Perhaps Christians should reconsider our use of the expression “ashes to ashes and dust to dust.” It carries a sense of extinction, of utter and final destruction to nothingness. Although formed from the earth, we not mere dust; we live eternally in God’s love.
told by Deborah
They sailed to the country of the Gerasenes, on the other side of the lake from Galilee. As Jesus stepped onto the shore, he was met by a man who was possessed by demons (he had long ago ceased to wear clothes and would not live in a house, but dwelled among the tombs).
Upon seeing Jesus, the man sank to his knees, screaming, “What can there be between you and me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me!” — for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (Time and again it had seized him; he was kept under guard, restrained and shackled, but crazed and driven wild by the demon he would break the bonds and flee to deserted places.)
"What is your name?" Jesus asked.
The man answered, “Legion" — for many demons had made their home in him. They begged Jesus not to command them to return to the Abyss.
A herd of pigs were being kept on a nearby hillside, and the demons implored Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission, and the demons fled from the man and into the pigs — and the crazed herd raced off the steep bank into the lake and drowned.
When they saw what happened, the swineherds ran away and told everyone what they saw. As the word spread, people hurried over to see what had happened. When they got there, they found the man sitting at Jesus’ feet, clothed and in his right mind.
People freaked out when they heard how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed, and they asked Jesus to leave the area; such things were just too weird and scary. And so he got into the boat and went away. The man who had been healed pleaded to go with him, but Jesus sent him away, “Go back to your home, and proclaim what God has done for you." So he went on his way, telling everyone all that Jesus had done for him.
Surprisingly, even today there are many like the man from Gerasene who “do not dwell in houses, but among the tombs.” In modern Cairo there is a large population living within the city’s massive cemetery, al-Qarafa: the City of the Dead.
It began long ago with the impoverished and the mad and the diseased, the desperate and the desperados sheltering within the sepulchers, surviving on food offerings left for the dead, begging and badgering the bereaved for alms. Over time, whole communities took root within its stoney walls. Generations have made the cemetery their home, knowing no other life: dwellers in the city of the dead.
Most of the residents do not find their living situation odd or particularly disconcerting; some insist that they would never leave, and their numbers continue to increase. At night the cemetery is aglow with the light of hundreds of lamps and cooking fires, the tombs shimmering in the darkness.
It is a sanctuary of sorts; a gated community. Ordinary citizens come to the region only for funerals, police generally avoid the place, and tourists rarely visit, confused by the vast stretches of tombs and mausoleums, fearful of contamination, and sickened by the stench of putrefaction. Yet these are normal aspects of the cemetery dwellers’ lives: in the midst of life they are surrounded by death.
The man from Gerasene spent his days in similar circumstances. He, too, lived amid wilted flowers, forgotten names, sun-bleached tombs, broken stones and torn shrouds left by looters…. the dust and detritus that is all that remains after life has ended.
Surely, as a familiar quote has it, such a situation would “focus the mind wonderfully.”
Perhaps that is why the man spent his days there.
It’s not a situation any of us would envy. We very much dislike to be reminded of the fact that all that lives, dies, including — especially — ourselves. Thus, in conversations we are inclined to say, “IF I die…” rather than the more accurate: “When I die.”
And yet this fellow sought refuge amid the tombs, dwelling amid the emblems of death, the silent witnesses to the conclusion of earthly life; testaments to the ultimate meaninglessness of wealth and power and position. Dust to dust.
Confined within the city, restrained with iron chains and shackles, he repeatedly broke free and fled to the safety of the cemetery. There he was sheltered from the demands and disappointments of everyday life; there his demons could chatter, uninterrupted.
But there was no peace, no respite from the pressures that were building inside of him; the voices only grew louder, more insistent. Whispered enticements became shouted demands: it is hopeless, you are helpless, there is only nothingness: dust you were and dust you will become. Why wait? End it now.
It is the demonic lure of annihilation: to tear down, to break, to crush, to defile, to destroy, to kill. In opposition to creation, it seeks to eradicate: to eliminate life, joy, beauty — and suffering and pain, as well. It pursues peace in dissolution: to fall into the Abyss of nothingness — as exemplified in the “perfect silence” of the grave.
But life — ah, that wondrous power! — life had not yet been extinguished. Drawn to the shore, the man met Jesus as he stepped from the boat and, from the depths of hopeless despair cried out, “Can there be anything between us, Child of Light and Creation?” On the edge of self-destruction, his question was literally a life and death one.
When he continued: “Please do not torment me!”, who was the man speaking to? Was he pleading with Jesus not to give him false hope, or was he begging the demons to cease their unyielding torture? Or were the many demons speaking through him, seeking to convince the Lord to leave the man — and thus, their work — alone? It must have been the latter, for it was the many who responded to Jesus question (and, perhaps, issuing a challenge, as well?): “We are Legion: a large, well-trained, fighting force. Do You dare to take us on?”
But the mob knew they had met their match and, we are told, begged Jesus to let them relocate into a nearby herd of pigs — apparently even demons find life appealing. But a second chance was to no avail; the destructive impulse took hold and drove the maddened animals over the precipice to their deaths.
In another few minutes it might have been the man himself who took the plunge.
For the man of Gerasene, the cemetery was not the sanctuary he imagined, but a way station on his descent into destruction. Desperate for peace, he succumbed to the temptation of annihilation: the lure of nothingness as a “cure” for suffering, pain, confusion, despair. Seeking a solution to the complexities and complications of life and society, he chose to become one with the dead.
It is a piteous, tragic condition, not to be condemned, but grieved for. It is a cry from an agonized heart, begging for understanding, for meaning, for peace.
And who among us has not danced with those same demons? Who has not stared into the Pit, pleading for release? Who has not gazed into the darkness, devoid of hope? Who has not cried out, “Lord, is there really anything between You and me?”
We are not so very different from the man of Gerasene; only, perhaps, in degree. Our dreams of retreat — to an isolated mountaintop, a deserted island, a distant planet — are variations of the yearning for peace and relief that drove him to the edge.
What, then, can we do? What is the “cure” for the trials and troubles of our lives? The answer is in the Christ event. Though often proclaimed by the ancient prophets, the fact of God’s love for us was confirmed absolutely in the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. The Lord Christ, God’s own child, holy bearer of light and compassion, was born of a woman and lived as we live; he laughed, loved, sorrowed as we do; and he suffered and died as we do.
And that was not the end of His story; it is not the conclusion of ours, either. Love has the last word. To paraphrase a popular expression: “God bats last” — and always hits it out of the ballpark.
Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.
~ John 14:27
The eternal Inexpressible sanctified our world and our lives through active divine participation: committing Godself to first-hand understanding of the human condition, from cradle to grave. We are loved, cherished, and cared for beyond all understanding; we are safe and secure in the arms of God. Light and life are eternal.
As our sister Julian affirmed, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”
Just as in the situation of the Cairo tomb dwellers, death is always on our doorstep — although a good deal less graphically for us! It is an undeniable fact, but not a fearsome one. It should not alarm us, but neither should we be seduced by it, rushing into its embrace and forsaking the gift of this present life. Instead, the fact of death should inspire us to live fully and compassionately, recognizing that our time here is limited.
We have only a few years to be tremendously kind, absurdly generous, ridiculously hopeful expressions of Holy compassion. As Christians, we are called to be divine delivery vehicles, if you will, carrying the Good News of God’s love as much as we can for as long as we can.
May Christ’s grace and healing love abound,
"The greatest honor we can give Almighty God is to live gladly because of the knowledge of His love."
~ Julian of Norwich