A lesson about dying

NPR’s “This American Life” shared a story about a father whose daughter became fascinated with Jesus at Christmastime. She wanted to know more about the manger and shepherds, so the father bought a children’s Bible and began to read to her about Jesus’ birth and teaching and what it all meant. The little girl especially loved what Jesus said about doing unto others what you would have them do to you.

One day they drove past a big church with an enormous crucifix out front. “Who is that?” she asked. “That’s Jesus,” he answered, realizing that he had neglected to tell her the ending. He explained that Jesus ran afoul of the Roman government. His message was so unnerving that the authorities had him killed.

About a month after Christmas, the little girl’s preschool was out for the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. Her father stayed home and took his daughter to lunch. Sitting at the table, she noticed a newspaper with a picture of Martin Luther King, Jr. “Who’s that?” she asked. The father said that he was a preacher. “Like Jesus?” she asked. “Yeah,” the father said, adding that King also had a message: Treat everybody the same no matter what they look like. She thought for a minute, and then observed, “Well, that’s like what Jesus said.”

The father said, “You know, I never thought of it that way.”

Then she paused, her little mind working to understand, and said, “Did they kill him, too?”

King followed Jesus, and Jesus taught, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24)

Without a death, there can be no new life.

We remember this hard truth every spring. Seeds that long ago fell to the ground, dormant through winter, now spring up in every combination of color. Life comes from death. Dust becomes beauty.

I frequently talk to people about the cross, and yet in some ways it remains a mystery to me. How can this symbol of death, the ultimate sign of the authorities declaring “we are in charge,” this grotesque and brutal tool of torture, somehow be celebrated and even carried around one’s neck?

How can the cross be an emblem of hope?

First, there’s hope in the way that Jesus suffered in the fulfillment of his mission and message. It was all about love. He paid a high price for forgiveness, and his sacrifice brings hope to everyone who has ever messed up and wondered if they could find redemption. For everyone who suffers to create more love in the world, they labor not in vain.

Second, there’s hope in the belief that Jesus didn’t stay on the cross. He was buried, and after three days, rose again. The tomb is empty. Death doesn’t have the last word. Even when it seems like it’s over, it’s not over.

Not for Jesus, not for King, and not for you and me.