Easter Sunday was once again a triumph, a magnificent celebration of ultimate hope. But the spiritual life is a wily animal, and the very thing that seems unquestionably good is often questioned by the spiritually wise.

The prophet Isaiah saw synagogues packed with people praising God with heart, soul, and sacrifice, but he felt compelled to shout down the tumult:

"What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?" says the Lord; … Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me. … learn to do good; seek justice … " (Isa. 1:11-17, ESV).

Jesus looked at the paragons of religious propriety and moral goodness in his day and all he saw, he said, were snakes, hypocrites, and whitewashed tombs.

There's not much in the religious life that's excluded from spiritual probing, then, even those moments of seeming triumph.

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Thirty-five years ago, Ernst Becker began his now-classic The Denial of Death with:

The idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is a mainspring of human activity — activity designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny of man.

It is now commonplace to note the many ways our culture has sidelined death. We live at a frenzied pace and with myriad distractions that keep the thought of death at bay. As I noted a couple of weeks ago here, we fixate on any piece of scientific evidence that suggests that a change in diet or lifestyle might add a year or so to our lives. Graveyards no longer surround churches, nor can they be found at the centers of cities, but only at their peripheries. Let the dead lie with the dead.

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The rising popularity of cremation is due to many causes, some of them rooted in fine motives. But no matter the motive, it often amounts to a denial of death. Many who request cremation ask that their ashes be spread in some beautiful, scenic, life-affirming place. We released my father's ashes, for instance, beneath the Golden Gate Bridge in the San Francisco Bay. It was a beautiful moment at a beautiful place.

I thought it a splendid idea at the time, believing that from then on, whenever I might see a picture of the Golden Gate Bridge or visit San Francisco, I would think of my father. I just visited the Bay Area, and drove across that magnificent span, and while a thought of my father crossed my mind, I can't say it was any more than that. There was too much to distract me. The Golden Gate Bridge is stunning, with those magnificent orange towers rising up, framed by the city skyline and Marin, overlooking the vast blue expanse of the Pacific Ocean — well, one can think of hardly anything else at such a moment. That setting has a way of making one forget about the beloved.

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During that same weekend, I visited my mother's crypt. My father had wanted to bury her in San Francisco, a city where she had spent many happy years. But the closest we could come was a suburb called Colma, south of San Francisco.

Her crypt lies in an unimaginative square building lined floor to ceiling with shiny marble, a place where every footstep and whisper bounces around for minutes before coming to rest. Mom lies four or five rows up — each row lined with names and dates of demise — and we had to find a ladder to add some fresh flowers to the little vase that sticks out from the crypt. For all the sterility of the setting, it has this going for it: There is nothing there that distracts one from thinking about the dead.

I found myself crying the whole time I was there — this some 27 years after her death. My sister asked if this was hard for me to be there. No, it wasn't, I replied. But I couldn't pinpoint what I was crying about, because no particular memory of my mother had been stirred up, and I was not feeling an acute sense of loss. My tears were simply a jumble of long-settled grief and gratitude.

Nothing like this could possibly happen at the Golden Gate Bridge.

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Sometimes I wonder if Easter has become the Golden Gate Bridge of the church, where we pull out all the stops, importing brass and balloons and a green house of lilies, all to create an overwhelming, magnificent effect. This would not be a concern if it weren't for the fact that week by week, we act like we have cremated death. No more graveyards around the church. No small-group Bible studies on how to die well. No spiritual disciplines that focus on our mortality — like the medieval practice of meditating on a skull. No more preaching about our mortality, except as a quick setup for eternal life. No, it's your best life now. We know that if we are going to keep those pews filled, we can't be going on and on about death.

A young woman is told by her fiancé that the relationship is over. She comes home and says she's not going to dwell on the negative. She had a great relationship with him, but now it's time to move on. Accent the positive. Make plans for the future. Her best years are still ahead of her! If a friend did this, most of us would say she is living in denial, refusing to allow herself to grieve a real loss.

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I sometimes wonder whether our churches — living as we do in American death-denying culture, relentlessly smiling through our praise choruses — are inadvertently helping people not live in hope as much as in denial.

"There are, as is known, insects that die in the moment of fertilization," said philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. "So it is with all joy: life's highest, most splendid moment of enjoyment is accompanied by death."

To put it theologically, just as we like to note that Good Friday points to Easter, Easter points back to Good Friday. Easter is not about a giddy happiness that dulls the pain of life, helping us forget our troubles for a day. It is about a sobering hope for those in the midst of a death walk — that is, all of us.

Don't get me wrong: I love joyous, even giddy celebrations of the Resurrection. My church has the most glorious Easter celebration of any church I've been in, and I cherish it. But I believe we would all be better served if our Resurrection celebrations were framed by deeper and more regular reflection on our mortality. Many liturgical churches do that well, because the entire Holy Week is a sobering series of services that help one mourn (Matt. 5.3) so that on Easter one can ever more deeply be blessed. But most evangelicals churches don't have the resource of Holy Week services, and too many do their very best to avoid anything negative any week. I understand the motive for that—it's really hard to do that in this culture—but I believe it makes our celebrations shallow.

Admittedly, there is a thin boundary between denial and hope, but one sign that we have not crossed that line might be the unexpected flow of tears that mix grief and joy in one unseemly profusion.

Mark Galli is senior managing editor of Christianity Today. He is author of A Great and Terrible Love: A Spiritual Journey into the Attributes of God (Baker) explores a variety of spiritual themes on his blog.

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In "SoulWork," Mark Galli brings news, Christian theology, and spiritual direction together to explore what it means to be formed spiritually in the image of Jesus Christ.
Mark Galli
Mark Galli is former editor in chief of Christianity Today and author, most recently, of Karl Barth: An Introductory Biography for Evangelicals.
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