This is the Vulgate translation of Philippians 1:21, and my favorite passage in the Holy Scriptures.
Vivere Christus est = “To live is Christ”
et mori lucrum = “and to die is gain”
Otherwise translated: “Life is Christ, and death is gain.”
Reflection on Life and Death, and A Practical Way of Using Philippians 1:21
Life and death are mysteriously woven together in our earthly existence and day to day experiences. Our bodies, even in the flower of life, are already on the way to death. And though in different proportions, sickness and pain coexist with health and vigor in each of our lives. Sorrow and happiness alternate and interpenetrate one another.
We know this coexistence is natural and can be accepted with resignation – and we know also that it is natural to seek life and fear death. But at the same time we are all subject to the experience of a longing for a different kind of life; an unending, or infinite life. We long for abundant life that death cannot touch, a fulfillment that we cannot put our finger on. We do not know what it is, but only that it is not life as we know it – it is more.
Christianity offers the definitive answer to this human problem by proclaiming that Jesus Christ is God-Made-Man, and hence God-made-subject-to-death. When a man dies, his life is swallowed up by death. When the God-Man dies, death is swallowed up by his life. In this way the abundant and unknown life for which we long enters the world.
Because of Jesus Christ, we no longer have to fear death and pain and suffering – nor are we left in mere resignation before them. We are given the key to unlocking the mystery of life and death: Jesus Christ himself – God With Us.
Life and death are now interpreted for us in Christ. Vivere Christus est, et mori lucrum!
What is life?
Life is Jesus Christ our God. (Vivere Christus est)
What is death?
Because his life has swallowed up death, death is a gain of Jesus Christ – a gain of life. (Mori lucrum est)
Death and suffering remain evils: the Christian does not seek them willy nilly. But when, like Christ, the Christian embraces suffering as an act of loving obedience to God, death becomes a Way to life in greater measure.
I’ve found, personally, that Philippians 1:21 can help one keep perspective on this. In the midst of life’s great pains, I find it liberating to recall that in desiring and seeking life and health and wholeness, I am desiring Jesus Christ the Son of God. But insofar as I cannot secure life and health and wholeness for myself, I must obediently embrace death and incompleteness. Recalling this is also liberating, because in such obedient, loving death I gain Christ in greater measure than before – Christ: the one whom I was desiring, in desiring life.
“Pick up your cross, and follow me,” says the Lord.
Life is Christ, and death is gain: a spiritual exegesis
This is an extremely hope-filled statement – indeed a liberating one.
“Life is Christ.” The first clause means that Jesus Christ is life itself – not only “being alive,” but having “life in abundance” – what every person longs for above all else. Jesus Christ is the one Savior, the bringer of true life. In him our lives find meaning. In him our souls and bodies find healing. We have only to love him and follow him.
“Death is gain.” The first clause is easy enough to grasp. But the second clause modifies the first; it adds to and clarifies its meaning. We are given the simple statement “Life is Christ,” but then we given a paradox, an enigma, about that life, namely: death is a gain of life.
How can this be? How can death, which by definition is a loss of life, be a gain of life? Isn’t this a contradiction?
What we have here is not a contradiction. What we have here is the mystery of how God saves us from death. Rather than simply reversing death, he made death the Way to life by sending his Divine Son to submit to death. He made death and suffering the means of lovingly submitting to God, and of giving life to others; he revealed the Resurrection as the reward for this dying according to the pattern of Christ.
Christ delivered the “death blow” to death by enduring it himself. And now, no one with living faith in Christ will ever really die, because death has no ultimate power over them. They have no reason to fear anything; the abundant life they live is Jesus Christ their God; and suffering, death – it leads to life in even greater measure.