Triumph over Death
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ Jesus,
Remember: this coming Wednesday is Ash Wednesday! I encourage you to attend Holy Mass if you are able!
The month of February is dedicated to the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph: let us call upon the Holy Family to help us live family life in a holy and loving manner! This weekend I share with you a reflection on the Christian understanding of death. I encourage you to reflect over this message a few times this week:
“Triumph over Death - Death, the consequence of sin. On leaving this life we will take with us only the merit of our good actions and the penalty for our sins: St. Paul teaches us in the Second Reading of the Holy Mass (1 Cor. 15:54-58) that when the risen and glorious body clothes itself in immortality, death will be finally conquered. Then we will be able to ask: O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting? The sting of death is sin... It was sin that brought death into the world. When God created man, besides the Supernatural Gifts of Grace, He gave him other gifts which perfected nature in its own order. Among them was the gift of bodily immortality, which our first parents were to transmit, along with life, to their descendants. Original Sin carried with it the loss of friendship with God and the con-sequent loss of that gift of immortality. Death, the wages of sin (Rom. 6:23), entered a world which had been created as a place for living beings. Revelation teaches us that God did not make death, and He does not delight in the death of the living. (Wis. 1:13-14)
Through sin, death came to all: ‘The just and the unjust likewise die, the good and the evil, the clean and the unclean, he who offers sacrifices and he who does not. The same end befalls the saint and the sinner; it befalls him who swears and him who refrains from swearing. Men and animals are all likewise reduced to dust and ashes’. (St. Jerome, Epistle 39, 3) Everything material comes to an end, each thing in its own time. The physical world and all it contains is directed towards a final consummation, as we are too.
At death, man loses everything he possessed in his lifetime. As with the rich man in the parable, God will say to the one who has thought only of himself, of his well-being and his comfort: Fool!… the things you have prepared, whose will they be? (Luke 12:20-21) Each one will bring with him only the merits of his good works and the weight of his sins. Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord henceforth. ‘Blessed in-deed’, says the Spirit, ‘that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!’ (Apoc. 14:13) The opportunity to acquire merit for Eternal Life ends with death. Of this, our Lord warns: Night comes, when no one can work. (John 9:4) At death, our will stays fixed forever on good or on evil, remaining in friendship with God or rejecting His Mercy for all eternity.
Meditation on our last end can move us, while we are still on earth, to react against lukewarmness, against any reluctance to commit ourselves entirely to God’s service, and to develop our relationship with Him. It can wean us from attachment to earthly things, which we must soon leave behind us in any case, encourage us to sanctify our work and enable us to understand that this life is a period, a short one, in which we can gain merit in the sight of God.
Let us remember today that our earthly bodies are no more than perishable clay. We know, nevertheless, that we have been created for Eternity, that our souls can never die, and that our bodies will one day rise again glorious, if we have died in God’s friendship, to be united once more to our souls. And this fills us with joy and peace and moves us to live as Children of God in the world.
The Christian meaning of death: With the Resurrection of Christ, death has been finally conquered. Man is no longer a slave to death, but has death now under his dominion, if he so chooses (1 Cor. 3:2), for we achieve this sovereignty to the extent that we are united to Him Who holds the keys of death. (Apoc. 1:18) Sin is the true death, the dreadful separation - the soul separated from God - compared with which the other separation, that of soul and body, is of far less importance. And this latter separation is, moreover, provisional. He who believes in Me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die. (John 11:25-26) In Christ, death has lost its power, its sting. Death has been overthrown. This Truth of our Faith may seem a paradox, when all around us we see man afflicted by the dread of imminent dissolution, the certainty of dying, recoiling in fear from the torment of pain and sorrow. It is true that sorrow and death disconcert the human spirit. They continue to be a baffling enigma for those who do not believe in God. But by Faith we know these evils will be overcome, that the victory has been won already in the death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ our Re-deemer. (St. John Paul II, Homily, 16 Feb. 1981)
Materialism, while denying the immortality of the soul, has adopted various arguments throughout history to explain the desire for eternity which God seems to have placed in the human heart. So this false philosophy offers men the consolation of somehow surviving, in the results of the actions of their mortal life and in the memory and of the actions of their mortal life and in the memory and affection of those who are still alive. It is undoubtedly a good thing that those who come after us should remember us, but our Lord tells us more: Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather, fear Him Who can destroy both soul and body in hell. (Matt. 10:28) This is the holy Fear of God, which can serve so well at times to keep us from sin.
