Death as a setting sail into a new world

Continuing our nautical series of blogs, death may be likened to settling sail for a new world. Twice in his letters Paul uses this nautical image as a metaphor for death.

Writing to the church at Philippi Paul says: “For me, living is Christ and dying is gain… I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart (analusai) and be with Christ, for that is far better…” (Phil 1.21, 23 NRSV). Later, as an old man, he writes to Timothy: “The time of my departure (analusis) has come” (2 Tim 4.6 NRSV). The Greek word Paul uses is actually a term for sea voyage.

In both places Paul uses a Greek word from which we get our English word ‘analysis’, which involves a separating of items from each other. It is also a word which denotes the loosing of a ship from its moorings and was often used as a euphemism for death. In the ancient classical world the passage into the afterlife was viewed as a voyage down the River Styx into the underworld. Coins would be place in the eyes of the deceased to pay the ferry pilot, who would give the dead person passage into the after-life.

Over against the pagans of his day, the Apostle Paul, of course, had a much more positive view of the world to come. Although he knew the manner of his death could be brutal – tradition tells us that he was beheaded with an axe, his destination was assured Death involved him going “home” .The journey Paul faced was a journey across the sea of death into the haven of eternity, where on his arrival he would be “with Christ”.

Unfortunately the nautical element of this metaphor is not present in our English versions. In the NRSV we simply have: “The time of my departure has come”. Similarly the GNB translates: “The time is here for me to leave this life”. A better translation would perhaps be: “The time for my embarkation has come” (so Quinn & Walker). It seems to me that Charles Henry Brent (1862-1929), a former bishop in the American Episcopal Church, got to the heart of the metaphor when he wrote:

“What is dying? I am, standing on the seashore. A ship sails to the morning breeze and starts for the ocean. She is an object of beauty and I stand watching her till at last she fades on the horizon and someone at my side says, ‘She is gone’. Gone where? Gone from my sight, that is all… Just at the moment when someone at my side says, ‘she is gone’, there are others who are watching her coming, and other voices take up a glad shout, ‘There she comes’ and that is dying”.

But is there more to the metaphor? I believe there is. To unloose the moorings of a boat is to set it free to sail away. When Paul was writing to Timothy, his ship was still tied up. But he longed to cast anchor – to unloose his moorings – and sail away. He wanted perhaps to be free of all life’s restrictions and limitations. He wanted to leave this world for the next.

This seems to me a highly appropriate metaphor for the death of an elderly person, dogged perhaps by years of ill-health. In that context death is a ‘blessed release’. Death marks the moment when the restrictions of this life are over. However much we may miss our friends and loved ones, death for them may well be welcome. We may paraphrase the words of Martin Luther King’s epitaph and apply it to such friends and loved ones:

Free at last, free at last
Thank God Almighty s/he is free at last”.

The fact is that our bodies do ultimately wear out – we are but mortal beings. Indeed, I am told that from about the age of 25 we are all wearing out. But thank God there is more to life than this life. For those who have put their trust in Jesus, there is another world to enjoy. A world free of physical restriction, a world lived in the very presence of God. Death is but a setting sail for a new and better world – and loved ones and friends who have gone on ahead, are waiting to greet us.

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