Death in the Hands of Life
Third Sunday of Advent, Dec 15, 2013
By Scott Schomburg
In the world of Matthew’s Gospel, death has broken loose. Its kingdom is on the offensive. It terrorizes. Annihilates. Threatens. Herod’s massacre jolts us into world ordered by death. Disease invades life. Death’s relentless force designates some to the isolation of prison, while setting others on thrones of their own self-destruction. This death is no friend of the living, but life’s bitter enemy. This death is not neutral; it cannot bring glad tidings. It can only hurl life deeper into the chaos, into outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. Death, in this gospel story, is of the demonic.
And here, in his death cell, John the Baptist awaits the Messiah, time running out. John’s life is like water spilling from a bucket, never to be gathered up again. His life approaches its end.
When we open the text, we, too, find ourselves somewhere in Matthew’s world, immersed in this most debilitating distress. If you are like me, you may wish it to be otherwise; but here we are, invited to dwell with lives gripped by hands of death, crying out for help. During this season of advent we proclaim that God made the long journey here, into this place, to become flesh in this world of terror, to abide with the terrified, to lay hands of life on our dying bodies. Unable to escape this most sinister of enemies, we declare the arrival of God to be the arrival of life into our state of things: a world bounded by death.
In this gospel story, we are invited to draw close enough to this world to hear John’s question ring out from isolation: “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we wait for another?” “Are you the Messiah, the one who will defeat the forces of death?” “Are you the one who will liberate us from this hostility, this horror?” His approaching death already reminds John that he lives out of control, that his life must fall into the hands of another. Death grips him, and he is alone. John is in desperate need to fall into the right hands—hands of life—but his eyes cannot yet see whose hands are safe. Awaiting his end, John reaches desperately for life.
* * *
This past week, I obsessively read the first volume of a six-volume autobiographical novel by the Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard, entitled, My Struggle. Knausgaard’s book records the author’s daily life in relentless detail. It builds what writer Zadie Smith called a “cathedral of boredom.” And if you’re like me, the book’s magic lies in being the kind of boring that begins to feel more and more like the lives we actually live. It displays a beautiful struggle to accept the mundane as a gift.
And for Knausgaard, struggle is the word. He did not want to live with the realities around him; he wanted to escape into dreams of the world he wanted, a situation he could build and control on his own. But the real presence of others thwarts his fantasies. His attempts to transcend his small life are frustrated by the daily demands of family, children, and work. The realities that surrounded him, invaded him, were a reminder that his life cannot exist inside of his control. His daily life collided with the world he built for himself in his dreams.
Knausgaard wanted to be someone special. He wanted to write the next magnificent novel, but his ambition was destroying his life. He began to hate his limits. He lost love for the people who needed him. He turned away from the people who showed him his actual life. So Knausgaard began to ask himself: What if writing did not have to be a vehicle of escape, but instead, could become the very thing which he could remove the mask and face his life? Unable to escape, Knausgaard faced his life on the page. It isn’t pretty, but it’s his life. He writes to rid himself of his authorial persona that he puts on to hide from the world. His book, My Struggle, is Knausgaard’s grand attempt to reach desperately for life in the midst of death, in the midst of isolation.
And when he turned away from his own fantasies, a basic truth confronted Knausgaard: his life is bound by a death he cannot escape. Could he look honestly at his limits? Facing death, could he actually love his limits? This was the goal, but his life, when faced alone, caused him too much shame. His past evoked too many questions he could not answer for himself. How could he struggle against the forces of death, without the presence of another life? He needed to fall into the hands another, safe hands: hands of life.
So Knausgaard made a decision: each day, to conclude 6-8 hours of writing, he would call the same friend and read him aloud everything he’d written. He did this every day, for three years, reading a total of 3,600 pages. And each day, he would ask his friend two questions: “Is this ok?” And if you listen to the weight of his question, you can hear the echo:
“Am I ok? This shame I feel, will it last forever?”
And maybe, if you are like me, your own question echoes: “Are we ok?”
For Knausgaard, living became a total risk. He could not predict how his friend’s fragile hands would handle his fragile life. He was unable to see the other side of his vulnerable question, reaching desperately for life.
This, too, is the world into which God arrives. This, too, is where Advent happens.
* * *
Knausgaard’s question can be heard as a distant echo of John the Baptist’s. Both look out from their own, very different struggles with death, and cry out from isolation:
Are you the right one into which our lives can safely fall, or are we still alone?
