Death, Where Is Your Sting?
Death is not as brutally present to us as it was in Jesus' time, but all Christians know Christ's victory is earth-shattering.
Stop anybody on the street and ask for a one-sentence definition of Christianity, and you’re apt to hear something along these lines: "Jesus died on the cross to pay for our sins." But it doesn't take much reading in the works of the early Christians to realize that they were focused on something beyond that which resulted from the Cross and Resurrection. The empty tomb means something for all of us. Christ's victory has rescued us from death.
We should probably give that a capital D, for we find New Testament and later writers treating Death almost as a personification of the malice of the Evil One. The letter to the Hebrews explains that the Evil One has always kept the human race in bondage through our fear of death. Jesus took on our human form so that he could go into death, so that "through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil" (Heb. 2:14). St. Paul explains that when Jesus nailed our debt to the cross, he "disarmed the principalities and powers," mocking them publicly--and triumphing over them (Col. 2:14-15). The demonic claim on our souls and our imprisonment in death as the fitting wage of sin were overthrown.
St. Paul cites the prophet Isaiah's prediction that one day Death would be swallowed up forever (Is. 25:8). He then ridicules this fallen enemy: "O Death, where is thy victory? O Death, where is thy sting?"(l Cor. 15:54).
We don't feel as shadowed by Death's hovering presence as our forebears did. Now we scarcely begrudge Death, reasoning that "everybody's gotta go sometime." And Death reciprocates, as a rule, behaving circumspectly and waiting to harvest those who have completed a long life, often doing so in sterile, private settings. For these and other reasons Death is not as brutally present as it once was.
There are tragic exceptions to that general rule, as my family and every other family knows. But these tragedies are in part so shocking because they are so unexpected.
In centuries past Death was everywhere, wild and profligate, snatching away children in kitchen fires, young men in hunting accidents, babies and mothers together in childbed. A broken limb, badly set, could lead to the grave. A fever could steal overnight, not just one child, but all the children in a home. The cities were impossibly crowded--ancient Antioch housed more people per acre than Manhattan, yet without modern high-rises--and correspondingly filled with crime, vermin, and disease. Buildings were prone to collapse, and fires leapt from one rickety structure to the next. Cities were also unimaginably filthy. The single most important element in extending human life on earth is improved sanitation.