By Anthony Aneke
The theme of death is what naturally we don’t want to occupy ourselves with. We don’t want to talk about it. We try as much as possible to jettison the thought of our “dying”. In fact, we don’t want to die. Yet death remains the greatest truth that confronts our existence on daily basis. Almost every day, we hear about people dying. We sometimes witness their passing away. The departure of our beloved ones brings the reality to us that one day we shall be like them. “Being like them” is what we don’t want to give a thought to. Yet we must surely be like them. The tension heightens more for we “know neither the day nor the hour (Mat 25:13). We cannot predict the moment of our passing. Yet we know it will be among the most important days of our lives. The fear we feel in the face of death is, of course natural, we weren’t made for death. We were made for life.
We know that while the mortality rate for each of us is 100 percent, the immortality rate for each of us is also 100 percent. Death is not the end. Not for anyone. Every person who has ever lived is still alive in one state or another – a state of grace or a state of disgrace in the words of Scott Hahn. St. John Henry Newman’s sermon on the “individuality of the Soul” reminds us: “All those millions upon millions of human beings who ever trod the earth and saw the sun successively, are at this very moment in existence all together. This, I think, you will grant we do not duly realize. All those Canaanites, whom the children of Israel slew, every one of them is somewhere in the universe, now at this moment, where God has assigned him a place.”
It seems that in death, the divide between hope and fear is unbridgeable. Each of the waiting dead knows what will happen to them at the time of final judgment. They know if their body will be resurrected to death or to life. Those who hope, hope with certainty. Those who fear, fear with equal certainty. They all know what they freely chose in life – heaven or hell and they know the time for making another choice has passed. Christ the Judge has pronounced their fate, that fate is sealed.
But here and now, the chasm between hope and fear can be crossed. We do not have to dread the end of this earthly life. We don’t have to live in terror about what comes after we close our eyes for the last time. No matter how far we have run from God, no matter how often we have chosen against him and his ways, we still have time to make another choice. Like the prodigal son, we can return to the Father’s house and know that he will welcome us with open arms, transforming our fear of death into hope. This is the gift of the Lenten season to us.
The Lenten period prepares us for this ultimate reality –death.As we reflect on the Jesus event (passion, death and resurrection)during thisLenten season, we see our own very story being told. We see the gradual and ongoingunraveling of the story of our Christian lives being told. We see our strengths, our weaknesses, our falls, our betrayals, our insults, unfaithfulness but then ultimately we see our final victory over death at the resurrection of Christ. The resurrection story in the gospel pericope is only but a foreshadowing of our own individual resurrection story at the eschaton. If this is true, then, all of Christian life can be seen as preparation for death.
The central message of the Lenten season is: Jesus came to release us from our fear of death. The loving obedience he offered on the cross atoned for our sins and opened the gates to Heaven for all who follow him. It also changed the very meaning of death for those united to him. It “transformed the curse of death into a blessing,” making death the door that leads to everlasting life with God (CCC 1009).
Quoting from St. Paul, the Catechism explains: because of Christ, Christian death has a positive meaning: “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”…What is essentially new about Christian death is this: through Baptism, the Christian has already ‘died with Christ: sacramentally, in order to live a new life; and if we die in Christ’s grace, physical death completes this “dying with Christ” and so completes our incorporation into him in his redeeming act. (1010).
This participation changes everything. The Church’s liturgy reminds of this: “Lord, your faithful people life is changed, not ended,” we hear the priest say at funeral Masses. “When the body of our earthly dwelling lies in death we gain an everlasting dwelling place in heaven”. When we know death is not the end, when we know that death is just the beginning of everlasting joy, everlasting life, and everlasting communion with the one we love, hope drives fear. It makes us long for death. It makes us long to be with Christ in a world where there is no suffering, no pain, no loss.
So the big question is: how do we prepare for death this Lenten season.
It is good for us to make distinctions between remote preparation and near preparation, because there are some things we should do differently if we know death is imminent, whether the death is our own, or a friend’s or family member’s.
The best preparation – and best done as far in advance as possible – is to make a good and thorough confession while we are still thinking clearly and still have the energy for the task. Nothing brings peace to a soul like a confession that’s well prepared: clear, concise, and complete. If we haven’t been to confession in a while – and even if we have – we should make every effort to make the practice habitual during this Lenten season. Confession is key to our spiritual growth, and it is the ordinary way that we believers come to a deeper knowledge of ourselves as we truly are – that is, as God sees us. Confession keeps us from living and laboring under delusions about the world, about our place in it, and about the story of our lives. It brings the dark corners of our soul into the clear morning light of eternal day, for ourselves to see in the sight of God. That can be difficult, and it can sometimes be painful, but in the end it heals with the all powerful touch of Jesus Christ.
