“Jake” is an atheist I met. He has experienced the premature death of his mother and his only brother. For Jake the only value he sees in death is that our bodies become “worm food.” All things are temporary. A flower may last for a summer, an animal for a few years, and a tree for a hundred years. Then after they serve their “term,” they pass on into the ground from which they came. Scientists tell us that even stars are burning out. For Jake, death has a most bitter taste.
“Rebecca” sees death as a “graduation” moment. Sure there is sadness in leaving a familiar school, but there is excitement about taking a step into a brand new way of life. When she graduates from school, it has more a sweet than bitter taste. So with death. If it is “graduation,” she reasons, then it won’t taste bitter to her. Jake would argue that Rebecca is living in an imaginary world, and her view of death as “graduation” has no basis in reality.
What about Jesus? What did death taste like to him?
In today’s first reading from the Book of Hebrews (2:5-12) we get insight into this question.
“Yet at present we do not see ‘all things subject to him,’ but we do see Jesus ‘crowned with glory and honor’ because he suffered death, he who ‘for a little while’ was made ‘lower than the angels,’ that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.”
Jesus tasted death in the worst possible way. He didn’t fall asleep in the quiet, prayerful presence of his loved ones. Rather he was tortured, humiliated, stripped of his clothes, and nailed to death as though he was the worst of criminals. Moreover, he felt forsaken by his Father and had to witness the anguish of his mother as she stood beneath his cross. Can we imagine a more bitter tasting experience?
Did we catch the “for everyone” part? He stood in our place and drank to the dregs the bitter gall of death so that we would never have to taste it ourselves! Far from becoming “worm food,” he rose to have a new body that was “crowned with glory and honor.” He did this to demonstrate beyond doubt that for those who accept him, death truly is a graduation ceremony.
At the start of this passage we read:
“It was not to angels that God subjected the world to come…”
Why did God choose to send his Son to earth instead of using an army of angels instead? One angel has the power to wipe out an entire human army, and a few of them would bring instant peace upon the earth. They are powerful enough to arrange an equal distribution of food and resources for everyone. No one could destroy them or resist them. Doesn’t this seem a better, more efficient way for God to do things?
Instead he had his Son empty himself of his divine privileges and become one who
“(was) made for a little while lower than the angels…”
Jesus tasted death. Angels are not capable of tasting death. What would be a more powerful expression of God’s love, a peace-producing angel or the saving death of his own Son?
Believers in Jesus are preparing for their final graduation ceremony and rejoice that they will not have to taste the bitterness of death. Let’s remember, however, that there are other deaths we experience even before we are dropped into the ground. What about the death of good health? Or the death of a dream? Or the death of a fulfilling career? Or maybe the death of a meaningful purpose in life? What about the death of a relationship or the dream of having an ideal family?
Each of these “deaths” can be seen from a “Jake” point of view or a “Rebecca” point of view. Each of these “mini deaths” has the potential to graduate us to a new, more meaningful life. This is not a matter of “positive thinking.” It is a matter of joining our lives and deaths to the real Jesus, who alone, among all humans graduated to a new and glorious life. United to Jesus each of our deaths, in whatever form they take, releases “resurrection power” and newness of life. He has made it possible for us not to “taste death” even in the “rehearsal deaths” of every day. We die with him, so that we can also live with him.
“What is man that you should be mindful of him, or the son of man that you should care for him?” (Ps 8:5).