Even in the midst of life, they find themselves in the clutches of death. And when they become even the slightest bit aware of this condition, they can only cry out. Left alone, they have already experienced the reality of death, where death attempts to accomplish the deadliest thing of all: make it impossible to see God’s presence.
Death surrounds us with the illusion that our lives, our riskiest attempts to love, our best attempts to be good, are all empty struggles: this is the masterwork of death.
It boasts to the world, saying: “Look at my power, look at all I can take away.” Yet Death, too, cannot see fully. The true Judge has already arrived and delivered the verdict. Death has a limit, and it is God. God’s life names the boundary of death. Death will no longer break loose.
And Jesus, the Advent of God, declares this limit with his answer to John’s cry for help:
“The blind receive their sight,” Jesus declares, “the lame walk, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”
“The dead are raised,” Jesus declares, even as John the Baptist approaches a death he will not escape.
“The dead are raised,” Jesus declares, even as God, too, remains on a collision course with the cross, with his own burial.
The dead are raised: It is not merely an invitation into life; it’s an announcement.
The Lord of life is also the Lord of death. God has taken on our flesh; God has chosen that place where the world is at its worst, where we are at our worst, where we have fallen prey to death’s irresistible force, where hate attempts to obliterate love. God has chosen this place of death to be the very place where God binds God’s life to ours.
God’s life bound to our life. God’s death bound to our death.
Swiss-theologian, Karl Barth, put it this way:
With death, the Lord of death is also present. If death has such terrors for us, it is because in death we fall into the hands of the living God. But we shall fall into God’s hands and not the hands of [death]. Death will not be the lord in this happening, but a servant and a slave. God will not be bound to death; death will be bound to God.
This is what happens when God makes the long journey here, when God arrives in the flesh. This is the good news that Jesus brings: Death may be our limit, but God is our future.
Not the continuation of our state of things forever, but our end, the end of having to live inside our illusions of control, and the beginning of something altogether new. Here we do not make of death a hero, but proclaim that God has claimed our death, that God can be our future because God is death’s frontier. No longer do we need to live with the illusion that our future is something we can build on our own. Instead, we can be people of praise, grateful that our lives fall into stronger, more gracious hands than ours.
* * *
After Knausgaard finished the sixth-volume, he wept with joy as he wrote his last sentence: “I am so happy to say,” he wrote, “that I am no longer an author.” He wanted his escape to end. He no longer wanted to live with his back to the realities that surrounded him. He had faced his limit in the life-giving hands of another. He no longer wanted to hide, no longer wanted to live in the grip of death. But Knausgaard’s struggle still remains. The collision between the life that he wants and the realities around him continue to frustrate his attempts to be good. Still, he receives words of life. One personal letter, written by a woman in her nineties after reading Knausgaard’s struggle, continues to be life for him:
“Patience,” she told him, “there is still time.”
There is still time for God to be our future, time for Jesus’ hands to be the hands into which our lives must fall. There is time to be present, time to love our limits. There is time to fall into the hands of another, our greatest shield against the isolation of death. We are like Knausgaard, hands reaching out, with time to receive words of life from another, waiting for the time of life: the advent of God.
In the light of God’s advent, our struggles are never empty. A whole life of shame is but a parenthesis inside God’s gracious life. With God as our future, we can take the risk of giving and receiving love, because it is not merely our love alone. God in the flesh means God’s very life is given and received through our hands, in our midst. Placing our lives in the hands of another is a sign of our future with God, a present gift through which we hope the mysteries of God will be revealed.
In the light of God’s advent, we proclaim this abiding truth: when our lives fall into the hands of another, we are already falling into the hands of God.
Jesus’ response to John the Baptist reminds him that his question, “Are you the one into whose hands my life will fall?” does not resound over an abyss. His struggle is not empty. John’s question comes not as the first word, but a question already inside God’s life: “the blind receive sight, the lame walk, the dead are raised, and good news is brought to the poor.” What John cannot yet see is already here. John’s questions echo into Knausgaard’s questions, into our questions. And Jesus’ answer does not demand that we turn away this questioning, but rather, he shows us something more interesting. God sweeps us up into God’s life, shows us the truth of our lives, our future. And here is the good news:
God has stolen it all, leaving nothing for death to claim.