There is something sacred about the pain you witness at a funeral. It is not only severe in its affliction but powerfully expresses a depth of love. The loss of a loved one to death seems to be a living death as well for the one left behind. And we all sense, in our very bones, that this loss should simply not be, that death should simply not have any say in life. Death screams its own absurdity and, in return, screams of pain and anger from those alive inevitably echo back.
The reaction against death expresses our desire for life, nay, our demand for life. It proclaims that life, not death, should have the last word. In the face of the very inevitability of death we yet insist, we know, we defend the logic that life, not death, is what we humans are about.
And our instinct is spot on. Death was never God’s plan for us but was, as the Book of Wisdom says, the result of the devil’s envy. He envied our life of friendship with God. He envied God’s supreme life. And so, the assault he unleashed on humankind was intended to inflict death, the end of man living with God, the end of man himself. That death was firstly spiritual, through pride and disobedience, and therefore also physical. Physical death came through spiritual death. Sin made our bodies incapable of sustaining our immortal souls. In death, our bodies collapse and leave our immortal souls which God then takes to himself, if we have longed for him. And this tearing apart of our humanity defines death. It tears us apart from ourselves before it tears us apart from our loved ones.
While the Lord’s love could not fail to respect our freedom to sin yet, once we did sin, that same love could not fail to rescue us from sin’s consequences, especially death. What was needed was to replace a sinful Adam and Eve with a sinless Adam and Eve, in the persons of Jesus and Mary. Adam and Eve had said no to God’s will. Jesus and Mary both said, “let it be done to me according to your will” or “Father, not my will but thine be done.”
The mission of Jesus, the Son of God, was first to die and then to rise. He did not merit death since he was without sin. But he took on our mortal condition so that he could die and, by dying, wrest away the power over death from the one who envies us. It is now Jesus who has power over death, a power he will exercise likewise for those who believe in him or seek him with sincere hearts. Jesus did not die as one defeated by sin, but as one without any sin of his own and who yet took all our sins on himself to destroy them by the love and obedience of the Cross. Death will remain part of human history until the end of the world, but from the moment Jesus died for us on the Cross, death’s meaning has changed. It is now no longer banishment to oblivion, but the doorway to life with God. Sin will remain part of human history until the end of the world, but from the moment Jesus destroyed sin on the Cross, no sin need dominate any man. Every sin has already been forgiven for the one who repents and seeks that forgiveness. Only the person who does not want forgiveness will not know forgiveness. Only the one who does not want Christ will not know eternal life.
And so, the sacred pain of those who mourn will still echo the tragedy of death caused by Adam, but it is tempered and, in time, healed through hope in the victory over death caused by Christ. If we have this hope, death now simply introduces a waiting period before final reunion, a period in which our dead are with Christ, being glorified by his grace and being loved into perfect holiness and peace. In some way known only to Christ, the dead themselves remain in union and communion with us in prayer and love. As we pray for them, they pray for us. As we long to see them again, so they long again to see us. As each day passes, we get closer to that reunion in Christ with them, so long, of course, as we continue to live our lives in the faith and love of God.
In this life, we have no lasting city. But we can build the city of God by living our life with the hope and promise of eternal life. Our calling is to live this life with hearts and minds rooted in heaven. That obviously does not mean despising this life or abandoning our responsibilities in home, Church and society. On the contrary, it means allowing how we live now in all these things to be formed by the values of the resurrection. St. Paul, after speaking of Christ’s victory swallowing up death, urges the Corinthians to get on with their work in the here and now. “Never give in, my dear brothers”, he says, “never admit defeat; keep on working at the Lord’s work always, knowing that, in the Lord you cannot be labouring in vain.”
The Lord’s work is not just what the priest or bishop does: it is every work that any believer does in their life. We confer an eternal value on the work we do every day if we do it inspired by the Risen Lord, if we do it driven by the hope of eternal life. The old formulas of the morning offering prayer said it beautifully, that we give and dedicate to the Lord all that we do, think, say and pray during the day. Every day is his gift. Every day can bear fruit for eternity if we live it with our hearts set on Christ.
The day we were baptised our lives were placed within the embrace of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Not just our spiritual lives, mind; but also, the rest of our lives. In a sacramental way, we died and were buried with Jesus and rose again with him. That sacramental grace plays itself out in our lives as we die to sin and live for God. It is fulfilled when we die and abide our resurrection. In fact, if we own our baptism in its depths, we will long to live this life only for Christ. As did some of the saints, we may find ourselves longing to be gone and to be with Christ. St. Ignatius of Antioch wrote these words: “I want to see God and, in order to see him, I must die. I am not dying; I am entering life.” During the funeral Mass we say this prayer, “Lord, for your faithful people life is changed, not ended. When the body of our earthly dwelling lies in death, we gain an everlasting dwelling place in heaven.”
We believe in eternal life. The Church encourages us to prepare ourselves for the hour of death. In the “Imitation of Christ” we are encouraged with these words: “every action of yours, every thought, should be those of one who expects to die before the day is out. Death would have no great terrors for you if you had a quiet conscience. Then why not keep clear of sin instead of running away from death? If you aren’t fit to face death today, it’s very unlikely you will be tomorrow.”
On Wednesday we begin once again the season of Lent which is really the season of preparation to celebrate – yes, to celebrate! – the death and resurrection of the Lord. In reality, we are also celebrating our own death and resurrection in anticipation, for we belong to the Lord. We pray for the grace and wisdom to allow Lent to form and reform us as true Christians: eager to serve the Lord on this earth, eager to run to him when he calls us in death and eager to share in the glory of the resurrection, the eternal Easter Day. On that day, no more pain shall there be!