On my desk sit two plants. On the left, a swiss cheese plant I picked up at Brattle Street Florist with waxy leaves and elliptical holes. On the right, a dying olive branch I was handed at a church service a few weeks ago, gasping its last breaths in a makeshift mason jar vase. As long as I don’t forget to water my swiss cheese plant, it should outlive my branch but eventually, they will both die.
Meditating on the death of my plants as I sit by them to work each day reminds me that humans too face death of several kinds. Names of our deceased loved ones may remain on the tips of our tongues and close to our hearts even after their lives are over. Relationships with the living can die too. Coming back to campus, I have seen many faces of those I used to know but our relationship has since been burned by events past, or maybe it just fizzled.
As far as advice for the good life goes, many strive to focus on their personal relationships. The Matthew 6 passage “Do not store up treasures on earth where moth and vermin destroy, and where thieves can break in and steal but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven” has been trotted out in many a sermon to mean: don’t focus on acquiring material wealth because you can’t take it with you! However, I wonder if we might also take from this passage that a dogged pursuit of relationship security in an attempt to shield us from any feelings of loneliness will ultimately leave us empty.
In Matthew 22, Jesus is asked, if a woman gets married seven times because each of her husbands die, who will she be married to in heaven? Jesus answers pretty flatly that there is no marriage in the resurrection. In light of such stark words, why are we to expect that friendships should be eternal either? Even if we are not so unlucky with our personal tragedies in this life as this woman in Matthew 22, death comes for all of us with little guarantee of what lies beyond, and what can survive the resurrection?
It can be terrifying to realise that we were born at a random time and place. Furthermore, if our spouse, brother, or best friend departs from us, either through death or estrangement, we will still soldier on, perhaps leaving us to wonder what the point of that relationship was in the first place.
However, just because a relationship is over, does not render it meaningless. I think of the chance encounters with a stranger on the bus, or a friend I made at summer camp, that was somehow able to completely shift my perspective on life. I am also comforted by the idea that God has a plan for us. In the Book of Esther, Mordecai tells her that perhaps she is in her current situation, queen to a king on the cusp of committing a genocide, for “such a time as this.” I think back to the friends I made at summer camp, the strangers that offered me shreds of wisdom that I still carry with me now. Even if I never see those individuals again, their influence in my life has mattered, and has given me fresh eyes to value the ephemeral.
I also take comfort knowing that outside of any other human bond, I exist in God. Deep calls to deep and we remain hidden under the shadow of God’s wings. Even if everything we care about in this life is destroyed and no one remembers our name, we are sustained by the still, small voice of our Creator.
One of my favourite doctrines, the doctrine of imago dei, says that all humans are made in the image of God, and by extension, in the image of one another. When we love one another, we are loving God, and we see God in one another. We are also powerfully drawn to see our own likeness in the other and their likeness in us. This is the value, and the pain, of human relationships. Love never fails, even if hearts stop beating and so we are called to see our eternal God in the faces of mortal, transient, people.
Perhaps if the church strives for a permanence that is set in stone, it is missing the point. In January 2020, I had the pleasure of visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Once you make it past the copious incense, you have the chance to wait in a three-hour line to see the tomb where our Risen Lord was laid. When you enter the chamber hewn out of rock and kneel, there is a simple slab inscribed with the Greek words “ὀυκ έστιν ὁδε” — “He is not here.”
Christ was born, grew up, died, was resurrected, and ascended. As seen in the reactions of many of the disciples throughout Jesus’ earthly ministry, it is a human tendency to be uncomfortable with change. However, things do not need to last forever to matter, and sometimes, things matter for the very reason that they ended. If we do not live with our hearts open to the changing nature of this incarnate life, we will miss out on the divine mystery, and we will be unable to see that which is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.
Angela Eichhorst is a senior studying Comparative Religion and Classics.