By Cardinal Justin Rigali
We began this month of November by recalling all the Saints in heaven and by praying for the souls in purgatory in a special way. This is a good opportunity to reflect on the consoling revelation concerning Christian death.
We are not speaking of a great unknown
To a degree, it is natural for us to have a certain apprehension when we reflect on the idea of death. However, let us use the example of loving parents who seek to calm the fears a child has about some situation. The parents lay the facts of the situation before the child and, by explaining them, they seek to take what is unknown and the cause of fear and bring it into the realm of understanding. The title of this week’s article is taken from the First Letter of Saint Paul to the Thessalonians and he lays aside our fears concerning death by explaining this great mystery in the light of Jesus Christ. We do the same this week.
By making use of the term “asleep,” Saint Paul is not using a comforting expression in order to disguise the reality of death. It expresses a deeply Christian idea, having everything to do with the Death and Resurrection of Jesus and our incorporation into it.
Saint Augustine comments on this passage in this way: “Why does it say that they are asleep, if not because they will be raised when their day comes?” (Sermon 93, 6).
We sometimes use the beautiful expression “life in Christ.” This is an expression of a profound reality. When the Eternal Word became Flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary, He became one of us. This is why Jesus delighted in referring to Himself as “Son of Man,” just as He referred to Himself as “Son of God.” From the moment of the Incarnation, He represented us before the face of His Father. He began our incorporation into the very life of the Most Blessed Trinity. However, to actually bring about and complete that incorporation, Jesus had to accomplish two things: He had to teach us, by word and example, what is pleasing to His Father and He had to repair the injury which our first parents inflicted on our race by their sin.
The first He accomplished by what the Gospels say that Jesus “did and said.” The second He accomplished by taking upon Himself the sufferings of a painful death and overcoming that death by His own Resurrection. Since He had become one with us by His Incarnation, His suffering and victory over death presented the redeemed image of each of us before His Eternal Father.
In the sacramental life of the Church, by which we actually share in the life of Jesus in a real and personal way, we enter into His own life, Death and Resurrection. This begins at our Baptism and it has its logical conclusion in our own death. By “conclusion,” we do not mean an abrupt end but an appropriate fulfillment. Just as we do not speak of the Death of Jesus on the Cross as His “end,” we who have been incorporated into His life do not experience our own death as an “end,” but rather as a continuation of our life into eternity. This is what Jesus has done for us.
The value of our own suffering
Many of our priests relate to me the beautiful way in which so many of our faithful unite their sufferings, especially those which may precede their death, with those of our Lord. This is possible because the Father sees His own Son in each of us. As I have written before: “When the Father sees our death, our pain, our sacrifice, our resignation, our joyful and obedient acceptance, he can see nothing else but the death of His Son Jesus. In virtue of his gift to us of spanine adoption, he can say: ‘My Jesus!'” (Show us your Mercy and Love, p. 78, Paulist Press, 2003).
The fact that faithful Christians down through the centuries have been able to grasp the idea of “offering up” their own sufferings in union with Jesus, even if they could not explain the theological technicalities, is testimony to the enduring truth of the revelation of Jesus Christ, which transcends time and which can be grasped and lived by all.
Our death in Christ may be said to be the logical conclusion of our life in Him. In fact, this continuity is shown to us by realizing that the degree of grace which we possess at the hour of our death will be transformed into the degree of glory we will possess in heaven. Just as the Eternal Son of the Father became one with us at the moment of His conception in the womb of His holy Mother and died and rose from the dead in our name, so our own death is the glorious conclusion of that life begun in the womb of our own mother and continued for all eternity, if we have been faithful to our Redeemer and Brother, Jesus Christ.
These great truths must not be trivialized
A number of our topics in the past have dealt with the dignity of the human person and the defense of life. We certainly believe in and defend this life and this is why we speak out when it is threatened in any way. However, we do not only believe in this life. Our defense of human life is not undertaken because we believe that this is all there is to the human person.
One of the reasons why we defend the human person is precisely because of all that we have been saying this week, namely that each person has an eternal destiny and the possibility of attaining heaven because he or she has been incorporated into the Death of Jesus and redeemed by Him. For these reasons, we can easily understand why death cannot be trivialized, just as life cannot be trivialized. At this point, we can come to some practical conclusions.
Just as our proclamation of the value of human life and the dignity of the human person must be expressed by our actions, so it is with our faith in eternal life. It would not be sufficient to say that we believe in everything we have just been reflecting upon concerning Christian death without also expressing that belief by our own lives and in our Christian response to death. The Funeral Liturgy of the Church is a total expression of the Church’s faith in life everlasting. We must all be aware of the danger of “explaining away” the realities of death just to make ourselves feel better at the moment. This would be a very ungrateful response to Jesus, who became one of us and who died for us so that we might live with Him for all eternity.
Sentiment, which is the expression of genuine human sorrow and legitimate Christian joy, always has a place at the time of death. However, sentimentalism, or the reduction of the great truths of salvation and eternal life to mere human memories or amusing anecdotes, deprives us of the riches of the Christian message and can deprive someone who has died of needed prayers. When those we know and love die, we naturally recall their lives and give thanks for them. However, the Vigil, Funeral Mass and Burial of a Christian cannot be reduced to a mere “life celebration.” This would only speak to the past.
Since Jesus has shared His life, Death and Resurrection with us, we are not limited to merely recalling a deceased person’s past, as if that were all we had to hang on to. Nor are we limited to vague, sentimental concepts of what occurs after death. There will always be a certain mystery to death and there will always be sorrow when someone we love has died. However, we are not limited to an imaginary “great unknown” when we reflect on our own death or that of someone we love. Jesus has revealed to us a great deal about eternal life and has even allowed us to share in His own suffering in this life so that, joined with His, it may be a prelude to eternal life.
Let us frequently make acts of faith and love so that whenever our death may come, either after a long illness or suddenly, we may be prepared to experience it in continuity with the life of grace that we have been privileged to share in this world. Jesus assures us that our life, which is “changed not taken away” by death will last forever.
12 November 2009