Death, where is thy sting?
Fall is a time of great beauty and many folks travel to the mountains and through the valleys to see the magnificent changing colors of the foliage. But let’s not overlook the obvious. Nature is going dormant, even dying, and this cycle of nature itself is foreshadowing our own deaths. The liturgical year coincides with the season and is also coming to an end. The Scripture selections have the same message: prepare for death.
We will all die, and the uncertainties surrounding how we will die are disquieting. But the certainty of death brings with it another inevitability We will be separated forever from the things of this world and death will seal our fate for eternity. So it is important for our peace of soul to consider these facts in more detail.
We will all die. “What man can live and never see death?” (Ps 89:48) And despite the adventures of Ponce de Leon, however hard we try, nobody has yet discovered the “fountain of youth” (although there are the fountains of eternal life, the Sacraments of the Church). Nobody has ever discovered a means to avoid death despite advances in computer-chip implant technology and blueberry antioxidant nutrition. The best we can hope is to somewhat extend our lives. “No man has power to retain the spirit, or authority over the day of death.” (Eccl 8:8)
Even those in perfect health must recognize that health can fail in a heartbeat. And the prospect of death can haunt like a bad dream. “Afflicted and close to death from my youth up, I suffer thy terrors; I am helpless” (Ps 88:15) “My heart is in anguish within me, the terrors of death have fallen upon me.” (Ps 55:4) The obituary section of newspapers awaits all of us.
Death will separate us from the things of this world. As an old preacher’s joke has it, we never see a U-Haul trailer attached to a funeral hearse. Or as the homespun wisdom of the elderly conversing on their rocking chairs has it, “You can’t take it with you.” “For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.” (Rom 8:13)
Toward the end of his life, St. Thomas Aquinas had a vision of the Lord. The Lord said to him, “You have served me well, Thomas. Ask for anything and I will give it to you.” What did Thomas ask for? Did he ask for heated quarters? Did he ask for a comfortable bed or a big bank account? Thomas asked for none of these. He said rather to the Lord, “I want you!” Death frees us from the things of this world so that we can be in union with the Beloved.
Death will seal our fate for eternity. Pope John XXIII memorized a prayer in his youth that provided a spiritual compass throughout his life. His meditation was on the Four Last Things:
- Death, than which nothing is more certain:
- Judgment, than which nothing is more strict.
- Heaven, than which nothing is more delightful.
- Hell, than which nothing is more terrible.
During the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, old newsreels show countless penitents lined up outside of the churches for Confession. Before the Irish Brigade made its fateful Battle of Gettysburg charge in 1863, Father William Corby famously administered a general absolution of the soldiers. Faced with the imminent threat of death, the desire for the forgiveness of sin is sensible. But for the most part, we know not the day or the hour of our demise. So it is reasonable to expect we will die according to the patterns of how we live.
Hence, the worthy reception of Holy Communion and frequent Confession should be a habitual part of the life of every Christian. Every time we receive Holy Communion we renew our Covenant with the Lord. Every time we go to Confession, with God’s grace we repair our Covenant with the Lord. These sacramental habits of life do not indicate presumption, but a holy confidence in the Lord.
The story goes that when St. Charles Borromeo was playing billiards, someone asked what he would do if he knew he only had fifteen more minutes to live. St. Charlies (allowing for literary license) responded in stride, “I’d sink that eight ball in the corner pocket.” Like the prudent virgins awaiting the return of the groom, he had oil in his lamp; he was ready to meet the Lord.
But as we struggle to work out our own salvation in fear in trembling (Phil 2:12) we must be careful to avoid judging others; that belongs to God alone. Judge the sin, but not the soul. As we get older and more contemplative we realize the profound truth found in the book of the prophet Jeremiah: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt; who can understand it? ‘I the Lord search the mind and try the heart, to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his doings.’“ (Jer 17:9-10) God alone is the Supreme Judge of souls.
Over these weeks, as the liturgical year draws to an end, the Gospel selections will be concerned with the Last Things. For kings and popes, priests and people—death, judgment, heaven or hell will come. But for Christians who live the life of faith, death is not the final absurdity in an insane world. Death in Christ is the narrow gate. As we face the jaws of death, His return is the answer to our prayers, “Come, Lord Jesus!” Death is our gateway to Heaven.
“Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Cor 15:55)
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