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Death — Be Not Proud
O. P. Kretzmann

Twenty years ago the University physician and I were standing beside the bedside of a student who was dying of cancer… The nurse had told us that the patient had only a few minutes to live… I tried once more to break through the wall of morphine and pain, to say the magnificent old words which the waiting church whispers to her children as they pass from her waiting to her triumph… Words which we must always say to the dying because again and again we have seen a moment of light and hearing in the dying at the very end…

Go forth Christian soul from this world… In the name of God the Father who created you; in the name of Jesus Christ who suffered for you; in the name of the Holy Spirit, poured out upon you… Angels lead you into Paradise and at your coming may the martyrs receive you and take you to the Holy City Jerusalem…  May all the choirs of angels welcome you, and may you with Lazarus, once poor, have everlasting rest… Depart in peace!

I raised my head and turned to the doctor at my side… To my surprise there were tears in his eyes…  Now, preachers and doctors are not supposed to cry, especially not at the death-beds of the young, where all the resources of theology and medicine must be marshaled… Quietly the doctor said: This time I am not ashamed of my tears; they are not what you think. They are tears of anger over our stupidity. This whole thing is so senseless, the dying of the young from a disease which we shall lick one of these days. It makes no sense, though I suppose you will try again to make sense out of it. If you find any meaning in this death, let me know.

Anyone who lives in an academic community is aware of the fact that, humanly speaking, there is no greater tragedy than the death of the young… It is the worst time to die… The one who is dead had passed through childhood and adolescence, nurtured by good parents… Life was open and beautiful and fair… Hopes were beginning to become realities… Then comes the end, seemingly so cruel, so stupid, so senseless…

Is there anything else to note here?… It probably includes the death of children in Vietnam and Laos, Pakistan and the Middle East, and the seeming king ship of death over our common humanity… Perhaps I should finish this memory by remembering that some months later the same doctor and I were together at dawn on Easter Sunday with one other friend in a little house in the country…

As the sun rose over the eastern hills we talked about all the things that matter when nothing else matters… The great monosyllables of life worn to a single syllable because they have been on human lips since the beginning of time… Life-Death-God-Time-Fear-Love-Hope-Joy… Suddenly the doctor referred to our experience in the hospital a few months earlier… Do you want to talk about that?

Well,” I said, “from your point of view I really havent much to talk about. All I have is a cross, a dead man — also young, a grave, a stone, then a grave with no body in it, some wild rumors started by hysterical women, and then — I know you wont believe this — the royal command of a King: Put your hands in my wounds, see my hands, it is I.’“

All this,” I continued, “is really not very much to put up against your close knowledge of death, but it is everything I have. My friend looked out of the window for a long time… Then he turned and said: Maybe it is enough, maybe it is really enough

And thats really all that I have when I think about the dead… It was enough for the philosopher trained at the University of Tarsus… He took one hard look and wrote: O, death where is thy sting; O, grave where is thy victory?… And then he spelled it out: Thanks be to God who has given us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.… And so our momentary fare wells, which come to us so regularly and tragically in life must always end on the note of defiance of John Donne: One short sleep past we wake eternally/ And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

This is the heavensent defiance which I need in these days of decay and despair… .We speak these words with suspicious wetness in our eyes because we know that this defiant note comes from another world… We leave this world to its loneliness and will not play its vaudeville act of waiting for the inevitable end… For this world which does not know this heavensent defiance, hope and joy are absent and silent… It becomes bitterly aware of the halting answers which man without God can only fearfully give to the ultimate questions of life and death…

What we saw in that hospital several decades ago was no more and no less than the gentle falling of evening — as momentary as that…

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