“In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” That familiar aphorism is taken from a letter written by Benjamin Franklin to a friend in 1789. Franklin got lots and lots of things right, but this he got wrong. Or shall we say half wrong. There is nothing certain about taxes. For you and me, taxes are inescapable. But really rich people get away with paying little tax or no tax at all. We all know that. Indeed, it would seem that President of the United States gets away with paying little or no tax every year. But we don’t really know that. He won’t release his tax returns. However, since he plays fast and loose with everything else, especially the truth, it is reasonable to suppose that he plays fast and loose with his taxes as well.
So it is death that is the only really certain thing. It is also the great equalizer. Death is remarkably egalitarian. The rich man dead is exactly equal to the poor man dead. No distinction.
Remember the parable of the man who wished to build bigger barns to store his surplus crops. According to Jesus, God says to him, “You fool ! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be. And who knows whether they will be managed well or squandered ?” ( Luke 12 ) All that he had worked for taken away by death. He might as well have been poor. All that he had worked for handed on to another who might well whittle it away. So all the work, all the care, all the planning amounting to nothing, coming to nothing. Perhaps in death it’s better to be poor and leave nothing behind.
Death is the great equalizer, and death is the one absolute certainty. When we are dead, we are dead. Dead as a door nail. Dead as a door post. Dead as dust, dust, dust. That, again, is the one thing that I can say with absolute certainty about myself and also about you: that at some point like it or not, ready or not, each one of us will die.
We may see it coming. Or it may happen in the twinkling of an eye. But for whatever reason – sickness, age, accident, violence – for whatever reason the heart will cease to beat. The brain waves will become flat and finally disappear. The body will become cold and heavy, because there is no life in it. We call this “dead weight,” don’t we ?
And there will be two moments side by side: one when we are, and another when we are not. This is an undoubted and undoubtable fact about you, just as it is an undoubted and undoubtable fact about me.
Some years ago, I pointed all this out to the congregation I was then serving. When the Mass was over, standing at the church door, I was quite soundly rebuked. A woman, whom I had never met, took me to task. “That’s depressing,” she said to me. “You want people to come to Church. Well, they’ll never come back if they hear depressing things like that. You’d better change your tune.”
I was pretty taken aback by this, and since she stormed away, I had no chance to vindicate myself. Let me do that tonight. In fact, mortality may not be good news, but neither should it be depressing. A fact is a fact. How that fact feels to us depends upon our belief and our attitude. Our mortality, our being toward death, as some put it, is simply the truth. And if we wish to live authentic lives, we must deal with the truth. And if we know what Christianity is all about, and if we know what Lent is intended to do, then this truth is not depressing at all. Indeed, through faith, our mortality becomes one of the most positive, paradoxically joyful things you can imagine. For Christianity, you see, is about rising from the dead. Let me say that again. Christianity is about rising from the dead. Christianity is about new life out of what is old and failing or over. It is about creation where there was nothing before.
Christianity proclaims that God through Christ will raise us up, and, dust though we may be, we will not be lost. God loses nothing. God loses no-one. In Christ we are everlastingly found, and God, through Christ, raises and will raise us up.
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In Lent, dear people, you and I are called upon to face facts and to search out those places where we need to be raised, those spiritual nooks and crannies where grace must be applied and new life created. And Lent proclaims that possibility. Lent proclaims that you and I can be changed, and that what is dusty and dead, what is diminishing and dead and sinful within us, can be done away with. And that in this life we can be raised up.
In Lent we are, again, called upon to face facts, and one of those facts, of course, is the big one—our death, our mortality. At a certain point you and I will be just as lifeless and seemingly beyond possibility as the dust and the ashes that we will all soon wear on our faces. And we must face that fact, for only when we do face that fact can we know how great is our need for God and for his grace. Only when we do face that fact can we know how great is our God and how great is his love and how powerful is his grace. For sin and death itself have nothing to say to the God who breathes life into dust. Sin and death itself have nothing to say to the Son of God who himself dies to being life. Sin and death have nothing to say to the God who raises the dead. And let us praise him, for both in this life and beyond it, God will raise us up.
Good people, beloved, keep a holy Lent.