Not dead but asleep

Sunday 13B (Wisdom 1:13-15; 2:23-24; Mark 5:21-34)

Our first reading today begins with that rather curious line – ‘death was not God’s doing.’ It points to what is in fact the teaching of the Church about death. When we read in the account of creation, in Genesis 1-3, we get the sense that in the beginning God intended for us to have a fullness of life; that death would not be the final word. And yet we know from our experience of the natural world, that death is simply a part of it all. We know from the past 4.6 billion years that the world has existed, that death has always been a part of it. It is just the natural cycle. At the moment here it is winter – a bit on the cold side. Looking outside we see trees that have lost their leaves; we know that in the springtime, the leaves will begin to bud and the flowers will blossom. I am sure that all of us have had some sense or experience of death – whether that is in the death of a pet, a farm animal or of someone that we loved dearly.

The difference that our faith makes is the way that we experience death. Not so much the physical reality of death, but the full spiritual or existential experience. This is the difference in the teaching of Christianity. The book of Wisdom that we read from (this morning) is very late, probably only written a couple of hundred years before the time of Jesus. It expresses the development of Jewish reflection upon this reality. They are struggling with coming to terms with what God intended for us – from the beginning. They ponder what we read in the opening chapters of the book of Genesis and in other places about the way that God created us. That death wasn’t meant to be this terror over us; that we wouldn’t experience the dread and the fear at the moment of death. That death would not hold us in its throws; that death would not hold us in its punishment. But that death would simply be that point of transition. That simple falling to sleep to awaken in that new world which God has prepared for us.

So we can wonder – well what would it be like, to experience death without the punishment of sin. We read in Genesis 3 that death was one of the consequences of the fall of Adam and Eve – of their sin. What would it be like to die without sin?

If we look through the traditions of the church, there is one obvious shining example of someone who died without sin. Mary. Of course the church does not make a strong declaration of what exactly happened in the final moments of the life of Mary. We teach that she was assumed body and soul into heaven. But there is no definitive teaching about whether in the final moment she died or not. There are various traditions about this – for example, in the Eastern Churches they do not call it the Assumption of Mary, but the Dormition of Mary – which simply refers to her falling asleep.

We see in Mary a person who has always chosen to live her life in accordance with God’s will. She has always lived according to the plan of God for her life. Her whole life was about choosing not her own will, or against God’s will, but to do all things according to his word and his plan. So we see in Mary the life of someone who has not experienced the taint of sin. So at the moment of Mary’s death it was that dormition – that simple and gentle falling into peaceful sleep. That one day she would be awakened in the resurrection. That is also the promise for all of us. That is the gift of what our lives can be about as well – if we but trust in the Lord, and place our trust and our hope in the Jesus as our Lord and Saviour. If we are able to accept and trust in his love and his plan for our lives, then death doesn’t have to hold that experience of terror and horror over us; because Jesus in his death and resurrection has already defeated death and overcome that mortal fear. This is the way that we can experience death – not as something that we are terrified of, that we absolutely dread – nor even as something that we necessarily look forward to – but something that we can experience as simply as falling asleep.

Generally falling asleep is a rather pleasant experience; I don’t remember the exact moment last night that I feel asleep, but I know that that drifting off is quite nice! And this is the way that a Christian should experience death.

So when we read the Gospel this morning, with that understanding of death, some of what happens begins to make a little more sense. So we have this story – or rather two stories that are bound and sandwiched so closely together that we need to read them both. This young daughter of Jairus, the Synagogue official, who is 12 years old is very sick, indeed she is at the point of death. She is linked in the story to the woman who has suffered from this bleeding for 12 years. Jairus keeps referring to his daughter, and when Jesus addresses the woman, he tells her ‘my daughter, your faith has saved you.’ There are a number of links to bind these two stories closely together.

What is interesting is that after Jesus has healed the woman, and they are again on their way to the official’s house, they are met by this delegation from the official’s house. Capernaum is not a big town, so it would not have taken all that long to walk from one side to the other. They people come and say ‘do not bother the Master anymore – your daughter is already dead.’ It is then that Jesus turns to Jairus and says ‘do not be afraid, only have faith.’ This is the answer that Jesus would give to us whenever we are afraid of death, whenever we are confronted by death. ‘Do not be afraid; only have faith.’

So they continue to the house. Because Jesus knows that there is nothing that is outside the boundaries of his love and his power. Even though the crowd says ‘it’s pointless; it’s useless – send him away,’ Jesus continues to go to that house. When they get to the house, the find this huge crowd of people weeping and mourning and lamenting – including the paid mourners who would come to help the family express their grief at this terrible moment. And Jesus says, ‘why all this commotion? The girl is not dead, she is … asleep.’

This again points to that reality of death – the way that it is in the mind of God; the way that it should be experienced by people of faith. But of course the crowd doesn’t get that. They rather miraculously turn their weeping and lamenting into laughter and jeers in a heart-beat. Then Jesus dismisses them and goes through the crowd into the room where the dead girl lies. Even though touching the dead body of this young girl will make him ritually unclean, (just like touching the bleeding woman also made him ritually unclean) he defies all that and takes her by the hand. Here we get this beautiful expression – one of the four times in the Gospels that we hear an echo of the original words of Jesus in Aramaic – the words and the language that Jesus spoke. ‘Talitha, koum’ Like he says to the deaf man, ‘ephathatha’ (be opened); like he prays in the garden when he cries out to God as ‘Abba’ (Father); like when he prays again to the Father from the cross, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lama sabbachthani.’ Each of these are remembrances of the exact words of Jesus.

Here he addresses this young girl – not in words of magic; not in some kind of ‘abracadabra’ – the words are simply what a father would say to his young daughter in the morning to wake her up. It is simply an expression that says ‘my darling, it is time to get up; time to wake up.’ So ‘talitha, koum’ – ‘get up.’ And it is these words of awakening that we indeed will one day hear – if we place our trust in the Lord. These are the words that we will hear (perhaps in the masculine version as well!) when the Lord awakens us at the dawning of the new creation; when he awakens us at the resurrection of the dead. This is the tremendous gift of the Christian faith. Our faith is about the destruction of death; death has no more power over us, because of the death and resurrection of Jesus. That the devil’s envy that created that fear and anxiety about death is no more; it does not need to touch us anymore – because we belief and trust in the power of the resurrection.

Our great gift is that we can now bear witness to this amazing gift. For the couple in the story, Jesus bound them to silence, because it was not yet time to speak of the power of Jesus over death. But for us, now is the time, when we can speak of the power of our faith in Jesus over death. Nothing is greater than the love of God. When that day comes, when we experience that victory – when death in its horror and terror will no longer touch us – then we can proclaim that victory. Then we can look forward to that day when we will not succumb to the horror of death – but it will be our time in the Lord to simply fall asleep.

Play MP3

Music from Don Francisco ‘Gotta tell somebody’ on the album ‘He’s Alive’. Insights from Fr Robert Barron.

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