Trusting Death

In the Episcopal lectionary the gospel for this past Sunday (John 12:20-33) has some Greeks coming to Philip and saying, “Sir we wish to see Jesus.” Philip tells Andrew of this request and together they tell Jesus. I suspect Jesus’ response is not what these Greeks had expected or wanted.

Jesus responds:

The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also (John 20:23-26).

As much as we might like to see Jesus, Christianity is not a spectator sport. Seeing is not believing. Participation is believing. Essentially Jesus is saying, “If you want to see me, if you want to be with me, then die.”

Jesus invites us to trust death. That is hard work for most us. We have been taught to fear, avoid, deny, and fight death in whatever form it might take – whether it be our physical death, the loss of a relationship, a dream, a way of thinking, our identity or reputation. Our efforts, however, to insulate ourselves from death ultimately insulate us from life. To the extent we are afraid to die we are also afraid to fully live.

The place of death is also the place of birth. This is clearly demonstrated when the icon of the Nativity is compared with an icon of the Resurrection, namely that of the myrrh-bearing women at the tomb of Christ on the third day.

The icons below and the excerpt following come from an article by Father Deacon Matthew Steenberg entitled “The Nativity of the Paschal Christ:”

Icon of the Nativity of Christ; provenance unknown Icon of the Myrrh-bearing Women at the tomb of Christ; Greek style, provenance unknown

Here the Nativity and Resurrection are mirrored almost exactly, drawn together with profound theological significance. Christ is born into a manger identical in form to a tomb; and the theological witness is that, in the icon of the resurrection, the tomb is suddenly indistinguishable from a manger. If it seemed for a moment strange that the place of the Lord’s birth should be mingled in the icon with a reminder of His death, now that imagery’s meaning is fully revealed: Just as our sin unites birth to death and makes every human nativity an assurance of a human departure from this life (for all are bound by sin, all die)-making every person’s ‘manger’ or cradle a kind of foretelling of his tomb-so Christ’s incarnation, His truly human birth and death, transforms the tomb into an image of life. The sarcophagus, the grave, are made mangers that cradle an entry into new life – a life of eternity in the Kingdom.

The grain of wheat that falls into the earth and dies produces much fruit. We are the fruit of that Holy Grain of Wheat, Christ. If we want to see Christ, to be with Christ, then we too must fall into the earth and die. That is our work of participation.

As Meister Eckhart, the Dominican monk of fourteenth century Germany said:

The seed of God is in us. Given an intelligent and hard-working farmer, it will thrive and grow up to God, whose seed it is; and accordingly its fruits will be God-nature. Pear seeds grow into pear trees, nut seeds into nut trees, and God-seed into God.

So die. Die with joy. Die with confidence. Die with thanksgiving. Die in order to live.



    1. Joe, thanks for your comment. The icons and the baptismal font continue to remind us of the relationship between birth and death. In Christ birth and death are not necessarily opposites.


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