CEBU CITY — (Filipino theologian Fr. Catalino Arevalo, SJ, delivered, some years back, a brief homily on this piece. Since then, when Holy Week rolls around, many readers email and ask if our Palm Sunday issue could reprint that talk. . Here it is — JLM )
September 11 forced many of us, even unwillingly, to reflect on, or at least think of, death. The novelist Leo Tolstoy wrote that for anyone who is over 40, not to think upon death is to be foolish.
It is a salutary exercise, especially in Lent, to reflect upon our death. “The two great mysteries that confront us are God and death,” Richard Holloway writes. “And the life of Jesus Christ illuminates the darkness of both.”
The raising of Lazarus is a good starting point. Jesus then told us: “No man has seen but only the Son.” He revealed his Father as unconditional and compassionate love.
And (again, citing Holloway), “Jesus also lit up the other great mystery that confronts us — death — by irradiating the awfulness of death with the power of his own life.”
Martha, who wept at his dead brother’s grave, said Lazarus would “rise again, in the resurrection on the last day.” “I am the resurrection and I am life,” Jesus responded.
But Jesus’ reply is not about the last day; it is about the now; it is about himself, even now, as life. “If someone has faith in me, even though he dies, he shall come to life, “Jesus responds. “And no one, who is alive, and has faith, shall ever die. Do you believe this?”
A recent nationwide survey found that only about 30 percent of young Filipinos (from age seven to 21) believe in life after death, in heaven, or in hell.
Those who conducted the survey — people with excellent academic credentials — were shocked by these findings. “Those who believe there is no resurrection” are majority of the young around us.
Believing Christians fail very badly to communicate to the young what they repeat every Sunday in the Creed: “We believe in the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” Many of the young, in most countries throughout the world, have no idea of what the words “I am life” tell us.
But in Lazarus’ raising, we meet the Jesus’ pledge “which has accompanied Christians in their death, since the dawn of the Church.” In his first letter the Corinthians, Paul writes: “O death, where is your victory. Death, where is your sting?”
Paul does not mean there is no natural death for those whom the redemptive work of Christ delivered from the power of sin. No. But the Christian, in faith and hope, does not encounter death as a mystery of darkness, of threat, fear-even terror.
The Christian, in faith and hope, meets death as his final freeing, even joyous encounter, with the Christ who died and rose again for him, to be with him, especially in the last hour of his earthly life. The saint of Lisieux, the Carmelite nun Thérí¨se Martin, said of her death: “I do not die; I enter into life.”
Death is going home to a loving and forgiving Father. It is something like Jesus’ dying in the Gospel of Luke: “Father, into your hands I entrust my spirit.”
A writer has said that Jesus’ last words on the cross, in Luke, are aptly “translated” by the child’s bedtime prayer: “Now I lay me down to sleep/ I pray thee Lord, my soul to keep/ And if I die before I wake/ I pray thee Lord my soul to take.”
Imprisoned in Rome, and facing execution, Paul wrote to the Philippians: “For to me life is Christ and death is gain…and what I long for is to depart and be with Christ.”
Death is not darkness, for Paul. Nor is it threat or terror. It is going into the fullness of life. Therese wrote: “I do not die. I enter into life…” For the saints, Christ has become a “blazing reality” waiting for them…loving infinitely more than time-bound earth-bound lovers.
One great blessing of the priesthood (is) how often we meet Christians, who come to death with the same longing of Paul. Just in the last few years — a classmate, brought by long illness from a less-than-exemplary life to peace, at the end, convinced of God’s gentle mercy for him; a dying grandmother I gave communion to, could not contain her longing to be with the Lord; a nun, with cancer pains tearing her apart, saying: “Jesus will be there, at the bend of the road.”
“I am the resurrection and I am the life. “That life Jesus gives us, not at the end of our lives only, but even now. That life, which is his own, and will never die in us, but only come to fulfillment in death. “No one who lives, and has faith, will ever die.”
Most of us do not love God with the “blazing fire” of the saints. We have not come to look on death they way they did. We’re caught in the secularized world’s attitudes towards death — fear, even terror, or the sad studied indifference of those who cannot bring themselves to face it.
“One reason I am a Christian,” a famous preacher said, “is because I want to know how to die.” One of Church’s purposes is to reach us how to die-how to give up the earthly things and earthly-loves we hold on to, so passionately.
Thus, when the final letting go is asked of us, at the end of our life’s journey, we shall have, at last, gathered in our hearts, some true longing for the lasting beauty, “ever ancient, ever new.”
It awaits us, “after this our exile.” Perhaps, we can learn to say with (Saint) Thérí¨se, even half-haltingly, even with poorer faith: “I do not die. I enter into life’.