I am reflecting on the meaning of death in recent days. In our parishes this past week there have been many individuals who are either on hospice, were recently diagnosed with serious illness, or who have died. I have also suffered a personal loss of an extended family member. So, maybe God is asking me to take a look at the fragility of life and the dignity of a good death.
I think we tend to either pathologize death or romanticize it. For so many people, even good, faithful Christians, the reality of death is surrounded by the reality of disease and illness. We associate death with the ravages of sickness and we disassociate it from life. The two, for many of us, are contraries and we think they cannot co-exist. This seems to be solidly supported by common sense and experience, yet we know as followers of Christ and members of the Catholic fold that it is only in death that we truly receive life, and it is in this life that we will experience death. It is at the moment of physical death that the fullness of life is unleashed for those in a state of grace and purified from all attachments to sin. Life abounds because death has been defeated, not victorious.
St. Paul would say in his epistle, “Where O death, is your sting?” He would write, “I carry in me the death of the Lord.” St. Paul knew full well that in his flesh the death of Christ was lived, and through that death life abounded.
A death well-lived is a proclamation of the death and resurrection of Jesus. A death not sought, but accepted, is a breaking forth of glory for all eternity.
There is in each of us a natural desire for life, a natural desire to live eternally. There is an attraction for that which is true, good and beautiful. In other words, there is the pull toward the divine. Death, which has entered the world through our freedom to choose it, has been reformed by the salvific action of Jesus. Death, which is the result of an evil choice made by a man at the beginning of human history, has been transformed into the gateway through which we walk and through which we see face-to-face the God who has made us, and who originally intended for us to see him as he is from our conception.
Death also has been romanticized by many. One needs only view some war movies, or perhaps love stories to see death in this way. Our contemporary society is moving toward sanitization of death. The messiness of death is something people want to be rid of now-a-days. Look at the “right to death” movements (which are only veiled attempts to rename euthanasia) because they would rather the death be chosen before its time, that it be denied its course, its transformative opportunity. They would rather that someone die cleanly with a lethal medical intervention than for that person to fully enter the passage way to eternal life. They would rather spare someone the temporal discomforts and pain than allow them the eternal joys that a truly human and humane death would provide.
Blessed Pope John Paul II gave us a vivid reminder of the dignity of a death well-lived. He died so that we might know that death never has the last say in any man’s life.
St. Francis of Asissi called death, “Brother Death.” He embraced it as fully as he embraced life and light and joy and mirth. As we have prayed so often,
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen!
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