By Hannah Bowman
The traditional topics for preaching on the four Sundays in Advent are the “four last things” of death, judgment, heaven, and hell. As Advent brings together the expectation of Christ’s first coming in Bethlehem with his second coming at the end of time, we direct our meditations to our own ends: the end of our mortal lives on earth, the resurrection of all who have lived to judgment for our deeds, and the promises of reconciliation with God and vindication for those oppressed which are illustrated by the concepts of heaven and hell.
What do the four last things have to say for the church today? Death seems to preoccupy the Episcopal Church in this post-Christendom era: the death of older members, the death of ever-decreasing parishes, the death of our denomination. The irrelevance and meaninglessness of death is what we fear.
But the most important death in the Christian life is not the physical death of our mortal bodies, but rather our death in baptism. In baptism we “were baptized into [Jesus’] death” (Romans 6:3), we were “buried with him in baptism” (Colossians 2:12), we “have died with Christ” (Romans 6:8), we “died to the law” and “have been crucified with Christ” (Galatians 2:19). We “[become] like him in his death” (Philippians 3:10).
Jesus’ death has ontological priority over every other death in creation. Put another way: no one has ever died as completely as Jesus. This is Hans Urs von Balthasar’s point in Mysterium Paschale, where he explores the doctrine of Christ’s descent into hell to suggest that it is Jesus’ experience of death (as well as condemnation) that give them their fullest reality. Every other death — even our own death — is a participation in Jesus’s death. As the hymn says, “Even you, most gentle death … you lead back home the child of God, for Christ our Lord that way has trod. O Praise him, alleluia!” (Hymn 400).
But we believe that our participation in the one true death, Jesus’ death, does not occur primarily through the physical death of our own bodies, but instead at our baptisms. Because in baptism we die with Christ, and are also raised with him, the entirety of our post-baptismal life is already a participation in the eternal life to which Christ was raised.
Just as the church anticipates the new creation at Jesus’ second coming in its worship and its reconciling work, making the wedding feast of the Lamb (Revelation 21) present at every Eucharist, the life of every baptized Christian anticipates the fullness of glory to be revealed at the final resurrection. Of course, this does not mean that our lives on earth are free of suffering or struggle. But the essential bridge of death has already been crossed. We do not wait to “cross over Jordan” or to “fly away” to heaven at our earthly deaths. Rather, we are already living the resurrection life. The resurrection of the dead is not just a future hope — it is the state in which all the baptized are already living. We live, here and now, in the “glorious liberty of the children of God” (Romans 8:21).
To take this seriously means the promises of God cannot be delayed until some eschatological culmination: rather, we are called to set the prisoners free now, to heal the sick now, to bring good news to the poor now. The resurrection life to which we are not only called but in which we already live liberates us for brave ethical action. Our death in baptism is death not only to sin but also to the law (Romans 7:4–6) — which means death also to every categorization and condemnation that shames and divides us. We are not responsible anymore to human powers or nations, to “corrupt tribunals … which frame evil into law” (Psalm 94:20), to artificial borders that separate asylum seekers from safety, to social constructions of crime that function as a de facto system of racial control. We now live in freedom, responsible only to one another in the community of the baptized and to God. Our division from the world and all its demands in our death in baptism makes it possible for us to be truly alive and present to one another in visible union, to stand liberated and united in opposition to every act of oppression and injustice.
An understanding of baptism as death — and of the church as the fellowship of those who have already died with Christ — supports the church’s moral witness in opposition to the injustices of the world. Death with Christ is participation in his conquest of the powers of evil. The drawing of Israel through the Red Sea — which prefigures the waters of baptism — is also judgment upon the Egyptians. The fundamental renunciation of the world that every Christian undertakes at baptism allows the church to stand in visible opposition to the violent disciplines of the world.
But the reality that we have already died — to sin, to the flesh, to captivity to the law — has other effects as well. What does this mean about our practice of baptism? What does it mean about how we approach our physical deaths, and how we bury our dead?
The first implication is that the church does not take baptism with sufficient seriousness. Baptism is not only incorporation into the body of Christ, but also a real death — “dead to the world, anyway.” As Tertullian told candidates for baptism in the early church: “All who understand what baptism is will have more fear of obtaining it than of its postponement.” How would it affect our practice of baptism if parents understood their decision, bringing their children to the font, to be as fraught as Abraham’s journey to Mount Moriah with Isaac?
But an understanding of baptism as our “true” death also affects our practice of care for those who are dying, and our rites for burying the dead. In the face of death, what we are able to assert is the fundamental continuity of the life we lead now and the life of the world to come. “This sickness does not lead unto death,” Jesus promises his disciples about Lazarus (John 11:4). The same is true for us: no mortal sickness leads unto death, because we have already died with Christ.
The new creation and the second coming of Jesus will not destroy or replace the current creation, but rather fulfill them. Our resurrected lives will be continuous with the lives and consciousness we live now — this, not some narrow sense of physicality, is what it means to affirm “the resurrection of the body” in the Apostles’ Creed. We will not be remade into something unrecognizable in an “afterlife,” but instead our eternal hope is the fulfillment, healing, and vindication of our already-existing lives. (Robert Farrar Capon describes this hope as the evil and suffering in our lives being turned to the good that it should have been.)
Ultimately, this continuity is why our funeral rites begin and end with the promise of the resurrection. The purpose of a Christian funeral is not to eulogize the deeds done in a worldly life now ended, nor even to “weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15), but rather to testify to the continuity of being of the deceased in Christ and to witness to their uninterrupted presence before God in the resurrection life. As John Donne writes: “One short sleep past, we wake eternally/ And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.”
This uninterrupted continuity is what makes the concept of death an appropriate entrance into the season of Advent. Fleming Rutledge uses the term “apocalyptic transvision” to describe the way we see the world that is and the world to come simultaneously during Advent. Apocalyptic transvision brings into focus the doubled life we live as the baptized in the world, as those who have died with Christ and so live already in a reality we cannot yet see clearly.
My favorite verse of the Christmas hymn “What Child is This” is the second refrain (sadly missing from our hymnal): “Nails, spear shall pierce him through, the cross be borne, for me, for you.” Its ghoulish violence stands in humorous juxtaposition with the imagery of the sleeping baby. But this, of course, is the apocalyptic transvision of Advent, by which the baby about to be born is also the Crucified God. Or to quote one of my favorite fictional characters on the import of pregnancy and birth: “By this act, I bring one death into the world.”
Jesus, who is coming soon, is the same one who came as a baby to die the only true death in the history of the world. His death has defined death, and so by his death he promises us uninterrupted life: now and when he comes again.
Hannah Bowman is a layperson in the Diocese of Los Angeles, where she works as a literary agent and serves as a volunteer chaplain in the LA County Jails. The founder of Christians for the Abolition of Prisons, she is pursuing an M.A. in Religious Studies at Mount Saint Mary’s University, Los Angeles.