Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Great Awakening

“One short sleep past and we wake eternally.”

—John Donne

I have a treasured memory of gatherings with family friends when our boys were small. We adults would talk into the night. Our children, weary with play would curl up on a couch or chair and fall asleep.

When it was time to leave, I would gather our children into my arms, carry them to the car, lay them in the back seat and take them home. When we arrived I would pick them up again, take them to their beds, tuck them in, kiss them goodnight, turn out the light and close the door. In the morning they would awaken—at home.

This has become a parable for me of the night on which we “sleep in Jesus,” and awaken in our eternal home, the home that will at last heal the weariness and homesickness that has marked our days.

Poets, philosophers and raconteurs have often compared sleep and death. In sleep our eyes are closed, our bodies are still, our respiration so slight we seem not to be breathing at all. Ancient writers, in fact, referred to sleep as a “little death.”

The New Testament writers picked up the symbol and gave it new meaning. While secular Greek poets and other authors referred to death as “perpetual sleep,” or “everlasting sleep,” the sacred text speaks of a “sleep” that leads to a great awakening.

Early Christians seized on the symbol. The catacombs in Rome, which were first constructed and used by the early Christians for burial sites, were called koimeteria (our word, “cemetery”) or “sleeping places,” a belief reflected in numerous inscriptions on sarcophagi: “He/She sleeps in Jesus.”

These early Christians could extract the full meaning of the metaphor because they understood that death is exactly like sleep. We slumber and awaken immediately after. (We’re not conscious of time when we fall asleep.) Thus sleep is good and nothing to fear. Death, in fact, is heaven’s cure for all earth’s afflictions—“good for what ails us,” my mother used to say.

John Donne, whom I quoted above, has one of the best commentaries on death as sleep, or so it seems to me. He begins with his oft–quoted phrase “Death be not proud, though some have called thee / Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not so.”

“Really?” we ask, “Death not dreadful?” Donne, a devout Christian, answers that death cannot boast because it cannot kill us. Death is mere “rest and sleepe,” and, he continues, there is great pleasure in sleep: “much more must flow”—a place to rest our weary bones. “Why swell'st thou then,” Donne asks of Death,  “One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally, / And death shall be no more...” This is the death of death and our dread.

I came across an Old Testament text the other day, a closing comment that ”Moses died…at the word of the Lord.“ The Hebrew text reads, ”Moses died…with the mouth of the Lord,“ a phrase ancient rabbis translated, ”With the kiss of the Lord.“

Is it asking too much to envision God bending over us on our final night on earth, tucking us in and kissing us goodnight. Then, “one short sleep past, wee wake eternally.”

We’re all getting closer to that great gettin’ up day.



Tobias said...

Thank you,
Yes, I have felt that longing for home ever since I was a child.
But, somehow I did not get to church. I was happy, or so I thought, in my living room, surrounded by bibles and commentaries.
Right now. I am in the stage of life where my father have moved home for good. And I have a family of my own and carry the children to bed, and tuck them in with a good night kiss.

But life was not complete. Even with a beatiful wife, a good house and two fantastic girls.
I had to start attend church again, for a while it was confusing. Not really recognising the church of my childhood, it has changed so much in twenty years.
But, after a bit of looking around.
I am home again.
As I also hope to someday wake up with my heavenly father beside the bed.


C. Marie Byars said...

Neat blog. Great ideas!

Grandma E said...

Just discovered your blog, and your writing. What an immense blessing!

 The God-Man “If ever we get hungry to see God, we must look at his picture.”  “Where is that, sir?”  “ Ah, Davie … don’t you know ...