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 40 years. Her spirit survives, and that’s a Gospel lesson. Death is terribly sad and it’s also trans-formative, raising up the best of a spirit to a higher plane.
Death can be prelude to rousing celebration. It lives hand-in-glove with resurrection. I can grieve Phyllis’ departure and simultaneously celebrate her good life. Her life-and-death provide emblems of joy and emblems of grief, emblems of hope and emblems of despair, all mixed together.
There’s a wonderful book from the sixties by Theodora Kroeber: Ishi, a Biography of the Last Wild Indian in North America. I read it decades ago to know how this last man free of white civilization endured, what gave him hope. I flipped to the end just to find out. I read the next to last chapter, and on through the night back to front.
I’d blush, but after all life is bits and pieces. It can’t be read start to finish. It can only be read as a mosaic of ups and downs. I learn a song in bits and pieces. I get to know someone, bits and pieces. I build up unfinished mosaics of hope and faith. There’s seldom just one angle: is death darkness or light – or a mosaic of both?
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 certainly aware was upon him. Yet he faced death joyfully – as well as darkly. Tolling passages are interspersed with phrases of child-like happiness. He is somber about death yet joyful about life—all within a moment or two.
In early December, I traveled to the holy land for Hanukkah, known in the ancient world as the festival of lights, of hope.
Between the fifth and second Centuries BCE first the Romans, then the Greeks and Syrians, invade Palestine, greedy for Empire. The Jews fight back but are defeated. Each time the punishment is to reduce the Jewish temple to rubble. In 168 BCE Judaism is outlawed. To rub it in, Yahweh is replaced as the temple deity by Zeus.
While Jews held the Temple an oil lamp burned day and night. As invaders approached, it was secreted away. In 165 BCE the temple was recaptured, rededicated as the Second Temple, and the sacred lamp came out of hiding. In the confusion, however, only a one-day supply of consecrated oil remained. Lo and behold, a miracle. Out of darkness came light. The flame lasted for eight days while new oil was pressed and consecrated.
This abundance of light is remembered as the festival of lights, and later as Hanukkah. A new candle is lit in a menorah for each of Hanukkah’s eight days. Thus light replaces dark – hope is replenished, and all dwell in a festival of light.
Hope’s work is varied. We may not be walled out of Jerusalem, nor, like Ishi, deserting a failed civilization. At State Street we muster hope moving from our present pastor to the next. The death of a loved one, or the specter of deportation can prompt our reach for light-giving hope.
Children and parents need hope in moving from infancy to childhood, then to young adulthood. The way from young adulthood to maturity, and from maturity to full age, can be covered in darkness. Yet each resting point on the way can be a festival of lights and hope. Then there’s the netherworld or paradise of death. Can I hope for a festival of light?
Abraham died at 175, a great age and in fullness of days. He was close to God, his days, full of satisfactions. He became a light for others.
I’d be a blessed if I could die in the fulness of days at 175. Or die like Moses at 125, with God’s kiss. The Hebrew is al pi Adonai, “by the mouth of the Eternal.” The kiss sanctifies. If birth is often marked by cries of pain, death can be marked by a kiss — as with Moses, not a dark deprivation but a shining moment of intimacy.
To die as Moses or Abraham in their blessedness can’t be a certainty. It’s a HOPE – hopes 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 for 48 hours doctors intervened with a caesarean. Her hopes were dashed.
I hope for a natural, death in fullness of days free of surgical or pharmaceutical interventions – though it may come to that.
I hope to greet death with joy and gratitude, as Abraham and Moses did. I’ll be sad, but not from a sense of being cheated of more life. More of a good thing isn’t always a good thing. Like desert, I can be satisfied with my serving.
Joy and gratitude can be paradoxically mixed with sadness. I can be sad to leave others behind whatever my joy and gratitude. I remember what’s been best in the times shared with those I love – it’s been a kind of heaven. And as I leave, I also know I’m entering a kind of hell, for how can there be happiness without them?
Emily Dickinson knows this:
Parting is all we know of heaven,
And all we need of hell.
We live in two worlds at once, in joy and in sadness.
If I’m not racked with pain, I would die with sadness leaving others, joy and gratitude for a full life. Without gratitude, I become Scrooge, jealously hoarding my days and hours, never having enough.
In Winter darkness steals light. Like a hoarding Scrooge, I can resent the theft. Yet I can look on a setting sun with gratitude for the fullness of this day. As I consider my death or the death of a loved one, why feel resentment rather than sadness and joy. Absent pain’s torture, why hoard time? In the fulness of days death doesn’t cheat us. No span of life is due us. There is no cosmic balance sheet, and no need to scrooge after another hour, day, or week. To be a scrooge snuffs out the candle.
I hope for festivals of light and God’s kiss as I drift toward the last dark. And I’d be buoyed by this affirming temple whose light gives hope. I imagine Phyllis Marley departing with God’s kiss. Death and Hanukkah, dark and light, embrace.
 This recapture is called the Maccabean revolt.
 Hanukkah is not mentioned in the Torah but appears later in the Talmud (500 AD). The event it celebrates took place in 165 BC, long after biblical times. It repudiates Hellenistic materialism and celebrates the soul. It is not just faux-Christmas.
 God ends Moses’ life with a gentle kiss. Deuteronomy 34:5: “Moses, the servant of the Eternal, died there . . . at the command of the Eternal.” The Hebrew reads, al pi Adonai, “by the mouth of the Eternal.” God kisses Moses at his moment of death: perhaps the kiss takes his last breath.