At funerals occasionally, in the course of the homily, I share with the mourners a saying, the author of which I do not know. It has long intrigued me. It’s a simple sentence that goes like this: “Death is the ultimate embarrassment of the human race.” I assume that it is based on our awareness that there is no power on earth that can prevent death; that we have no power to break its hold on us. Death can be staved off for a while, delayed by modern medical science; but ultimately it takes over completely. Even the billionaire is as much a hapless victim of death as any other person, no matter his or her station in life. “Embarrassment” seems like too mild a term for so fundamental a fact of our existence; but it’s a good start for at least causing us to think more deeply.
The second reading in this Mass for the 10th Sunday in Ordinary time, a passage from St. Paul’s second letter to the new Christians in the city of Corinth, tells us that as God raised Jesus from death so will God raise each of us from our inevitable deaths. There is no empirical evidence that I know of to support such a belief: we accept it and cling to it solely on the word of Jesus and those men and women who, more than 2000 years ago, were the first to hear the Good News he was so eager to share with them — and with us. The older I get, the more — and the more frequently — do I think of the death that cannot be too far into the future and that waits for me. I always resolve my anxiety by dwelling on the consoling and exciting assurances of Jesus.
There’s a provocative term found in one of the Mass prayers by which we are told that in the life to come we will find not even any “shadow of death”. That suggests that everything in this present life that hurts us — saddens, worries, or in any way diminishes us — is directly or at least remotely related to death: they are “shadows of death.” It’s as if we were being prepared by these never-ending confrontations for the great and final death that lies ahead.
But what should be the experience of a faith-filled person as they occur? The faithful Christian interprets them as being used by the Holy Spirit, who transforms them into various kinds of new life. These can include an intensified, purified relationship between persons; a sorting out and prioritizing of values; the discernment of vocation; a deeper appreciation of life and love; more compassion toward the suffering and the needs of others; a greater reliance on the powerful presence of God; and so on. In each case, what appeared to be as empty as death — a “little death”— was used by God as the vehicle for the gift of new life.
So we are, not infrequently, dying men and women hoping to be restored to life. And time and again Jesus touches the stretcher on which we lie and we get up and breathe and walk and smile again, with an otherwise unexplainable sense of peace and joy. Why does this happen if not to assure us that it will not be death finally and permanently that claims us, but God, who is love and life both now and forever?
Recognize such happenings in your own life. Try to understand that, although they are perfectly natural, the Spirit of God exchanges them with you, in return giving you new life.
(picture: “Christiana And Mercy In The Valley Of The Shadow Of Death” by Daniel Huntingdon)