In Chapter IV of Eschatology, Joseph Ratzinger follows, in broad outlines, how death has been understood from ancient Israel to the Christian century. Ratzinger begins the chapter by noting how death is not being confronted in our world. We wish to ignore death, and if we must die (as if we have a choice) we wish it to come quickly without warning. We are scared to death of death. As such, we come up with ways to trivialize it in order to lessen its sting. Death may be joked about or it may be the object of entertainment; but it may never be discussed seriously. Thus we are left with a confused understanding of death in society. On the one hand we wish to ignore death so as to not think about it, but on the other hand we wish to speak about it as freely as we would tea. It is as if the pink elephant is in the room and we have chosen to acknowledge it, but not as a pink elephant. Instead we point to the pink elephant and talk about it as if it were a nice piece of furniture. Death is an uncomfortable subject, but the consequences of ignoring it are profound.
In the last analysis, of course, the covert aim of this reduction of death to the status of an object is just the same as the bourgeois taboo on the subject. Death is to be deprived of its character as a place where the metaphysical breaks through. Death is rendered banal, so as to quell the unsettling question which arises from it. Schleiermacher once spoke of birth and death as “hewed out perspectives” through which man peer into the infinite. But the infinite calls his ordinary life-style into question. And therefore, understandably, humankind puts it to the ban. The repression of death is so much easier when death has been naturalized. Death must become so object-like, so ordinary, so public that no remnant of the metaphysical question is left within it.
The metaphysical question, of course, is one that regards our life and how we live it; but more acutely is it a question of what it means to exist in this life. If we know one thing with certainty it is that death takes us away from this life. This being so, the natural question is – what does this life mean? If we ignore death, we ignore its meaning. If we ignore the meaning of death it is unlikely that we will ever contemplate the meaning of life.
Yet as Christians we know that we are not to fear death, much less ignore it. In fact, the Lenten season can be seen as a contemplation of death – the suffering and death of Our Lord, as well as the dying to ourselves that takes place in our Lenten penances. These 40 days, we journey with the Lord as he approaches the Cross to suffer and die for our sins, but we know that death does not have the final word. During the Easter season we will celebrate the glorious victory of Our Lord over death. In light of His resurrection, we know that through death comes life. The lives of the martyrs have also taught us as much. They are able to joyfully face death because they have found true meaning in this life which entails a powerful hope for the life to come. Death has no power over the martyr. If we are truely living our lives cruciform, in the manner of Christ, we are all martyrs. It is when we pick up our cross daily to follow Christ that we find true happiness. This is the paradox that is at the very heart of Christianity. It is only in death that we find life.