Between Dust and Mystery
The dictionary defines the word “vacation” as “a period of time devoted to pleasure, rest, or relaxation.” Though I imagine it happens less often than not, it seems the ideal vacation would come to an end just as the life we left behind begins to seem preferable. Yet even if it is with reluctance that we let go of our last vacation day, most of us can imagine why we must. By definition, a vacation is something that must come to an end. To vacate life as we know it on a permanent basis would be called something different entirely.
Though we know that the days of a vacation or holiday are short-lived, we nevertheless enjoy them. Even as they fade away into the calendar, they are remembered (and often nostalgically). That they were few does not hinder their impact. On the contrary, a few days devoted to relaxation are made valuable because of the many that are not.
And we know this to be true of life as well—that it is fleeting, makes it all the more momentous.
The artists among us often give voice to the things we seem collectively to work at putting out of our minds, sometimes simply stating something obvious. Musician Dave Matthews admits, “There are arbitrary lines between bad and good that often don’t make a lot of sense to me. I don’t want to die, obviously, but really, the wonder of life is amplified by the fact that it ends.”(1)
Like withering grass and dwindling summers, fading flowers and holidays, life cannot escape its end. Like the seasons we live through, generations spring forth and die away. Like the vacations we take, so our days pass away into the calendar. If we refuse to look at any of these endings we live foolishly; if we look only to their ends we miss something about living.
The voice of the psalmist is not unlike the artist who sees life as it is and the importance of reckoning with the harder parts of it. “Show me, O LORD, my life’s end and the number of my days; let me know how fleeting is my life” (Psalm 39:4). It is a cry aware of the fleeting and even painful nature of time and the mystery of the many things that seem to heighten a sense of something richer. “But now, Lord, what do I look for? My hope is in you” (39:7).
The Christian story of that hope doesn’t provide an escape from that harsh glimpse of fragility but an invitation to see that we live somewhere between fleeting dust and the mystery of the one who brought it to life. It includes the fearful but hopeful thought that gaining one’s life might somehow involve losing it, that endings though painful are often necessary, that somehow a broken body may offer the reviving taste of life itself.
When Jesus stood with the disciples staring down the very hour he came to face, he told his friends that his time with them was coming to an end. He told them that his departing would usher in the Great Comforter, that he was leaving to prepare a place for them, and that in his coming and going the world would see that he finished exactly what the Father sent him to do. He reminded them that in the ending of this season was the budding mystery of another.
The psalmist writes of the death of God’s own as ‘precious’ in the sight of the LORD. Into that difficult mystery of seemingly arbitrary lines of life and death, the self-giving love of the Father invites us to consider the precious death of the Son.
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