The Word Incarnate utters His last sentence, and in doing so, every last word takes on a special significance. In the act of dying, the God-Man teaches His brothers and sisters in the human family how to die. What is the final lesson?
Jesus died resigned to the Will of the One Who sent Him. However, we should not see this as passivity; it is an active resignation, which sums up His entire life: “As a man lives so shall He die.”
Death is hard for anyone to face, but American culture has a particular dread of it. Our funeral customs speak volumes. We refuse to use the words “death” or “dead” or “die”; we dress people up to look as though they’re ready to host a party from their coffins; we say weird things like, “Doesn’t she look wonderful?” All this suggests more than a desire to be tactful: It’s a denial of reality.
Few human beings ever look forward to death. Or, as one seminary professor used to put it: “Gentlemen, I know that heaven is our true home, but I’m not the least bit homesick.” Believe it or not, that’s a healthy Christian attitude. Modern man, however, has an excessive fear of death – and usually with good reason. Materialism has replaced faith as the motive force in society, and the result is a smothering kind of despair.
Take the secular peace movement. No one has spoken more forcefully about war than the Popes of this century, and especially John Paul II. But a Pontiff’s style and content are so very different from non-Christian activists because the former’s vision is not earthbound – realizing as he does that even in the best possible scenario, “Here we have no lasting city; we are seeking one which is to come” (Heb 13:14).
Human life is good and beautiful, as the great Fulton Sheen knew when he declared week after week that “life is worth living,” but more compelling goods (e.g., testimony to the truth of the Gospel) can call for the relinquishing of that good (e.g., the Death of Jesus Himself, subsequently embraced by the martyrs).
As we listen to the dying Savior, two words draw our attention: “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” “Father” and “thy” are the keys to the mystery of death. Jesus, in His humanity, does not rely on His own resources but casts His cares upon His heavenly Father, the Abba (“Papa”) in Whom He encouraged His disciples to have complete trust.
His heart is thus other-directed or, better, Other-directed toward the One “who was able to save Him from death” (Heb 5:7). With eyes fixed on Jesus (cf. Heb 3:1), then, Christians ponder what they need in death. They are three: the grace of perseverance, the grace of final repentance and the grace of a happy death.
As a seminarian, I used to visit an old nun in her community’s infirmary. She concluded each meeting by saying: “Please pray that I have the gift of final perseverance.” That request always caused me to wonder, “If you don’t persevere, who will?” But one day she explained that remaining faithful to Christ never got easier and in some ways got more arduous as the years passed. Sister had heeded the warning of St. Paul: “Let anyone who thinks he is standing upright watch our lest he fall!” (1 Cor 10:12). Mary and John at the foot of the Cross are the models of loyalty to Christ to the bitter end. The gift of perseverance is the basis of our hope, which “will not leave us disappointed” (Rom 5:5).
Each day Christians ask the Mother of the Church to “pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.” Which means that we acknowledge ourselves as sinners, yet are confident of receiving the grace of final repentance since the Mother of Mercy Incarnate has our deaths enfolded in her prayers to her divine Son.
The present AIDS crisis has caused me to reflect on God’s plan, especially as I have helped some of these patients in their reconciliation with the Church. As catastrophic as AIDS is, it has one unbounded blessing for people of faith: It assures its victims of the opportunity to turn to God for forgiveness and spiritual healing. For them, death does not come “like a thief in the night.”
But all people need the intercession of the Church for this great grace; most of us likewise need the Church’s prayers after death as we undergo that process of purification which readies us to behold God face to face. Therefore, the Mass of Christian Burial (and in fact, all Masses and prayers for the dead) takes on a huge importance. So often contemporary funeral liturgies devolve into canonization ceremonies as we are assured that the deceased “is now in heaven praying for us.” Wrong: We are there precisely to pray for the deceased. This concern with ultimate realities – the last things – is what unites a Church seemingly scattered in heaven, in purgatory and on earth. The “communion of saints” prays that each of its members faces the moment of death in a way meriting eternal life.
Such a gift then leads to that most blessed thing of all – the grace of a happy death. Several years ago I received an early morning call to the hospital to bring Viaticum for a cancer patient I had attended the entire summer. Always thoughtful to a fault, she had restrained her family from contacting a priest during the night, lest he lose sleep. Upon my arrival, the woman stirred herself to prepare for her final encounter with the Eucharist. As I placed the Sacred Host on her tongue, she smiled, swallowed, and died. Her son looked at me and said, “Father, that’s all she was waiting for all night.”
What a holy death! What a calming effect it had on her entire family! What a powerful and unforgettable witness she had offered! A holy death ensures a happy death because our eyes are “fixed on Jesus.”
Thinking about death – our own death – should not be an exercise in morbidity but a truly positive opportunity. St. Alphonsus Liguori, author of the classic “Way of the Cross,” provides ample food for thought in his reflection for the Fifth Station. It has within it all the serenity of Jesus’ serenity in His final moments and thus recommends itself to our thoughts and as a guide for our actions – perennially.
And so we are encouraged to say and to mean: “My beloved Jesus, I will not refuse the cross, as the Cyrenian did; I accept it, I embrace it. I accept in particular the death You have destined for me; with all the pains that may accompany it; I unite it to your death, I offer it to You. You have died for love of me; I will die for love of You, and to please You. Help me by your grace. I love You, Jesus, my love; I repent of ever having offended You. Never permit me to offend You again. Grant that I may love You always; and then do with me what you will.”
(Editor’s note: This is the last of seven reflections by Fr. Stravinskas on the Seven Last Words, leading up to Good Friday. They were originally preached on Good Friday 2017 at the “Tre Ore” at Holy Innocents Church, Manhattan.)
• “Seven Last Words from the Cross: ‘Father, forgive them…’” (March 23, 2018)
• “Seven Last Words from the Cross: ‘This day you will be with Me in paradise’” (March 24, 2018)
• “Seven Last Words from the Cross: ‘Woman, Behold Your Son’” (March 25, 2018)
• “Seven Last Words from the Cross: ‘My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?’” (March 26, 2018)
• “Seven Last Words from the Cross: ‘I thirst!’” (March 27, 2018)
• “Seven Last Words from the Cross: ‘It is consummated'” (March 28,2018)
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