For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.
God did not want us to live in this state of permanent separation. His intent was not for us to have life just mark a slow march to death and Hades. After the Fall of humanity, God got to work on a plan for the redemption and salvation of the world, a plan that would have its end in Paradise, where people would not be consigned to hell, but would return once again to the state of being that Adam and Eve enjoyed in Paradise before the Fall. How could this be possible?
The answer is found in John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” God sent His only Son, the Word of God, who is pre-eternal and uncreated like the Father and the Spirit, who participated with God and the Holy Spirit in the Creation of the world, and was incarnated in the flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. This is what the Nativity is all about. In John 1:14, we read “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.” In taking on our nature, Christ suffered the consequences of the Fall, all the while staying obedient to God the Father. He suffered from hunger, fatigue, grief, frustration, betrayal, denial, abandonment, and ultimately death on the cross. He never sinned. Yet, He died. He who never sinned still paid the consequences for sin. In the Resurrection, He showed that there can be life after death, and this life would be with God, as He ascended into heaven and sat at the right hand of God, back in Paradise, having now opened a path for us back to Paradise. This is why it was necessary for Christ to come to earth to die for our sins. Faith is believing that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and that He rose from the dead to open that path to Paradise back up for us to follow.
In the years between the Fall and the Incarnation, God prepared the world through the Law, to put a sense of order into the chaotic and fallen world. He also prepared people through prophets and holy people who were present in every generation who assured the people that something greater was coming. These people also died, they went to Hades, which is why the icon of the Resurrection depicts Jesus going to Hades to lift up all those who were bound there, and we see the people who had come before Christ, beginning with Adam and Eve, Moses, John the Baptist and others.
Jesus told us that He will come back to judge the living and the dead. We affirm this in the Creed each time we recite our statement of faith. Like the Old Testament, we also live in a time of expectation and waiting. Like the Old Testament, we have order, but the law is not Ten Commandments. Instead there are two—love God and love neighbor. And in every generation, there are saints and holy people who model what it is to do both. These also, just like every human being, are going to endure a physical death.
So, what is the purpose of life? Perhaps this would be better answered by refining some terms. We use the word “life” to describe being alive, the period of time we are breathing and living on earth. “Death” is when that period of time ends. Allow me to redefine these terms. Let’s define life as being with God. This is the goal of each day, to live a Godly life. The ultimate goal of our existence is to be with God forever. Therefore, life begins at baptism, as we become children of God, and inheritors of His promises and continues hopefully for eternity. Death is absence from God. We die when we sin, when we estrange ourselves from God. The ultimate indignity is not to stop breathing (what we call death) but to be cut off from God for eternity. If life ultimately means to be with God in heaven, then death is to be cut off from Him forever and to be in hell. If now, we’ve redefined what life and death are, then what do we call the time we are here on earth?
I would call this time “preparation”. We each have a finite amount of time to prepare to pass which is what I would call the time when we are no longer breathing, which we normally call death. Another term for dying is to pass away. So we prepare, and then we pass and we go to judgment before God, where He either deems us worthy of life in the kingdom of heaven, or death and consignment to hell.
Another way to think of life is like going to college. The purpose of going to college is to graduate from college and go on to something greater. No one goes to college with the intention of never leaving. When I went to college in 1990, they called us “Class of 1994” on the day we arrived. That was to emphasize to us from the very beginning, that our purpose was to graduate and they even had a date in mind when that would happen. Using this analogy, God knows our graduation date, the day we will pass from life. We do not know that date. Some of us may live 20 years, some 50, some 100, just like some people go to college for 2 years or 4 years or 10 years. The course of life and manner of death will be different for each—we will discuss that in the next reflections. But the purpose for each life is like the purpose for each college student—to prepare and to graduate.
When graduation day comes for the college student, the emotions are bittersweet. There is some sadness as a period of life ends, a period that for most people has brought some good times and good memories that perhaps one is a little sad to leave behind. However, the greater emotion is generally joy, that a goal has been achieved and a larger world is about to open up for the new graduate.
Likewise, death (now I will return to our normally understood use of this word) brings bittersweet feelings to everyone, not only those left behind but the person who is dying. There is a sadness that life is over, and that a friend or family member is about to leave our company. But hopefully there is a joy that a greater world is about to open for this person, a return to God and the state of Paradise once enjoyed by humanity before the Fall.
I heard a bishop say once at a funeral that death is actually God’s greatest gift to us. Imagine, he said, if we were stuck in one stage of life forever. Imagine if we went to college for years and were not allowed to graduate. Imagine if you were eight months pregnant but never got to deliver the child. Imagine if you worked for decades and decades but never were allowed to retire. Imagine even if you went on a permanent vacation and all you did was relax and never got to work again—this would be fun for a while, but eventually would be unfulfilling. Imagine if you just kept getting older and sicker and there was no end for it, ever. That would actually be cruel. Allowing a person to die is actually a gift from God, because death allows someone to escape the fallen world. In fact, it is the only way to escape the fallen world. That doesn’t mean we should hasten death, I will deal with that also in a later reflection. It does mean that when death comes, we also should not view it as the worst possible thing in the world. It is bad for those left behind, but for the faithful Christian, it opens the door to a greater world.
Another priest once gave a sermon entitled “Four Existential Questions.” They were “where did I come from,” “what is my destiny,” “what is my purpose,” and “what is the difference between good and evil.” We come from God, because we are created in His image and likeness. Our destiny is to pass away from this life in the hope of eternal life. Our purpose is to prepare for this, and we do this by loving God and serving our neighbor, using the talents with which God has blessed us. As for the difference between good and evil, this is the challenges of life—to understand what is truly good and Godly and to focus on that, and to understand what is truly evil and what takes us away from God and to repent of that. Understanding where we are going, however, helps us figure out what to do today. Any given day is an opportunity to glorify God and to serve others. Put together a lifetime of doing that and this puts one in a good stead to pass away, and meet the Lord for judgment to be worthy to enter into eternal life.
Each day in school moved one closer to his or her graduation day. Each day puts us one day closer to our graduation from life. Rather than be sad or scared, let’s focus on death being like graduation, a passing to a whole new and better, perfect world. And let’s do our part to prepare each day by intentionally making gestures which show our love for God and our neighbor. When a student is preparing for the final exam, if they’ve done the work all along, while they may still have some anxiety, they can be comforted knowing that they prepared well. It’s the same thing as our years of life go by. Rather than be nervous for the final exam, God’s judgment on each life, rather be intentional in preparing and then be comforted that you are preparing as well as you can, if indeed that is the case, if you are indeed preparing as well as you can.
Teach me, O Lord, the way of Thy statutes; and I will keep it to the end. Give me understanding that I may keep Thy law and observe it with my whole heart. Lead me in the path of Thy commandments, for I delight in it. Incline my heart to Thy testimonies, and not to gain! Turn my eyes from looking at vanities; and give me life in Thy ways. Confirm to Thy servant Thy promise, which is for those who fear Thee. Turn away the reproach which I dread; for Thy ordinances are good. Behold, I long for Thy precepts; in Thy righteousness give me life. Psalm 119:33-40
Live intentionally for God today, by loving Him and serving others.