“You have raised up for us a mighty Savior.” Luke 1:69
Dear Redeemer Family:
In this final month of the church year, we are presented with Luke’s understanding of ends and beginnings, of death and resurrection, thus providing us with the opportunity to think anew about life together under the cross and empty tomb of Jesus.
Lutherans hold a particular understanding of our endings and beginnings. Martin Luther understood there to be two kinds of death, a little death and a big death. The big death is what occurs in the waters of baptism when the sinful self and the power of sin, death and the devil are drowned; they no longer have the last word or ultimate power over us. Because Jesus has died and is raised; and because in the waters of baptism we are joined to him in his death and resurrection; we face the end with anticipation. Though we are sinful, in the waters of baptism we are also given a new identity:
a saint, a child of God, one forgiven, loved, saved through the love of God in Jesus Christ. There is reason to celebrate the end; there, in the end, is a new beginning. There, in the end, is Jesus.
The little death, for Luther, is the physical death, when there is no more breath in our bodies or life in our limbs. This death tends to be the one that engenders fear, the one in which tears are shed for what is lost, for what will no longer be. When a physical death comes decades before it should have, those left to mourn experience a mix of emotions. While, on the one hand, the faithful know that this dear person was a child of God, this child of God is no longer physically here with us. For that we grieve. Years ago, in his book The Denial of Death, (it won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction in 1979) Ernest Becker emphasized the cultural fascination not with death itself but with denying its presence, its impact on our lives. Those whose loved ones have died, or are facing an untimely diagnosis of their own that will eventually lead to death, know the struggle of the end in Christian faith. Though resurrection is a real and present reality, the sting of the end is no less real.
At the end of this season, Christ the King, we find Jesus on the cross between two who are dying. In pain and alone, those on either side of him engage him in conversation. On the one side is someone who wants Jesus to avoid the cross and to help them avoid the cross as well. (The denial of death, indeed!) On the other side is someone who recognizes the situation for what it is and realizes Jesus for who he is. The person asks Jesus to “remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
This is an honest cry, a lament, in which despair and hope are hurled at Jesus on the cross. There is no sugarcoating the situation of the person hanging next to Jesus; while the criminal recognizes that “we are getting what we deserve,” there is, somewhere from within, a deep and abiding sense of hope. In view of Jesus on the cross, all the denials end; all that is left is hope. “Today you will be with me in Paradise” is the reply he receives. No denial, but tremendous words of hope.
In Christ, Pastor Rose