The Sickness unto Death

Homily for the Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year A.

Once upon a time, in the Land of Arcadia, there lived a boy named Henry. Henry was no ordinary boy; he was a prince, the only son of his father, and the next in line to the throne. When Henry was young, he used to dream of being a king. The thought of wearing a crown, telling everyone what to do, and feasting three times a day was very exciting to him. He couldn’t wait for the day to arrive.

But when his father finally died, and the throne was his for the taking, Henry found being a king very different that he had expected. The crown was heavier than he thought; it was still shiny and sparkled with gems, but it came with a lot of responsibility. He also discovered that he couldn’t always tell people what to do—he had to do a lot of the work himself. Being a king had more to do with serving others than being served himself. Like the other perks of being a king, feasting soon became tiring to Henry as well. Dining daily on the finest meats and choicest wines had him longing for simpler fare.

One day, Henry decided that he no longer wanted to be a king. The perks of being a king didn’t outweigh the responsibilities of being one. Being a king was too hard; too much was asked of you. He wanted to become a prince again. Except he couldn’t. According to the law of the land, “Once a king, always a king, of Arcadia.”

Nevertheless, Henry decided to live as a prince. Henry soon discovered, however, that being a prince was almost as hard as being a king. Princes still had responsibilities. He was still asked to do things, things he didn’t want to do. Henry wanted an easier life, and so he decided to live as a commoner instead. As a commoner, Henry no longer had to make important decisions, but he still had to carry them out. He no longer worked in the palace, but now he had to work in the fields.

Thinking that a life free of responsibility was still to be found, Henry decided to give up on being a commoner too; instead, he would live as a commoner’s dog. But in the Land of Arcadia, dogs were not just pets; they also had jobs to do. The dogs of Arcadia were used in the hunt; they were put to work finding pheasants and other fowl for their owners. They had to run many miles on cold, rainy days. The rations were poor and the pay was nonexistent.

One day, after a particularly long and gruesome hunt, tired to the bone and caked in mud, Henry decided to give up completely. He no longer wanted to live as a dog, or as a commoner, or as a prince. He wanted to live as a king again. And this was accomplished easily enough. For, “Once a king, always a king, of Arcadia.” Henry took a bath, put on his crown, and sat on his throne. He was a king again, and while it wasn’t always easy, he lived happily ever after…

Brothers and sisters, because of our baptism, we have become adopted sons and daughters of God. Reborn in Christ, who is our King, we have become kings and queens in His kingdom. Our dignity has been elevated, and we have been ennobled with gifts beyond measure. But with these immeasurable gifts come responsibilities. A king or queen must live like one, and bear with grace the weight of the crown. And so often we don’t want the responsibility that comes with our high office. We don’t want to be the king or queen God is calling us to be. We’d rather be a prince, a commoner, or a dog. We don’t want to live according to God’s plan for our life.

And this refusal to live according to God’s plan for our life we might describe as a kind of spiritual illness. This is how the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard described in his book The Sickness unto Death. This book is a philosophical treatise which takes as its starting point the story from our gospel today. In particular, Kierkegaard focuses on the line from our gospel when Jesus says to His disciples that “This illness is not to end in death.” When Jesus says this, He of course means this literally. Lazarus is physically ill, but his physical illness is not going to end in physical death, because Jesus is going to come and raise Lazarus from the dead. But Kierkegaard wonders what this might mean if we take Jesus’ words not in a literal sense but in a spiritual one.

There is a physical illness that can end in physical death, but there is also a spiritual illness that can end in spiritual death. This spiritual illness, Kierkegaard says, is the refusal to live according to God’s plan for our life, the refusal to be the person God is calling us to be. Kierkegaard calls this spiritual illness “despair,” and he says it leads to spiritual death. It is the sickness unto death.

And we can certainly see this spiritual illness, this despair, at work in the world today. The perfect image for this spiritual illness is the dead Lazarus: buried in a stone cold tomb, bound by burial bands and cloths. This is an image of a person who is in the grip of despair. This person thinks of God’s plan as restricting his freedom, and so he makes his own plans. He rejects his God-given identity, and creates a new identity for himself. He lives not as a king, but as someone beneath his dignity. But this does not lead to freedom, but to slavery—not to life, but to death. This person becomes like Lazarus, bound and buried.

And to those of us who are afflicted with this sickness unto death, who find ourselves in the grip of this despair, Jesus says to us, as he said to Lazarus, “Come out!” “Be freed of the bands that bind you!” “Be a king or queen once more!” “Take a bath in the waters of reconciliation, put on the crown that I won for you, and sit with me once more on my throne.” “I created you for eternal happiness, but that is not found in being whoever you want to be. It is found in being who I made you to be: my adopted son or daughter, my king or queen.”

Brothers and sisters, during these final days of Lent, let us prepare ourselves to renew our baptismal promises at Easter. Let us remember the high dignity to which we have been elevated by this sacrament, the immeasurable gifts we have been given through it, and the responsibility to which those gifts call us. Let us not walk the path of despair, but the path of faith, choosing to accept who God created us to be. Amen.