Monday, November 18, 2013

When Death Comes

It is bad enough when we are sick or injured ourselves, but it is often more painful when our loved ones are sick or hurt, especially when they are dying, observes Cardinal Donald Wuerl in the second installment of his series on the end of life. However, in this, we are not alone.
In faith and prayer, we know that in his compassion, Jesus suffers with the one who is dying and so, in watching a loved one die, we find ourselves like Mary at the foot of the Cross. He is with them in a special way in the sacrament of anointing of the sick, which should be requested whenever death is near, but is also available for any serious illness. Here, the loving and merciful hand of Christ our Savior is extended to touch the whole person, body and soul.

While we are certainly grateful for doctors and nurses, eventually all medical remedies fail no matter how great their skills. When death comes, when someone near and dear to us is suddenly ripped away, leaving a gaping wound in our own life, it can shake us as profoundly as an earthquake. It also places us before death’s arrogant claim to have the last word.

The presence of faith helps. It does not totally eliminate our sadness, but it does provide the blessed assurance that while medicine cannot save those we love or us, in the end, the Lord of Life can. He can bring real healing. He can make a reality the words, “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live, and whoever is alive and believes in me will never die” (John 11:25-26).
Taking hope in this promise of Jesus, it is to him we should turn when we are facing death and after it has come. Indeed, it is to him we must turn because eternal life is not ours as a matter of right that we can demand from God, but is instead entirely a gift and grace. Thus, Cardinal Wuerl reminds us, we must avoid the sin of presumption, both in our own case and in the case of our loved ones, presuming that we and our loved ones will automatically go to heaven no matter what is said or done in this life. Instead, we need to ask God for this grace, we need to pray, particularly when the end approaches –
we recall the thief on the cross who even in his last moments found salvation by contritely appealing to Christ’s love. Thus, we should pray for ourselves and encourage others who may be dying to open themselves to the tenderness and forgiveness of God. Then, when the last breath is taken, it is a “holy and pious thought” to pray for the departed “that they might be absolved from their sin” (2 Maccabees 12:45-46). This is the greatest charity we can do, the greatest sign of respect for their memory we can show: to pray for the departed, asking the saints to accompany them, and God who is rich in mercy to receive them.
This is imperative – that we not simply assume that the ones we love automatically and immediately have gone to heaven or that we think that somehow we dishonor them or defame them if we acknowledge their shortcomings and ask God to forgive them their sins. We do them no favors by acting as if they are already canonized.

Nor do we do them – or ourselves – any good by allowing our grief to turn to despair of what has happened to them.
We mourn – “blessed are those who mourn” – but we do so in the sure and certain faith that death does not have the last word. We shall be comforted. In the subsequent funeral Mass, we are poignantly reminded that “life is changed but not ended.” Faith in God is more powerful than death. Belief in God’s promise overwhelms the darkness even of cancer. As a people of faith, all of us can take courage and join in the refrain of Saint Paul: “Death is swallowed up in Christ’s victory. Death, where is your victory? Where is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:54). Yes, we feel the pain now but it is tempered by a more powerful, more enduring reality: By the power of Christ’s love, all things are made new, and even death is transformed to life.

We can pray with confidence because our bonds of communion with those whom we love are not broken in death. Their entrance into eternal life does not end their relevance to us. In a sense, by their passing on to glory, becoming one with God and in God, through the transcendent power of love, we too are somehow brought closer to him.
Please read the rest of Cardinal Wuerl's reflection, "God of mercy, hear our prayers and be merciful to your child, whom you have called from this life," at his blog Seek First the Kingdom.

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