Through confession, we begin to heal. We begin to get our stories straight. We come home through the open door to resume our place in God’s family. We begin to know peace. Again, none of these comes easily. Indeed, confession does not make change easy, but it does make it possible, supernatural and salvific – not just for ourselves, but for every life we touch. Confession is not a quick fix, but it is a sure cure. We need to go to the sacrament and go again, and keep going back, because life is a marathon, not a forty-yard dash. We will often want to stop, but like a distance runner, we need to press on for our second wind, and our third, and our fourth. In this case, we can count on the wind coming, because it is the wind of the holy spirit.
We should make arrangement to receive sacramental anointing, as soon as we know we are gravely ill. We should also make arrangement to receive Holy Communion as often as possible, either by attending Mass or by alerting the hospital chaplain or local parish. It’s important that we make the contact.
As we are dying, it’s important for us to be clear about our business, and to keep it before us. We are working towards a goal, and we want to accomplish it in good time. If we spend all out time trying to distract ourselves from the thought, we’ll fail eventually, because the thought is overwhelming, and we’ll make more misery for ourselves at the end, because we’ll be unprepared.
So it is good for us to follow after the saints and think hard about the “four last things”: death, judgment, heaven, and hell. The Church encourages us to do this even while we’re healthy, so that we’re always viewing our days from an eternal perspective. Surely you’ve seen painting of the cell of monks who kept a human skull on their work tables. We need not go to such length as acquiring a skull for our bed stand, but traveling usually goes more smoothly and swiftly when we have a clear idea of our destination. In our prayer, in the presence, we should think about death.Nor should this make us sober or dreary. The monks kept a good sense of humor even as they faced the inevitable.
The Catholic novelist Muriel Spark often had to defend himself against critics who said she was cruel for joking about death. She responded to them: “I’m often very deadpan, but there’s a moral statement too, and what its saying is that there’s life beyond this, and these events are not the most important things.”Yet they are important, because they’re the stuff of the life that remains for us, and so we take care with them. If it’s our own death we’re preparing for, we should try to get our affairs in order, so that those who survive us won’t have quite so much work to do. We can look upon this as our professional work during the last leg of the journey. We can then, offer it as prayer, as we would offer any of our ordinary labors. It’s a good task that will keep us occupied, if not distracted, and at the same time keep us moving toward our goal. Like much human work, it can be a genuine act of love. We should not, however, put undue pressure on ourselves to finish the job. One does what one can.
The world is full of suffering. The Lenten period helps us understand more the value of suffering.We can witness to the value of suffering voluntarily borne.We can do more than that. We can “offer it up.” Bishop Fulton Sheen said that, whenever he passed a hospital, he was saddened to think of how much suffering goes “wasted” when it could be put to use. We can indeed unite our suffering with those of Jesus Christ (see Col 1:24) and thus rescue them from meaninglessness. We can make them redemptive. Our pains and discomfort, our fears and humiliation can redeem with the power of Christ.
When death at last is imminent, we should call upon the Church to provide Viaticum, the last sacraments. (The Latin word suggests wayfarer’s food, bread for the journey.) the rites are beautiful and genuinely helpful for keeping the dying person focused on the task. They provide the opportunity for the last expression of sorrow for sins and a last profession of the Catholic faith. When we are caregivers, we too can help by reading from a spiritual book during those last days, or simply praying prayers of aspiration aloud, something suitable for the dying person to repeat or think about. It is our own death we’re preparing for, we might consider making such reading materials available to our caregivers, along with instructions, again, we shouldn’t minimize the evangelistic and Catechetical value of our dying days. They are sign and a mystery to those who survive. One person’s death is very often the occasion of another’s conversion.When we face death as Christians, we’re like babies waiting to be born. Our faces press up against a membrane that separates us from a life we cannot see and could not possibly understand.
The above is the opposite of how the world tells us to live. The world tells us to eat, drink, and make merry, for tomorrow we may die. The world sees death as the end, with only darkness to follow. The Lenten season reminds us, however, of the need to love, sacrifice, serve, and pray so that tomorrow we might live. Lent makes us see death not so much as an end, but as a beginning and urges us to both remain in Christ’s grace and ask him for the graces to do so. It also urges us to call upon the saints – those who have obtained the life for which we long and ask for their prayers. The Catechism notes: The Church encourages us to prepare ourselves for the hour of our death. In the ancient litany of the saints, for instance, she has us pray: “From a sudden and unforeseen death, deliver us O Lord”; to ask the Mother of God to intercede for us “at the hour of our death” in the Hail Mary; and to entrust ourselves to St. Joseph, the patron of a happy death.(CCC 1014).