Tuesday, February 17, 2009

O Master! My Master!

Yesterday, the United States celebrated Presidents' Day; and the preceding Thursday--February 12, 2009--marked the 200th anniversary of the birth of one of our greatest presidents, Abraham Lincoln. A "Ripley's Believe It or Not" cartoon published that day noted that "More books have been written" about Lincoln "than any other American."

Lincoln has also been the subject of many poems, one of the most famous being Walt Whitman's "O Captain! My Captain!", which mourns the tragedy of the President's assassination and the pall it cast over the joy of the Civil War's end. Even the Abraham Lincolns among us are only human, only mortal. And the pain for those left behind is all the sharper when death takes, with little or no warning, someone who might reasonably have been expected to live many more years. Lincoln was fifty-six when he was shot; and many reading this will remember the shock of hearing that another President, John F. Kennedy, had fallen to an assassin's bullet, in 1963 at age forty-six.

Other unexpected deaths--whether by murder, accident, or sudden illness--send out few large-scale reverberations, but break dozens of hearts nonetheless. I know firsthand the pain of losing someone to a "here today, gone tomorrow" cause. In August 2006, my father died of blood poisoning: total time from first sign of illness to end of life, less than three days; age, sixty-seven. (Having people repeatedly observe, "He wasn't very old, was he?" didn't lessen the heartache any.) Just last Saturday, another member of the family--nonhuman this time, but hardly less loved for that--suffered a near-identical fate as my mother's cat was stricken with a sudden lung infection; he was gone within thirty-six hours, some six weeks short of finishing his thirteenth year on earth (the average life span for a house cat today is fifteen to eighteen years).

Of course, some "unexpected" deaths are ones we should have seen coming--and refused to. It's common knowledge that the normal "first step" in grieving is denial; often, we practice it in earnest long before and up to the actual death. On some level, most of us want to believe that we are too careful, too exceptional, too favored by God to ever experience real tragedy; many of us clutch this idea to the point where God Himself could tell us face to face that heartbreak is coming and we would directly contradict Him, "No, it's not." Don't believe any Christian could be so foolish? The original apostles were. More than once, Jesus told His disciples flat out that His ministry would end in humiliation and death; they continued to cling to the idea that earthly glory was in the near future for Him and them. Peter even tried to argue with Him: "Never, Lord!... This shall never happen to you" (Mt. 16:22, NIV). When it did, Peter and everyone else were as shocked as if they had never been told it was coming.

Apparently they hadn't been listening, either, to the rest of their Master's prediction. Even after the first part of it--that He would suffer and be killed--came true, they didn't trust that the follow-up prophecy--that He would return alive after three days--would be fulfilled as well. For two nights they mourned, seeing no hope ahead; those who went to the tomb on the third day did it not to meet their risen Lord, but to pay their respects to the dead; when He did, in fact, greet those first visitors alive and they reported back, the others "did not believe... because their words seemed to them like nonsense" (Lk. 24:11); and when Jesus finally showed Himself directly to the majority, most of them "were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost" (Lk. 24:37). At least one disciple was so stubbornly reluctant to believe anyone could come back from the dead that even in the face of a dozen witnesses, he insisted on seeing for himself before he was convinced (John 20:24-29).

People today still refuse to believe in the Resurrection. Many respect Jesus as a person, but consider it a tragedy that He died in His thirties and had so few years to do good. Unwilling to look beyond His moral teachings and compassionate life to the full implications of His claims for Himself, they fail to see that His sacrificial death was the real point of His coming. In a way, we as Christians make the same mistake whenever we dwell on the "senselessness" of a death that catches us off guard, as though we were insisting to God that He was thoughtless or insensitive to allow it, or that His perfect control over everything must have slipped this time.

Lent begins next week. Traditionally, Christians give up something for the season; quite a few of us need to give up--permanently--our insistence that God should always act in ways we consider logical.

O Master! My Master! I thought You all our hope,
The Leader of our glorious cause, to break the tyrant's rope;
A King to sit upon a throne and wear a golden crown--
And now, beneath a darkening sky, I see our dreams cut down.

A cross holds my Master;
It's thorns that crown His head;
One final cry--my Master hangs
Limp and cold and dead.

O Master! My Master! We laid You in the tomb;
My heart is breaking from the grief; my soul is lost in gloom;
All yesterday we sat and wept; we'll see Your face no more;
The dawn is black--what is that knock I hear upon the door?

"The Master is risen!"--
A cry cuts through my dread--
"The stone is gone!" "He spoke to me!"
"He lives! He is not dead!"

O Master! My Master! What joy to see Your face,
To hear Your voice, to feel again the warmth of Your embrace!
I now can see the greater Cause that guided all You've done--
Far grander than an earthly gift, our freedom You have won!

Exult, O hearts! And sing, O souls!
And I, with low-bowed head,
Kneel as here my Master stands,
Risen from the dead.

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