As we approach the end of the Church’s year, we are invited to contemplate the last things: death, judgment, purgatory, heaven and hell. For life passes quickly and we have not here a lasting city. We were born for higher things, for life with God. This life has been entrusted to us to live in love for God and neighbour. He will judge us with mercy and justice, for He is Himself love and truth, but still He will demand an account from each one of us.
What is death? We experience it as the irreversible loss of life, as something to be feared, avoided or even denied. Scripture tells us that it entered the world through the envy of Satan, that God never wanted it. St. Ambrose says that God allowed it as a remedy to end the weariness of life. Without the assistance of grace, immortality is more of a burden than a blessing, he adds.
While all of this is true, it is still truer to say that Christ has transformed death. In fact, at every Mass we proclaim his death as something to be celebrated, for which to give thanks to the Father. Eucharist means thanksgiving for Christ’s sacrifice. If we are to approach death aright, then, we need to contemplate closely the death of Jesus.
For Jesus, death is at the heart of love and love at the heart of death. Love means giving your very self to and for the other’s lasting good. A husband or wife, a mother or father, understands this instinctively. Love is a dying to self to give life to the beloved. Here, dying is more a moral and spiritual kind of thing, but any true lover will also die physically if that’s what love requires. How many mothers and fathers in Gaza will have died protecting the bodies of their children.
Jesus first died in the very act of becoming man. He died to his glorious divine condition. It was the first movement in his symphony of love and death for our sakes. That first death brought him to life as a human child. Throughout his earthly existence, he constantly emptied himself in love and in various forms of dying to his own will. He knew that he was born to die, to die to himself in obedience to the Father, and to die for us to rescue us from the worst form of death, the death of the soul in sin.
St. Luke tells us that Jesus “resolutely took the road to Jerusalem” where he knew he would suffer and die. He faced death head on. We, too, can face death honestly, resolutely, in the company of Jesus. While it’s not healthy to dwell morbidly on death, neither is it healthy to ignore or repress it. The point is to approach it the right way. We can learn so much from the way Jesus approached his death. In Gethsemane, he brought his fear and terror of death to prayer before the Father. We can do the same. The sooner we involve God in the many feelings and doubts we experience in the face of death, the more we will know his comfort and strength. None of us, I think, will sweat blood as did Jesus in the face of death, but we can hope to share in the help from heaven that he was given by angels, as Luke tells us.
Jesus wrestled with death, which is what the word agony means. Humanly, he asks for it to pass. But he submits to the divine will, trusting in the Father’s power. The fruit of this wrestling and submission is deep inner peace. He faces the rest of the Passion with profound serenity. You see it in his silence before Pilate; he does not cry out or shout aloud or recriminate or lash out. We, too, must wrestle with the divine will, with its why and wherefore. Like Jesus, we won’t find peace and resignation until we have our say, and even our shouting match, with God, but in the end we must submit to Him. The Letter to the Hebrews tells us that Jesus offered up prayer and entreaty, aloud and in silent tears to the One who had the power to deliver him out of death, and that he submitted so humbly that his prayer was heard. He was delivered not from dying, but out of death. We must ask Jesus for a share in this grace of humble submission with a view to ultimate deliverance. It’s not a case of passive resignation, but of realism in approaching death in living faith, hope and love.
On Calvary, Jesus also teaches us how to die in three acts of total self-giving. First, he forgave his executioners who never asked for it; and then the good thief who did. Death puts into perspective the hurts and resentments we may have been carrying for a life-time. Jesus did not have these, of course, but we might. To prepare for death means to forgive, to let go, whether we have been asked to forgive or not. How true is our petition for mercy from God in death if we carry grudges into it? Second, Jesus gave away what was most precious to him, his Mother and his beloved Friend. It was his extreme, dying love for each of them which forged the bond between them. It is often the wish of a dying mother or father that their estranged children be reconciled. When the bonds of life are being cut, you see the importance of rejoining the bonds of love. Third, and most sublimely of all, Jesus gives Himself back to the Father when he prays, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” This is the core of death: an act of trusting love for God. It’s what the martyrs understood. It is the diametric reversal of Adam’s death which resulted from a no to the love of God. The more we seek to love God now, consciously, with perseverance, with intent and deliberately, the more our own death will be an act of true love for Him.
Death is not an end in itself, but a means to an end. For those united with Christ, we can call that end heaven, union with God, eternal salvation or divine glory. The heavenly glory Jesus left behind at the incarnation was regained at the moment of his death on the Cross, only now his, and our humanity, shares in it. No wonder, then, that we proclaim his death. The Eucharist prepares us to die in, with and for Christ. Thus our death will not end in death but in glory.