The case of Terri Schiavo has focused public attention on euthanasia and health care for the disabled. Since All Souls Day falls on Sunday this year, I would like to step back a bit from these complex – and emotion filled – issues in order to ask a more basic question. As Christians what should be our attitude toward death?
Let's begin by admitting we feel the dread of death which is common to all people. Isaiah describes death as “the veil that veils all peoples, the web that is woven over all nations.” (25:7) The ancient Greeks considered man’s lot a most unhappy one. Unlike the gods (the “immortals”) we, and our loved ones, must die. We share that fate with other animals. However, unlike them we are aware of our mortality. No matter how much happiness we experience at any given moment, we know it will not last.*
Death not only ends our earthly existence, it has a quality which repels us. When Jesus stood before the tomb of his friend Lazarus, he “groaned within himself.” (Jn 11:38) Faced with his own hideous death, Jesus pleaded with his Father and perspired in anguish. He was no Socrates calmly talking philosophy with his friends. Jesus fought death and all that it stood for – and so should we.
At the same time, by submitting to death, Jesus overcame its power. Because of Jesus, death has a different meaning. St. Francis captured it poetically in his Canticle of the Creatures. In the seventh and final strophe, he praises God for “our Sister Bodily Death.” No living person, he says, can escape her embrace.**
Next to our Lord and his Blessed Mother, St. Francis was perhaps the person most prepared for death. He clung to nothing in this world – possessions, comfort, health, reputation. In the final years of his life, he received the stigmata which linked him physically to Christ’s suffering. He welcomed death as his sister.
Seeing death as our sister underscores another aspect of how we receive her. Anyone who has a sister knows that she sets the timetable, not you. Only a fool would try to control his sister. I am being a bit playful, but I have a very serious point. Today many people want to control death, to decide when it is time for them – and others – to die. A Christian can never take that approach. We have plain names for those schemes: suicide and murder.
As a priest, I have been with families as they face difficult decisions regarding terminally ill loved ones. In most cases they tend to err on the side of what the Catechism calls “over zealous treatment.” We can - and should - reject medical procedures that are “burdensome, dangerous, extraordinary, or disproportionate to the expected outcome.” (#2278) My dad chose not have an operation which could have prolonged his life. I accompanied my mom when she made her will. With the lawyer we discussed the kind of care she would want at the end of her life. It was a responsible, loving thing for her to do, even though at the end she died peacefully in her sleep.
This brings me to a final aspect of the Christian attitude toward death. Each Sunday we say that we believe in “the communion of saints.” That means we have ongoing bonds with those who have died. I experience that in a gentle way when I visit my parents’ grave. They cared for me - and that care continues. Jesus assures us that he will he will not reject anyone who comes to him. (Jn 6:37) It means so much to be able to say, “May their souls and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.”
*The fact that no one really accepts this condition, that we keep hoping for happiness which endures, provides an interesting clue to the meaning of our existence. See: Loneliness and Lasting Communion
**The complete strophe:
Bulletin (Praying for Departed Loved Ones, Tuesday's Election, Pro-Choice for Schools)
"Don't you know where tenderness leads?"
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From Archives (2008 All Souls Day homily): Baptized Into His Death
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