LATES, BUT NO APPETITE. WEDDING RINGS, EVEN IF THE LOVE HAS “BEEN gone now for some three hundred years.” A fan, but “where is the maiden’s blush?” Evaporated and breathed into a breath alchemized by plants? Or, perhaps, incarnated into a cloud and, decades later, leaked in a teardrop?
“Here are swords—where is the ire?”
Welcome to poet Wislawa Szymborska’s “Museum,” the place where “ten thousand aging things have been amassed.”* It’s a poem, a paean, not so much about what death takes away but about what it leaves behind, such as in Exhibit Number Eight: “Metals, clay and feathers celebrate/their silent triumphs over dates./Only some Egyptian flapper’s silly hairpin giggles.” Or the other exhibit, where “the crown has outlasted the head./The hand has lost out to the glove./The right shoe has defeated the foot.”
Whether ashes in a jar, or bones in a mud-covered box, we become “remains,” a fuzzy echo, a broken outline of ourselves unrecognizable from everyone else unless a name’s etched nearby.
It’s so hard, this death stuff, because God “has . . . set eternity in [our] hearts” (Eccl. 3:11). From Eden eternal life was wired into us like right angles into a square. We were never meant to die, which is why we fear it so much. Don’t mistake the “usual” for the “correct.” No one dies of “natural” causes, any more than the moon emanates its own light or shrimps whistle “Dixie.” Death is an alien intruder, our most inflexible and uncompromising enemy, one who takes no prisoners but strafes, snipes, and shells as every cell wall crumbles and all within drains out and decays until only our “remains” remain. Death is a foe impossible for us to hunt out and destroy because it is made out of what we, as fallen beings, are—that is, pubescent versions of our corpses, which we carry on our backs and never shake off. On the contrary, they shake us off instead.
Szymborska confronts the trivia that she, the poet herself, will leave after death. “As for me, I am still alive, you see./The battle with my dress still rages on./It struggles, foolish thing, so stubbornly!/Determined to keep living when I’m gone!”
The dress would beat her too, just as that silly hairpin did its Egyptian flapper. It, all the litter we the living leave in our wake, would win out except for one thing, and that is the gospel—the promise of God through Christ of eternal life in a new existence. “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea” (Rev. 21:1). “Behold, I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind” (Isa. 65:17).
No question, our corpses would long outlive us, except that Christ’s corpse didn’t outlive Him, and the victory He won over His assures us our victory over ours. We have in Jesus, and the righteousness He offers by faith, the promise of “eternal life” (John 6:54), the promise of our own place in “a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms [and all the trinkets we leave in them] and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever” (Dan. 2:44). Or, put another way: “The day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it [the plates, the wedding rings, the swords, the fans, the flapper’s hairpins, the crown, the glove, the right shoe, even Wislawa Szymborska’s dress] will be laid bare” (2 Peter 3:10).
In Christ our corpses are merely pajamas, sleeping attire, loosely fitting and comfortable if not exactly beautiful. But who cares, because our eyes are closed until that moment, until that “twinkling of an eye . . . [when] the dead will be raised imperishable” (1 Cor. 15:52), and the museum door shuts forever on the trinkets left behind.
*Wislawa Szymborska, View With a Grain of Sand: Selected Poems (Harcourt, Inc., 1995).
Clifford Goldstein is editor of the Adult Sabbath School Bible Study Guide. This article was printed January 14, 2010.