One of my first experiences of death happened when driving with my grandfather down a black dirt road to his farm out west. At the place where the road took a dip between the double-dikes, a flock of birds flew up in front of our windshield. There were hundreds of them, little grey things (call them sparrows for symbolic reasons, if you’d like) that had been eating from a pile of fallen grain on the middle of the road. We braked, but we were not in time. One of the little grey birds bounced off of the glass and spiralled into the ditch. It’s a fate that happens to thousands of birds each day, I’m sure. But for some reason, my grandfather slowed the truck down to a stop, got out, and walked back to where that little bird was laying. He found it there in the grass, broken beyond repair. I saw him pick it up, cradle it in his hands. He dug a hole for it in that black dirt, right on the edge of the road. And he placed the little bird inside, tucking it in with another layer on top.
That is a beautiful view of death, I think: one that recognizes that every loss of life is painful, significant, and profound. The Advent tradition of the Four Last Things calls us to meditate upon death in this way. We are called to remember loved ones who have died and reflect that one day we ourselves will join them. But isn’t it strange to dwell on death in a time that is meant to prepare for a birth? In fact, this strangeness is at the heart of the gospel story: “If we died with him, / we will also live with him,” goes the line in what may be one of the earliest Christian hymns (2 Timothy 2:11-13).
Christ recognized the pain and significance of death when his friend Lazarus passed away (John 11). But sorrow turned to even greater joy when Christ called Lazarus to come out from the tomb—brought to life again! For my sonnet Lazarus Before Death, I use the character of Lazarus to gain some insights into death. But instead of dwelling on his first death, I picture him as an old man, getting ready to approach the grave again, this time with an idea of what is to come.
Lazarus Before Death
Now my hearing is gone; Martha drops
her cool rag on my temple: I wish
her fingers pressed like petals. Colour is pulling
back from things; I feel as if I’m down the hall
but maybe not my eyes—entering a box
I cannot climb out of. Last time, I was carried
into a black towel surrounded by light
like the thinnest kind of wings.
That was a different journey: at the end,
I came to a door made entirely of hands.
It was white hot. But when it opened,
I found myself somehow taken back.
My body was filled, and I was looking
into the face of an old friend.