needy, loving your neighbor as yourself—will last into God’s future … they are part of what we may call building for God’s kingdom.
This should bring renewed urgency and purpose to our daily efforts, and also tremendous hope when we mourn. God has “a great future” in store for those who have died, and for you and me, when we are all together again.
One friend told me this week about someone close to him who had passed suddenly. He described to me an exceptionally kind person, who on the morning of his death had delivered food to a neighbor and was in the process of assisting another. “That’s just who he was.” I was moved by my friend’s characterization, and I felt sad all day that the world had lost a good-doer. It felt tremendously unfair. But heaven presses close, and I know that the love shown to neighbors every day only brings it closer. These efforts of righteousness are everlasting, and will be magnified in the days where mourning turns to dancing—let those days come swiftly.
Ansley Kelly (‘16) is a Department Manager at Wegmans in Buffalo, New York. She is passionate about her work as a leader and often describes her job as “creating environments for talented people to be successful.” In the summer you can find her training as the bowperson on a competitive sailing team, and in the winter she volunteers as a member of the National Ski Patrol. After both of those activities you can find her sipping bourbon (neat, of course) and working on puzzles.