We cannot wait to grow up. Then all of our adult lives we covet youthfulness. We long to go back to what we were. We know we cannot yet we wish it anyway. To struggle against age, time and death is to struggle against that which cannot be resisted. Yet in that longing is revealed the mystery of the human condition. That which we seek is not just to be young again – it is to be made new.
Yesterday I had the privilege to help chant the funeral service over a very dear man. In that service we sing:
Weep, and with tears lament when with understanding I think on death, and see how in the graves there sleeps the beauty which once for us was fashioned in the image of God, but now is shapeless, ignoble, and bare of all the graces. O how strange a thing; what is this mystery which concerns us humans? Why were we given up to decay? And why to death united in wedlock? Truly, as it is written, these things come to pass by ordinance of God, Who to him now gone gives rest.
And in another part of the service we sing:
You Who of old did fashion me out of nothingness, and with Your Image divine did honor me; but because of transgression of Your commandments did return me again to the earth where I was taken; lead me back to be refashioned into that ancient beauty of Your Likeness.
We rarely think of death as having any beauty. We think of it as sickness, tragedy and decay. But death is beautiful. It is beautiful because it is the beginning of the renewal of ourselves. Death, as the hymn says, is being refashioned into our ancient beauty. The beauty is our creation in the image and likeness of God. By our lives we willingly destroyed this image until it is no longer recognizable. This is the true sickness, death and decay – that we are not what we were intended to be. Like the picture of Dorian Gray we no longer reflect what we once were. Only by the destruction of his portrait, and his own repentance and death, is Dorian Gray freed. Only then does the portrait become what it was meant to be. It is through death that we can begin to be restored. That is the ordinance of God. We are reformed by death into our ancient beauty – into the image and likeness of God.