And yet it seems like many churches and pastors go to great lengths to avoid using it. Having been a pastor for over a decade now, I get it; death can be an ugly, frightening, heartbreaking experience and so we try to take the edge off by using other terms. For some reason, "He passed away" sounds much more sensitive and easier to handle than "He died."
No matter what we call it or how much we try to soften the blow, though, death still happens and it still hurts badly. But isn't that the point? If death didn't sting- if it was something good that we embraced- would we really need Jesus? If death was no big deal, would Jesus' resurrection have any real power in our lives?
Death is a reality we deal with because of our human brokenness and separation from God. It is a constant reminder of how desperately we need God to reach into our lives and provide comfort and hope and peace. As Paul so famously puts it in the book of Romans, Jesus died so that we might let our old selves die and Jesus rose again so that we, too might rise to new life in him. Not only that, but because through Jesus God demonstrated God's power over sin and even over death itself we who follow Jesus joyfully anticipate our own resurrections. In short, death is a vital part of what makes our experiences of God's grace, mercy, and love so meaningful and transformative. By refusing to use the word "death" or trying to soften its impact by calling "death" something else we potentially diminish the scope of what God accomplished through Jesus' death and resurrection. God didn't defeat the fluffy bunny that is "passing away;" God conquered the big, nasty, ugly monster that is "death."
Today, November 1st is All Saint's Day, a holy day observed by some Christian faith traditions when those who have died are honored and remembered. It is a day when we celebrate those who walked among us and demonstrated God's power to conquer spiritual death and grant new life. It is a day when we deliberately stare death in the face and say, "You've claimed these loved ones for now, but you won't win in the end."
"Death has been swallowed up in victory."
"Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?...
But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ."
(1 Corinthians 15:54-55, 57, NIV)