At what age do we genuinely realize that we will die some day?
I remember when I was a very young boy, four years old, my mother and father took my brothers and sister and me to my Aunt Esther’s house where my grandmother lived with her daughter and her husband, Uncle Dave. They told us that we were going to stay there for a few days because they were going to go to Fond du Lac to bury my father’s mother. I asked why we could not go with them. I think it was my mother who answered by saying that we were too young to go.
Two years later, my father died of a heart attack at the age of twenty-nine. I was now six years old, and my brothers and sister were five, four and two years old respectively. This time, probably because it was our own father, we were taken to the funeral home and subsequently to the church and the cemetery. I suspect that I realized then and there that everyone eventually dies.
In the sixty-four years since my father’s funeral, I have buried my grandmother, my step-father’s mother and father, almost all my aunts and uncles, my mother, a sister and several cousins. I am sure that there have been many funerals in your lives as well. Funerals are usually moments of intense feelings. However, those feelings are usually about our loss, not theirs.
Do the dead experience the loss of life? Is life really lost? Or is death a transition from life to another form of existence? Do we have to die before we are able to realize what death really is?
These are not new questions. These questions have been part of the human experience for as long as human beings have populated this planet. To be sure, the early Christians asked these questions. We know that because of St. Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians. It is these very questions that St. Paul is addressing when he writes: “We do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, about those who have fallen asleep, so that you may not grieve like the rest, who have no hope.”
Having entered into his death and resurrection through baptism, the Thessalonians and all the early Christians believed that they would now share in his victory over death. When loyal Christians began to die, not only did the old questions raise their heads again, but the Christian community was plagued with new questions, even more difficult questions. Was it possible that those loyal Christians had not been loyal after all? Or worse, were the promises made by Jesus empty promises? Had his death been as final as have been all other deaths, and was the report of his resurrection an illusion?
No, Paul assures us. It is all true: Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again. And all the faithful will be joined with Him. How it will happen, we do not know. When it will happen, we do not know. That it will happen, we are sure. When a loved one dies, we ask the same old questions again. However, our faith stares the questions back into submission, and we move on confident that they are living with God. Yes, we grieve the loss of loved ones, but we firmly believe that death is not the end. There is more to come.
We cannot live as if the end is already upon us; yet we must live as if the end is imminent. How are we to do this? The readings for today give us insight into this paradox. The only way to live life fully is to live it in the present. What we have from the past is the wisdom we have gleaned from it. We cannot be sure about the future because so many circumstances can overturn the plans we have set. All we have is the present. However, we cannot live myopically in the present. We must bring the wisdom of the past to bear on the present, where we live with an eye to the future. The wisdom that we have gleaned from the past is the very oil that keeps the lamps of faith burning. That wisdom tells us that we must be vigilant, that we must be ready; for we know not the day nor the hour. The Gospel prepares us to be ready; and, as William Shakespeare taught us in his great tragedy of “Hamlet,” the readiness is all. This past summer that reality became very clear to me once again when my nephew decided on Pentecost Sunday to take a bike ride and never returned home again. I am sure that we all can tell similar tales.
The Wisdom of the Scriptures teaches us that God is faithful, that God never goes back on the promise God has made. For those who place their faith in the Lord Jesus, life does not end. It simply changes. Jesus’ resurrection is the source of that wisdom. It is that wisdom that brings us to this table every Sunday to remember, to celebrate, and to renew our faith.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator