Thursday, September 1, 2016

Before the feast there must be a slaughter

It was the day before Ethiopian New Year. There was a tangible feeling of excitement at the orphanage where I was volunteering. The children all but dragged me to the back of the property, chattering about the preparations for the party and bonfire happening the next day. And then the meal prep was suddenly before me: blood swirling down the drain, a pile of goat skins, one goat still standing, and two men with a large knife. The children assured me this was “no problem” as I prepared to put my head between my legs.

I had never seen an animal slaughtered before. I watched as they held the goat down and tried to cut its throat several times before conceding that maybe the knife wasnt sharp enough. Blanch.

I lived; the goat did not. The kids fed still-warm chunks of lung tissue to the stray cats. The whole thing was great fun for them, in part because they saw it for what it was: preparation for a party, a feast, a holiday. Not exactly your average American childhood.

Despite the increasing popularity of death in our culture, we are largely removed from its reality. We legislate it, advocate for it, and slap a nice-sounding name on it, but the reality is we dont want to see it. And we try to shelter our children from it.

Some parents consult experts for advice on how to talk to children about death when it emerges from cultural obscurity and becomes a reality. What do we say when Grandpa dies? When the goldfish goes belly-up? When the baby is no longer in mommys tummy? The advice differs depending on your worldview: Christian, agnostic, atheist, Buddhist, etc.

But the Catholic family is never removed from death. While being pro-life in every sense, scarcely a day goes by when death isnt mentioned in our home. And not in the ordinary, everyday sense in which we explain dying strawberry plants, flies twitching on the windowsill, and the threat of cars running over willful toddlers. 

But in a very real, intimate way, death—that final division between this world and the next—permeates the domestic church. After dinner we pray for the souls of the faithful departed. We meditate on Jesus crucifixion in the Sorrowful Mysteries. We celebrate saints on the anniversary of their deaths. In our Catholic Bible for children, Cain kills Abel on page sixteen—and the death toll rises from there. Even when we arent talking about death, Christ hangs crucified on our wall, from our rear view mirror, and above the altar at church.

Death is everywhere—and children question everything. 

“What did that priest give you? What are you eating?” The body and blood of Jesus.

“Whats that?” A relic containing the bone of a dead saint.

“Why did Jesus die?” So that we could have life.

But there is nothing morbid in this. As St. Theodore the Studite wrote:

How precious the gift of the cross, how splendid to contemplate! In the cross there is no mingling of good and evil, as in the tree of paradise: it is wholly beautiful to behold and good to taste. The fruit of this tree is not death but life, not darkness but light. This tree does not cast us out of paradise, but opens the way for our return. 
Christ on the Cross by Gerard David, 1515.
Those children in Ethiopia perfectly understood something our culture often struggles with—before the feast, there must be a slaughter. Before the heavenly banquet, there is death. Catholics know this to be true. Death is inseparable from the promise of Eternal Life. The same Faith that acknowledges Death makes the brightness of new and abundant life shine ever more brightly. 

Thus we pray to St. Joseph, asking for what sounds absurd—a happy death:

O BLESSED JOSEPH, who yielded up thy last breath in the arms of Jesus and Mary, obtain for me this grace, O holy Joseph, that I may breathe forth my soul in praise, saying in spirit, if I am unable to do so in words: “Jesus, Mary and Joseph, I give Thee my heart and my soul.” Amen.