Readings: John 12: 24-26 | Phil 3: 8-14
There was a morbid custom in parts of the American prison system before the 1960s: as a man condemned to die was led to the place of execution, a guard would call out, “Dead man walking! Dead man walking!” When I was a student brother, I’d say that to young friars on the day before their solemn profession: Dead man walking! I meant it as a kind of phony grim humor, analogous to corny bachelor party gags about “the ol’ ball and chain” from the age of comedians who tell mother-in-law jokes. As if to say, “Well, it’s all over now!”
But we only have to hear the words of the Gospel again to leave the joking behind and appreciate the serious and essential role that death plays in our Christian faith, and most earnestly and indispensably in how we live that faith. Paradoxically there is nothing more vital to abundant life than death. “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.”
“Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies…” All of us just witnessed our brothers Joshua, Joseph, and Matthew fall to the ground to die. They fell to the ground and stretched out their arms in the form of a cross. They have clearly heard the words of the Gospel they chose for this holy Mass: “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there also will my servant be.” Joshua, and Joseph, and Matthew stretched out their arms in the form of a cross as they fell to the ground, because they want to be servants of our Lord Jesus Christ, and they want to be his servants forever. As servants, they want to follow Jesus, and they want to follow him to the place where he is. “Where I am, there also my servant will be.”
And where is Jesus? He is on the cross. He is on the cross to die, so that he can produce much fruit: the fruit of self-sacrificing love, the fruit which is abundant life—that is, eternal life—and the joy that comes with it. God the Father will honor these men who serve him. He will honor them with the everlasting joy of a life that comes, as St. Paul preaches to the Philippians, from “sharing in Christ’s sufferings by being conformed to his death.”
Dead men walking, these three. But so we are all dead men walking. Our death began at Baptism. “Or are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life.” That is, of course, from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans. At Baptism, we were plunged into the primordial waters, the place of chaos to which God has not yet brought his good order, the place where there is no life, the place where a man cannot breathe. We are plunged into death, but from death, we are lifted up, and—gasp!—we find that we are not dead, but very much alive! Yet only the seed of eternal life is planted at Baptism. And this seed must be nourished to fullness of life by our willingness to die, and to die, and to die again.
Dead men walking, these three. They are called to walk the way of the cross with Jesus. For his sake they have accepted the loss of all things and they consider them so much rubbish, that they may gain Christ—from Philippians. Joshua, Joseph, and Matthew died in Baptism to have eternal life, but they must die, and die, and die again. In poverty, they are dying to the world. In chastity, they are dying to the body. In obedience, they are dying to self. But our world, our bodies, our selves—these aren’t nailed to the cross in condemnation, to suffer death as an end, as if they were bad things. No. They are fixed to the cross in death with Jesus precisely because they are good things, and because the power of Jesus is the power of that grain of wheat, the power to produce from death the living fruit that finally gives real and full life to these good things—abundant life to our world, abundant life to our bodies, abundant life to our selves. The only thing that must truly die on the cross is that lie we tell ourselves in our sins: It’s all mine. It’s all for me. And for me alone. It’s this lie that must truly die. The rest of it is just transformation, from this life in the world to life in the risen Christ.
This is the holy Gospel these men and all of us are bound to preach, and the truth to which their profession today is dedicated: Jesus Christ is risen from the dead! Sin and death have no hold on him. And sin and death have no hold on those who follow him. Woe to us if we do not preach this Gospel. Woe to us if we do not follow Christ, and joyfully lead others, to the place where he is: the place of sacrificial love, the place where death brings newness of life, the place where we rejoice to be called: dead men walking.