By: Rick Serina
This is the next in a monthly series of articles requested by the New Jersey District President commemorating anniversaries of particular writings or events in the life of Martin Luther. They are intended to introduce the historical background and theological content and implications of those writings or events, as well as raise questions about how they might pertain to consciously Lutheran parish ministry in twenty-first century America. The purpose is not to provide answers to these difficult questions, but to provoke reflection, personally or jointly, on how Luther’s life and thought relate to the challenges facing us.
Death has taken on a different dimension in modern culture. St. Paul said that death is the last enemy to be destroyed (1 Cor. 15:26), but science treats it more like the final frontier, which the medical and scientific industries will ultimately get around to eliminating. After all, in the United States current life expectancy is 79 compared with 20-30 in the Roman Empire of the New Testament, or 47 in the year 1900, or 59 in 1950. Some estimates have it growing as high as 86 for men and 94 for women by 2025. Yet, as Christians, we understand a simple fact of the Scriptures: the wages of sin are death (Rom. 6:23), and since all have sinned, humanity has a mortality rate of one-hundred percent. Every human will die because every human has sinned, whatever their age. If that is the case, then care for the dying is part and parcel of our vocation as pastors and plays a significant role in our regular pastoral responsibilities.
In Martin Luther’s day, the imminence of death was more pronounced. There were no antibiotics or well visits or organ replacements. There was no false hope for a permanent medical remedy. There was only sin, which led to death, and therefore it was incumbent upon pastors to provide care for those at life’s end. The dense macabre, or “Dance of Death,” art pictured all humans ultimately succumbing to death. The Christian ars moriendi, or “Art of Dying,” literature provided instruction on how to die “well,” because if all were going to die, it would be better to do so as Christians who understand what is happening and why. There was also a tradition of the quattor novissima, or “Four Last Things” (death, judgement, heaven, and hell), where preachers would instruct the faithful in death and its consequents. Medieval Christians lived with this reality, the church produced literature and rites to help them understand it, and clergy used those to instruct and console the faithful as death drew near.
We should understand Luther’s 1520 Fourteen Consolations for Those Who Labor and Are Heavy-Laden as part of this tradition. He shared the same assumptions regarding the imminence and reality of death that the modern world simply reduces to an obstacle for science to overcome. Luther saw the need to prepare his people for that imminent reality and to do so using the Pauline doctrine of justification by faith he had come to learn in the preceding years. The occasion for this writing was an illness to Luther’s patron, Frederick the Wise of Electoral Saxony (to whom it is dedicated). He composed the treatise in fall 1519 and published it in February 1520. The first seven consolations deal with the evils threatening all Christians: the evil within, the evil of the future, the evil of the past, the evil of hell, the evil of our enemies (“left hand”), the evil of our friends (“right hand”), and the evil above in the heavens—Jesus! What Luther means by the evil above has to do with the sufferings that Jesus endured for our sake, for if he was willing to suffer so unjustly, then we should not turn away from sufferings, but embrace them as a way of clinging to Jesus himself. Of course, it is worth mentioning that in late 1519, Luther was in turmoil and contemplating suffering. He knew he would be excommunicated and expected to be executed, as the Bohemian reformer Jan Hus had been, since many believed Luther had made the same errors as Hus. The Wittenberg professor saw in Christ an example and encouragement in the face of his own potential suffering.
In the second half of the treatise, Luther offers seven blessings one may recount when facing death. These roughly parallel the evils. God has given us the blessing of our body, the blessing of hope as circumstances change for the better (this includes the end of pain at death), the blessing of the past that has sustained us, the blessing of hell (which leads us to give thanks that this is not our fate), the blessing of adversaries (whose desire to harm us only serves to increase our faith), the blessing of friends within the communion of saints, and the eternal blessing of heaven. Two things stand out about Luther’s approach. First, in a manner similar to the Beatitudes (Matt. 5:1-12), or the Lukan account of Lazarus and the Rich Man (Lk.16:19-31), all the blessings of death reverse the evils incurred in this life. The Christian looks at the evils of this life and sees in them not problems to be corrected, but the promise of Christ to overcome them—a promise that he begins to fulfill in the death of the saints. Second, the consolations are filled with biblical references, in particular references to the Psalms. That may be the case because the Psalter provides so many expressions of lament in the face of danger or death, but it also because Luther was knee-deep in his second lectures on the Psalms (1519-1521), providing him a wealth of biblical resources from which to draw. This produced a highly devotional treatment of death rather than a strict scholastic treatise explaining the biblical basis for death, heaven, or hell, let alone a polemical attack on superstitions regarding saints or purgatory.
How might we appropriate Luther’s devotional approach to death in this day and age—a day and age when people don’t expect to die, and most certainly not before collecting government entitlements or synodical pensions? Death is no longer the ever-present reality experienced by Christians across the globe and in every era. Its meaning has changed, so we must in turn redefine it as Christians. First, it would behoove us to define death theologically. The world around us describes it medically and scientifically, as the natural cycle of any biological organism. But we aren’t free to do so. The Scriptures bind us to speak theologically about death, as a completely and wholly unnatural corruption of God’s creation, as the consequence of Adam and Eve defying the command not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in Eden, as the consequence we all face because of the sin we have inherited from our first parents and have committed since. But, secondly, we must learn to speak about it Christologically. For Luther, the blessings that await us overturn the evils that surround us, and they do so precisely because Jesus Christ has given new meaning to death. No longer is death the insuperable opponent that has a claim on our lives. In Christ, that enemy is overcome, he has been defeated, and just as Christ was raised from the dead so too will he raise us to share in that final victory. We mortal humans do not overcome death. Science and medicine and technology do not overcome death. Fitness and diet and pharmaceuticals do not overcome death. Jesus overcomes death, and if he has overcome it, then the confidence of the Christian is not placed in the fleeting hopes of new scientific discoveries or treatments, but in the crucified, risen, and ascended Lord who will return on the Last Day to open the graves of his saints, raise their mortal bodies, knit them back together—bones, joints, and flesh, and grant them immorality and incorruptibility by the same power that enabled him to rise again from the dead.