8/29/21: A Message from The Rev. Dan Kline
My last action as a deacon was the funeral of Betsy and Jake Roak on January 10th, 2020. The next day I was ordained to the priesthood. I remember standing next to Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold, who presided over the Table. I wondered how it was I who was standing next to this statesman of the global church at this pivotal juncture in both my own life and the life of St. Paul’s. As I knelt before Bishop Daniel Gutierrez the next day at the same Table, I wondered what meaning, if any, there was behind this strange alignment of events and what it might mean for my particular priesthood.
Little did we know what the rest of 2020 held for us. Little did we know that a year of death awaited us. COVID-19, the murder of George Floyd, the tensions of the 2020 election, it was as if I had been baptized into fire, ordained to a vocation of last rites, ashes on foreheads, and pouring dirt over the departed before their caskets sunk deep into the earth. I was ordained to the priesthood at a time of dying.
This may seem odd since priests are called, like all baptized Christians, to “share in the renewing of the world” (BCP, p. 531). We are called to be those who celebrate life in the Eucharist, who preach the resurrection, who remind people of the life to come. Yet at the same time, we are called to a ministry of death. As the Church has taught since ancient times: “Memento mori. Remember your death.”
This year of plague and pestilence reveals something important about the vocation of the priesthood. Since the vocation of the priesthood is tied up in the vocation of the church, it also reveals something about the church as a whole and St. Paul’s, as an expression of that universal church in a particular locality, and of you, as an individual, a member of the Body of Christ. What it reveals is that we are people of death as much as we are people of life.
It is no surprise that after the plagues of the Middle Ages, that the crucifixion became more dominant in medieval thought than the resurrection. There is a danger in this, where we become overly obsessed with death. Death is not the final word, but life. In the most stereotypical characterizations, we flagellate ourselves or close ourselves up in tiny cells as anchorites. But these extremes must not divert us from our call, as our patron saint declares, “to proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26).
There is something special that happens when we lean into the way of death with Jesus. St. Paul again instructs us: “For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh” (2 Corinthians 4:11). “Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure…” (2 Corinthians 4:16-17). We paradoxically find that in losing our lives, we find them. In all of the little deaths that characterize how we make it through life (e.g. wearing a mask, choosing not to say what we’re thinking to someone who deserves it as an act of mercy, giving up a luxury so we can donate more to the poor, etc.), we are preparing ourselves for our big death and in preparing for that big death we are preparing for the life on the other side of death.
We are afraid of death in our American culture. We want to be youthful, while other cultures value being an elder. We want to live forever. And the Christian Gospel tells us that the way to live forever is entirely counterintuitive to all of our attempts to preserve our lives, to squeeze every last drop of youth out of our existence before we shrivel up and die. We often find ourselves shocked when someone dies when it is the one thing besides birth that all humans share in common.
When I was in Clinical Pastoral Education at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, which was how I spent my evenings for the first six months at our parish, I discovered that our instructor would not allow us to use euphemisms for death. We could not say “passed away,” “went to heaven,” or “left us too soon.” We had to use the word “death.” In a culture that is afraid of death, we had to become familiar with the word, for if we could not handle the word, how could we handle death itself when it stared at us in the room? How could we help those walking through the valley of the shadow of the death as they stared at their loved one lying lifeless in the hospital bed? Again, I did not know that my last week in CPE was before COVID-19 shut down life as we knew it. I did not understand how deeply my time at the hospital was preparing me for a ministry of death. This should have not surprised me for baptism is a baptism into death (Romans 6:3) and all Christians are empowered into ministry through baptism. All Christian ministry is a ministry of death.
So here I am again, standing at this fork in the road. The last time I stood here before such a monumental life change was before the Roak funeral. Today I am standing at the precipice of the funeral of Edward Wicks. As I prepare for my Charonic duty of ferrying a soul to the afterlife, I am reminded of my own death. I am reminded that I will one day leave this vale of mortal tears and that in peeking behind the veil through the sacramental mysteries I am reminded of my and our and all things’ union with the Divine through the death of Jesus Christ. I am afraid to do so. I always am. But in leaning into that fear and confronting the darkness that awaits us all, in this act of faith, we find the light of Christ, that true Paschal Candle burning brightly, even if ever so softly. And in finding the light of Christ, we find true life, a life that swallows up death in love, all deaths. The tragedy of these deaths are given a depth they would not otherwise have in knowing the Son of God tasted death for everyone. Their sting is also weakened and we trust, in faith, that even that sting will one day be destroyed, that death itself will die too. As we say our goodbyes this Sunday and endure a much smaller death through geographical separation, let us remember our own deaths and find the Life that is truly life. Amen.