Recently I have discovered Gray's Anatomy, thanks to Lifetime television's mission to replay a variety of programs that have not gotten enough air time. Having liked doctor shows and soap operas as a teen, this program was a perfect fit for me. I have, however, noticed that there are a large number of episodes in which people have to be brought back to life. Whether it is the local bartender on a by-pass machine (dead for 30 minutes) or someone who "codes" during surgery, it seems those electric paddles get a lot of use. Following the resurrection of the patient in question, the doctor is thanked profusely, and treated like a god. In fact, there is even a scene in one episode in which a doctor who doubts his ability to pull of a particularly difficult surgery is told by a relative of his patient, "I need you to be a god today."
This time of year, it is difficult not to think about the raising of the dead, when so many churches have fabric draped crosses on the lawn. For Christians this is the most significant part of their church year, and belief in the resurrected Christ is what differentiates Christians from other religions. Or is it?
In the pagan world of Ancient Rome, the mysteries of Mithras were celebrated with a reenactment of his death and resurrection on a chariot into heaven. In the fourth century, the death and resurrection of the godman, Attis, was celebrated on March 25th the third day after his death (from The Jesus Mysteries by Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy). Even Saint Patrick is said to have raised some Irishmen from the dead.
Edward Rutherford gives an interesting explanation for Saint Patrick's miraculous raising of the dead in his novel The Princes of Ireland. Rutherford contents that when Patrick was sent to Ireland to convert the pagans, there was a lot of resistance among the local people who were happy and comfortable with their religious practices and beliefs.
Patrick told them that they could convert without giving anything up (he believed in salvation at any price) and that baptism ensure their going to Heaven. Families, who believed Patrick, were worried about relatives who had died without being baptized. How would they ever get to heaven? The solution was to dig up the corpses and have Patrick baptize them, thus ensuring their resurrection from a sinful earthly life into a heavenly afterlife.
Within Christianity there are denominations that believe in an afterlife in which you retain your body, or your earthly family, and there are denominations that believe that only your soul lives giving you a spiritual afterlife.
There are spiritual afterlife beliefs in many non-Christian religions too, some of which involve reincarnation, and some of which do not. Hindus believe that the soul, Jiva, is immortal and that it may choose to return to earth to have another lifetime as it continues its journey. Judaism believes that death is not the end of human existence. However, there is not a great deal of dogma about the afterlife; Judaism is more focused on life in the present. Muslims believe that when we die we remain in our graves until the Day of Reckoning, when all people will be raised from the dead and judged.
Zoroastrians believe that their afterlife is determined by the balance of good and evil deeds, words and thoughts over the course of a whole life. Heaven awaits those whose good deeds outweigh the bad. There are levels of hell which correspond to the degrees of wickedness during a lifetime for those whose bad deeds outweigh the good.
At some point, all of us will confront our feelings about our mortality here on earth. This can be frightening. Our personal experiences of death are probably surrounded with memories, feelings of loss and sadness, feelings of anger and fear, and maybe even confusion.
A belief about the afterlife can provide comfort in the face of the unknown. Whether you believe that our earthly life is all there is, or that you will be reincarnated, or that you may achieve Nirvana, take comfort in your beliefs. The truth is that we cannot know what will happen next until it happens. So, be present to the joy that is life. You don't want to miss a minute of it.
The Rev. Paula Roper is an Independent Interfaith Minister in New Providence, New Jersey. She is available for spiritual counseling, weddings and other life cycle ceremonies.
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