Death Like Wine

King Solomon, in addition to writing and collecting proverbs, married an Egyptian princess. Now, Egyptian religion (if you remember from elementary school) was obsessed with the idea of a physical afterlife wherein a person could lug all of his earthly possessions (including wives, etc.) on into eternity, if he went through the proper rituals. Because of these screwy soteriological and eschatological beliefs, Egyptians never took seriously the finality and severity of death, and wasted much of their actual lives obsessing about their next, going so far as to enslave other humans in order to build grand, lifeless temples wholly dedicated to housing their rotting corpses and the proper arrangements for their afterlives.

Nowadays, of course, we know better. We know that our material possessions count for nothing in our deaths and the most important thing in life is to love. Right?

Solomon did, even back then. His book “The Assemblies” (which goes by its Greek name “Ecclesiastes” though it was written in Hebrew) quite forcefully asserts the vanity of materialism. Rather, we should be content with what we have, derive joy from our daily toil, love God, enjoy food and sex, care for people, be content, and live life – this life to the fullest. Because death is final.

Even though it’s not the End.

The truth lies somewhere between Egyptianism and Annihilationism. Long after King Solomon, St. Paul had to address a similar problem with his audience. Except instead of screwy Egyptian eschatology, it was screwy Christian eschatology. Paul had taught the Christians in Thessalonica about the return of Jesus, and they became so obsessed with it that they began quitting their jobs in anticipation.

What we believe has only everything to do with how we behave.

Paul had to remind them in a letter to live in the here and now, to work with their hands, to engage with those around them, and to be kind, charitable, and moral.

But overcorrecting is a real danger, too. There is an opposite error we must avoid. St. Peter warns that as time wears on it will be tempting to think the Lord will never return, and quit taking care of His property or following His rules. The Christian must always be expecting the Day of the Lord, but never with too much obsession. Likewise we must embrace this life and drink of it deeply, but never become too attached to it.

G. K. Chesterton reflects on the paradoxical view of life and death in the Christian life eloquently:

…he can only get away from death by continually stepping within an inch of it. A soldier surrounded by enemies, if he is to cut his way out, needs to combine a strong desire for living with a strange carelessness about dying. He must not merely cling to life, for then he will be a coward, and will not escape. He must not merely wait for death, for then he will be a suicide, and will not escape. He must seek his life in a spirit of furious indifference to it; he must desire life like water and yet drink death like wine. No philosopher, I fancy, has ever expressed this romantic riddle with adequate lucidity, and I certainly have not done so. But Christianity has done more: it has marked the limits of it in the awful graves of the suicide and the hero, showing the distance between him who dies for the sake of living and him who dies for the sake of dying. And it has held up ever since above the European lances the banner of the mystery of chivalry: the Christian courage, which is a disdain of death; not the Chinese courage, which is a disdain of life.

1 Comment

Filed under Death, Virtue

One Response to Death Like Wine

  1. Gayla

    Louis, this is really, really good.

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