Dying Before We Die, Part 3
No one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins. Mark 2:22
As I close this trail of thoughts about dying-before-we-die, I wish to focus on the physical reality of the concept. It is all too easy and consider dying before we die as an intellectual or spiritual process, which is true, but there are physical manifestations, too. Jesus illustrates this in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke by referencing wine and wineskins. The allusion is a little obscure to us because we store wine in bottles today, not skins. Jesus said no one would put new wine into old wineskins, because the old skins would burst and both the wine and the skin would be lost. This is because wine breaths as it ages, which is why most bottled wines are sealed with a cork, allowing gas exchange between bottle and atmosphere. Young skin is flexible and can stretch. Old skins are inflexible and dry, cracking or breaking when what is inside tries to expand. Jesus’ lesson is that our old skin cannot hold our new self.
We see this in snakes and other reptiles. In order to grow, they must shed their old skin. They molt, or squeeze themselves out of their old, inflexible, too-tight skin in order to be reborn into a new skin that will house their reborn selves. Although we do not know if the process is painful to reptiles, it does leave them vulnerable to predators because they are less mobile during the process. We do know the process of shedding our old skin – dying before we die – is often a painful process for us, sometimes lasting for months or years, that may leave us feeling vulnerable, adrift, and alone.
There are a couple of sacraments in the church that are outward, physical affirmations that we are dying before we die, in the sense of leaving one life in order to enter another: baptism and marriage. The water of baptism symbolizes our being washed clean of our old self, allowing a new being in Christ to emerge. The baptism of infants symbolizes that the new life is ours from the beginning. I was baptized as an adolescent, which is meant to symbolize a passage into adulthood – leaving one’s childlike self behind and becoming an adult in Christ.
Marriage is perhaps more of a conscious choice than baptism since most people are adults (at least legally) if/when they enter into it. Many marriage ceremonies include the symbolic giving up of one’s previous life in order to enter a new life wedded to another. The lighting of a Unity Candle, the giving of the bride to the groom by her father, and the reciting of vows of commitment to the new union are among the physical acts that represent dying to one life in order to be reborn into a new one.
This helps explain why divorce is often so painful. The divorcees allowed their old lives to die, so if/when their new life falls apart, they have nothing to go back to and must begin yet another new life. So it is with dying before we die. We enter a period where we have given up something known and precious to us in order to enter a new something that has not yet solidified. We may find ourselves in limbo for a time. St. John of the Cross called this the dark night of the soul. The Old Testament metaphorically expresses this in the exodus of the Hebrew people from Egypt – they wandered in the “wilderness” for 40 years before arriving in the Promised Land.
The lesson of dying before we die is that life’s transitions can be difficult, not unlike labor pains in the birthing process. It is a necessary passage, however, if we are to continue to grow. With prayer and reflection, we can discern where and when we are being led and make the choice to die to the old before we are forced to do so. This makes the transition to the new life easier by making us co-creators in the process instead of feeling victimized.
Dying before we die familiarizes us with the ever-present dying process. We may not enjoy every death of this life, but we learn to recognize and trust the cycle of birth, growth, decline, death, and rebirth as it becomes familiar. Ultimately, when our death to this world comes, we are better able to gently release this life, secure in the knowledge that a new adventure awaits.
This is the 33rd in the series of Life Notes titled, If I Should Die Before I Wake. I invite your thoughts, insights, and feedback via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or through my website, www.ContemplatingGrace.com. At the website, you can also sign up to have these reflections delivered to your Inbox every Thursday morning, if you are not receiving them in another manner.
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