The moment of death is a difficult one for every creature. But ever since the Redemption wrought by Christ that moment has for us a completely different significance. It is no longer simply the harsh price which every man must pay for sin, as a just punishment for his guilt. It is, above all else, the culmination of our abandonment into the hands of our Redeemer, the departure from this world to the Father (cf. John 13:1), the passage to a new life of Eternal Happiness. If we are faithful to Christ, we will be able to say with the Psalmist: Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for Thou art with me. (Ps. 23:4) Serenity and optimism at the prospect of death are born of a firm Hope in Jesus Christ, Who was willing to assume our human nature entirely, with all its weaknesses except sin. (cf. Heb. 4:15) He did so in order that through death He might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death, were subject to lifelong bondage. (Heb. 2:14-15) And so St. Augustine teaches that our inheritance is the death of Christ (St. Augustine, Epistle 2, 94), since through it we can attain Life.
Uncertainty as to our last end should lead us to trust in God’s Mercy and to be very faithful to the vocation we have received from Him. We should spend our life in His service and in the service of His Church, wherever we may be. We should remember always, and particularly when that last moment comes, that God is a loving Father, full of tenderness towards His Children. It is our Father God Who will welcome us! It is Christ Who says to us: Come, ye blessed of My Father!
Friendship with Jesus Christ, the Christian meaning of life, the knowledge that we are Children of God, will allow us to look at and accept death with serenity. It will be the meeting of a son with his Father Whom he has sought to serve throughout his life. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I fear no evil, for Thou art with me.
The fruits of meditating on our last end: The Church recommends meditation on what it calls the Last Things, because we can derive incalculable benefit from considering them. The knowledge that life is short does not lessen our involvement in the affairs God has entrusted to us: family, work, worthy interests, noble ideals… Thinking on the inescapable fact of our mortality and its consequences helps us to be detached from earthly things, to give them their due importance and to sanctify all our temporal affairs. It is our path to Heaven. Whenever we suffer the death of a friend, or of someone in our family, or someone we love, it can be a good occasion, among others, to consider the inescapable truths of our last end.
Our Lord will come when we least expect Him, like a thief in the night. (1 Thess. 5:2) He should find us ready, vigilant, detached from earthly things. The great mistake we could make is to allow ourselves to become enslaved to the things of this world, which we have to leave so soon. We have to have our feet on the ground: we are in the midst of the world, as befits our
Christian calling since God has placed us here, but we cannot forget that we are travelers whose eyes are fixed on Christ and on His Kingdom which will one day be ours. We should live every day in the knowledge that we are pilgrims who are travelling - very quickly - to our encounter with God. Every morning we take another step towards God, every evening we find ourselves nearer to Him. We should live, therefore, as though God were about to summon us at any moment. The fact that God has hidden from us the exact time of our earthly life’s termination helps us to live each day as if it were our very last, always prepared for the event and ready to move to a new dwelling place. (cf. J. Escriva, The Way, 744) In any case, that day cannot be far off (St. Jerome, Epistle 60, 14), any day could be our last. This very day thousands of people have died in all sorts of diverse circumstances. Possibly many of them were taken by surprise, never imagining that they would have no more time in which to acquire merit.
Each day of our life is a blank sheet which we can fill in with an account of wonderful things, or with blots and errors. And we do not know how many pages are left before we come to the end of that book which God will one day read in our presence.”
Friendship with Jesus, love for our Mother Mary, the Christian meaning we have tried to give our life, will enable us to look forward with serenity to our definitive meeting with God. Saint Joseph, the patron of a happy death, had at his side the welcome and welcoming company of Jesus and Mary when the time came for him to leave this world. He can teach us to prepare, day by day, for this ineffable encounter with our Father God.
Saint Paul takes leave of the first Christians of Corinth with the consoling words with which the first reading of today’s Mass ends. We ourselves can take them as being directed to each of us individually; My beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. (1 Cor. 15:58)
O Mother of ours – we finish our prayer addressing the most Blessed Virgin – win for us from your Son the grace of always having in mind the goal of Heaven in all that we do. In this way we will work diligently, our eyes set on eternity. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now, and at the hour of our death. Amen.” (From In Conversation with God, by Francis Fernandez)
Through the intercession of Mary, Mother of Mercy, St. Joseph, St. Michael, St. Paul, and our Guardian Angels, may our good Lord grant us the grace to have a holy death!
In Christ through Mary,