On Good Friday earlier in the year I had the privilege of preaching the sermon at the morning ecumenical service held at St. Mary’s Co-operating Church in Culverden. Since arriving in the Hurunui I have known that the Catholic parish of the Good Shepherd is home to six of the most beautiful churches in the country. I had to admit to the St. Andrew’s parishioners as I began my homily that their parish church was another of the most beautiful Hurunui churches.
I couldn’t help but take a couple of minutes to describe to the people gathered the beauty of their church from my new perspective. Too often when we spend a lot of time in a beautiful place we get so used to the beauty that we become immune to it and even overlook it altogether. So for the first moments of the homily I invited the people to look up and notice the art-work of the hard-wood ceiling, the work of skilled tradespeople. Then I asked the people to look at the floor and pews, more beauty etched with the markings of generations of praying people. The ceiling, the floor, the pews, the brass, the windows…all the work of artists enabled by the coins and labour generously gifted by our local ancestors in faith who knew that the house of God in their midst must be more beautiful than any of their own homes.
The people who built our Hurunui churches were obviously people of faith.
a century from now
I then suggested to the Good Friday worshippers that all of our generous Christian ancestors have one thing in common; they are now all dead. At this sudden change of tone the congregation responded with light laughter. I added that in another century we, worshippers on this Good Friday 2015 morning will also have one thing in common. There was more laughter this time as a number of people mouthed, “we will all be dead.”
There is something healthy at work when we are able to face the reality of death with a lightness. I suspect that the solemn facing of the death of Jesus in our Good Friday prayer helps us to remember that for the faithful Christian, death is much more of a transition than it is an ending.
God did not make death
Fr. Robert Barron in his commentary on this Sunday’s readings rightly (I think) suggests that most people today (Catholics included) think that death is part of God’s design for human existence: we are conceived, born, live on earth, die, and then are free to choose eternal life or eternal death. But today’s first reading squashes that idea pretty firmly opening with the statement: “God did not make death.” (Wisdom 1:13). This reading concludes with a clear explanation of the entry of death to human existence: “For God formed humanity to be imperishable; the image of his own nature… But by the envy of the devil, death entered the world, and they who belong to his company experience it. (13th Sunday)
Belief in the existence of the devil is not all that common today. Even many Catholics make state ments suggestion that evil in our world is simply a human creation, and in the end we all go to heaven. If God is truly loving, this cannot be true since the loving parent does not force the adult child into good behaviour. True love gifts freedom. The lives of every one of our favourite saints speaks of the power of a real God attracting us to love and to good, and the power of a real satan enticing us into hate and evil.
Death entered the world when Adam and Eve chose the path of the evil one over the paradise God had created them for. This decision was a rejection of the beauty of life with God and a choice that lead to death. Put simply, before this first sin, there was no death.
now, in Jesus, death is overcome
Until the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, the Son of God, there was no way to escape this death. The deathly moments of every day were defining moments, even for the pious Jew. But in Jesus, God overcame death not only for Jesus but for all who choose to live in intimate relationship with Jesus.
For those of us who seek to live with Jesus whole-heartedly, death has lost its sting. The deathly moments of daily life are still painful. There is still suffering. But now, through the suffering and death of Jesus, we who believe understand that our personal suffering can (by our choosing) be offered as our personal participation in the suffering of Jesus. And we know that those of us who live united with all aspects of the life of Jesus, including his suffering, will share his resurrection to ultimate and eternal life.
For those who live in this way the fear of death at the end of our earthly lives, and the fear of the deathly moments in our most difficult days, can be anticipated as a transition from this limited and often painful earthly reality, to the fulness of life for which we were created. It would be a sin of presumption to ignore the possibility of eternal death (hell) and presume that salvation was assured through my own abilities or through God without my active co-operation.
do not go gentle…
Dylan Thomas’ poem echoes in my head as I think of today’s popular purely secular approach to death…”Do not go gentle into that good night…old age should burn and rave at close of day.” (it is worth googling this to hear Thomas reading his own work). Our society sees death as a problem and a failure, unless (ironically and tragically) a life is inconvenient.
In today’s Gospel Jesus speaks of a strikingly different and more peace-filled approach to death – reminding us that death is not as final as it appears. Imagine the scene: Jesus, arriving at a home where a young girl had just died, “caught sight of a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. So he went in and said to them, “Why this commotion and weeping? The child is not dead but asleep.” Understandably the locals “ridiculed him.”
Fr. Barron draws a comparison with Our Lady saying that the Tradition does not use the word “death” about the conclusion of her earthly existence. Instead the word “dormition” is used, i.e. at her death Mary was peacefully “joined to the source of all life. (CCC 966)