Sunday, April 16, 2017


“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. The children, weary with play, would curl up on a couch or chair and fall sleep. 

When it was time to leave, I would gather our boys in my arms, carry them to the car one by one, 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 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: “She sleeps in Jesus.” 

Early Christians could extract the full meaning of the metaphor because they understood that death is almost 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 dreadful, 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 sleepe: “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...”

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 His children in their final hour, and kissing them goodnight? Then, “one short sleep past, we wake eternally.” We’re all getting closer to that great gettin’ up day. 

David Roper

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