A little over three weeks ago, Phyllis Marley took her last breath. She met her end with equanimity. I knew her from the choir. She had sung with it over 40 years. Her spirit survives, and that’s a Gospel lesson. Death is terribly sad, and often cruel. And death is also transformative. Death raises up the best of spirit to a higher plane.
Death can be a prelude to rousing celebrations. It lives hand-in-glove with resurrection. I can grieve Phyllis’ departure and simultaneously celebrate her good life. Her life is raised to a new level. Her life-and-death give us emblems of joy and emblems of grief, emblems of hope and emblems of despair. They’re all mixed together.
Life is bits and pieces, full of grief and full of hope — full of laughter and full of sadness — full of pain and full of exuberance. There’s a time for everything, a time to laugh and a time to cry. Life is not one-dimensional. It’s a mosaic of ups and downs – with room for boredom and sleep in between.
I learn a song in bits and pieces. I get to know someone, bits and pieces. I build up unfinished mosaics of songs and people, mosaics of hope and faith. Now I see as through a glass darkly. When will I see life face to face? Fear of death, like fear of the night, places our lives in bondage. Festivals of Light defeat fear and set us free.
You can hear funeral bells and heavy steps in Schubert’s D946 Piano Sonata. They toll sadly for the composer’s early death, a death he was aware was upon him at the young age of 31.
Schubert faced death joyfully – as well as darkly. Tolling-bell passages are interrupted by passages of child-like happiness and the freedom of dance. He is somber about death yet joyful about life—all within a moment or two. He sees his life as a mosaic of light and dark.
In early December, I traveled to the holy land for Hanukkah, known in the ancient world as the festival of lights, the festival of hope.
Between the fifth and first Centuries BCE first the Romans, then the Greeks and Syrians, invade Palestine. The Israelites fight back but are usually defeated. Each defeat is followed by a trashing, a desecration, of the Temple.
In 168 BCE Judaism is outlawed in Jerusalem. To rub it in, Yahweh is no longer the temple deity. He’s replaced by Zeus. When Israelites take back the Temple after a period of desecration an oil lamp will be lit as part of the restoration – the lamp will be lit as part of the re-consecration. The lamp burns day and night. If military danger approaches again, the sacred lamp is secreted away.
Traveling the road from Tel Aviv up to Jerusalem we stopped mid-way to see the burial ground for the Maccabees who fought against and defeated the Greek and Syrian invaders. Under Judah Maccabee (164 BCE) the temple was rededicated. Zeus was thrown out and Yahweh was restored. But in the confusion, only a one-day supply of consecrated oil was at hand. Only one day.
But darkness did not triumph. Lo, . . . a miracle. While new oil was pressed and consecrated, the flame did not die. It lasted for more than a day. It lasted eight days. Out of darkness came light.
This abundance of light is remembered years later as the festival of lights. Centuries later, it’s called Hanukkah. Nowadays it’s the Jewish custom to light a new candle in a menorah for each of Hanukkah’s eight days. Light replaces dark – hope replaces despair. This is the festival of light.
Hope’s work is varied. We may not be walled out of Jerusalem, needing hope. But as we live on and on we can be walled out of youth. Aging takes its toll. As we age, we hope for the light of reasonably good health.
At State Street we face our pastor’s resignation and we muster hope for good light as we tend toward her replacement. The death of a loved one, or the specter of deportation can trigger our need for light-giving hope.
A refugee from a war-torn African state needs hope to begin a new life here in Portland. I felt a strange pride yesterday reading that Fox News has singled out Portland Maine as a bad place. We fail to wall out immigrants. Good for us!
Children and parents need hope moving from infancy to childhood, and from childhood to young adulthood. Transitions are treacherous. Hope carries us through – we hope!
The way from young adulthood to maturity, and from maturity to full age, can also be covered in darkness. Yet each resting point in transitions can be a festival of light and hope.
What about that final transition, from here to there, from life to the netherworld — or nothingness — or paradise of death. Can I hope for a festival of light?
Abraham died at 175, a great age and died in fullness of days. His days were full of satisfactions. He was close to God. He became a light for others. We would be blessed if we could die in the fullness of days — at 175.
We would be blessed if we could die like Moses at 120, with God’s kiss. The Hebrew is al pi Adonai, “by the mouth of the Eternal.” The kiss sanctifies. If birth is marked by pain, death can be marked by a kiss. In that case, death — then — is not a dark deprivation. It’s a shining moment of intimate light.
To die as Moses or Abraham in blessedness can’t be a certainty. It’s a HOPE – hopes, by definition, can be painfully disappointed.
During her first pregnancy, a dear friend looked forward full of hope to the blessing of a natural childbirth. It would have been a festival of light. After struggling 40 hours doctors intervened and performed a caesarean. Her hopes were dashed. There was no festival of light.
I can hope for death in equanimity, like Phyllis, but a stroke or an auto crash or dementia can dash my hope. Will I be blessed by equanimity at death? I can only hope.
I hope for a natural death in fullness of days free of much surgical or pharmaceutical intervention – But who knows? I hope – this is a HOPE — to greet death with joy and gratitude, as Abraham and Moses did. Yet my joy will be mixed with sadness, sadness at leaving others I love behind. Emotions are mixed mosaics.
I’ll not be sad, I hope, from a sense of being cheated of even more life. More of a good thing isn’t always a good thing. Like desert, I should be satisfied with my serving.
Why live like Scrooge — in ingratitude, jealously hoarding, never having enough? More money, more life.
It can be sad to leave others behind whatever my joy, peace, and gratitude. Whatever my equanimity. I’ll remember what’s been best in the times shared with those I love – it’s been a kind of heaven. A festival of light. To lose this will be sad. So I’m entering a kind of hell, a festival of dark. How can there be happiness without those we leave behind?
Emily Dickinson knew this:
Parting is all we know of heaven, and all we need of hell.
We know heaven in embracing others — most poignantly as we part, as we bid goodbye. And we know hell in leaving others — most poignantly as we say goodbye. Parting is all we know of heaven, and all we need of hell.
I’d hope to leave in a mosaic of three worlds — joy, sadness, and gratitude.
Gratitude is not stingy. Winter darkness steals the light. I might feel resentment at the theft. Yet I can look on a setting sun with gratitude for the fullness of this day.
In the fullness of days death doesn’t cheat us. There is no cosmic balance sheet, and no need to scrooge after another hour, day, or week. Scrooge snuffs out the light.
When I die give what’s left of me away
to children and old men that wait to die.
And if you need to cry,
cry for your brother walking the street beside you.
And when you need me, put your arms around anyone
and give them what you need to give me. I want to leave you something,
something better than words or sounds.
Look for me in the people I’ve known or loved,
and if you cannot give me away,
at least let me live in your eyes and not in your mind. You can love me best by letting hands touch hands, and by letting go of children that need to be free.
Love doesn’t die, people do.
So, when all that’s left of me is love,
give me away.
I hope for festivals of light and God’s kiss as I drift toward the last hour, toward the last dark. I hope to be buoyed by this affirming State Street, this temple of light that gives hope. We light candles against the dark
I imagine Phyllis Marley departing with God’s kiss. I would hope for the same. Death and Hanukkah embrace, an embrace of Festivals of Dark and Festivals of Light.