In one of the Peanut’s comics, Charlie Brown and his best friend, Linus, are next to each other gazing down at a sapling. “It’s a beautiful little tree, isn’t it?” remarks Charlie Brown. “Yes, it is,” says Linus, who is wearing his characteristic red-striped shirt and black shorts. “It’s a shame, we won’t be around to see it when it’s fully grown,” Charlie Brown wistfully says. “Oh why, where are we going?” asks Linus!
When we go to any airport, we are told two things: the times for arrivals and departures. The classifieds column in the newspaper usually informs the public of the new babies who have arrived. The obituary column gives the details of the recent departures. They’re often on the same page. For men and women, like planes, buses and trains, it is a constant coming and going, of births and of deaths, in the one-way flow of time. We don’t read our own obituary accounts but, if we did, we would, most likely, all confess to much work left undone and, sadly, to many dreams unfulfilled, for it’s never really the right time to die. On All Souls Day and in this month of November, we remember around the altar and in cemeteries those who have passed from this world especially those we knew and we loved.
This month, we remember them in a less emotional manner than we did on the days they died and were buried or cremated. We recall them today with deep love and loss, but time has helped to heal the hurt and we can now see from a better perspective. It helps us to think ahead to our own eternal departure time as we do for every earthly departure time, for we know that every earthly reality will someday pass. We all owe God one death. God gave one for us on Good Friday; we must give death in return. In the Second Reading, St Paul says, “Having died on Good Friday to make us righteous, is it likely that Christ would now fail to save us from God’s anger?”
Most of us harbour a profound fear of dying because it’s an unknown experience. Each of us will have to do it for ourselves. Our faith can play a central role in providing a strong frame of reference for us to deal with our anxiety about dying.
In the First Reading: “The Lord is the one in whom we hoped. We exult and we rejoice that God has saved us.” (Isaiah 25:9)
But our society on the whole has developed a reluctance to talk about anything to do with dying or about the fullness of life with God. Our society harbours a collective fear of death.
The media’s focus on youth and fashion has helped to lead to elderly people being marginalised. We, senior citizens, can become an uncomfortable reminder of everybody’s final destination.
Yet, when we allow ourselves to think about our death, it can give us a privileged vantage point to explore the profound choices we make about life.
One of the Saints said, “Consider your final end in death and you won’t sin!”
Instead of pretending that death will never happen to us, or is simply too far off for us to think about, wouldn’t it be more productive to use the very notion that we are subject to dying to influence how we live now?
Yet the prospect that one day you and I are going to die can concentrate our minds wonderfully. It enables you and me to live with a full appreciation of how precious our limited life on earth really is, and so then decide what is of the greatest importance to you and me in life.
It is interesting that this week’s Sydney Morning Herald “Good Weekend” (5-6 November) focuses on attitudes to death. In it, the article says some 45% of Australians die without having made a will!
Most of us put off thinking about death until it is right upon us and even then those closest to a dying loved one often find ourselves unable to speak truthfully about what is really happening, giving the dying person false promises of hope and cure.
We need to remember that all of our life has been a preparation for the event of our death, which is as significant as our birth – our death day is an event far more important than any birthday. We are about to pass onto another level and into another world. If we have cultivated a relationship with Jesus Christ in our life, at our death we are meeting a familiar friend and death is the gateway to being with the Lord Jesus forever.
This is where the Sacraments: Reconciliation, to make our peace with God and with others, the Anointing of the Sick, Holy Communion and Viaticum (Eucharistic food for the journey to eternity), the Apostolic Pardon with the full remission of our sins and the Church’s moving prayers for the dying, to help us overcome our anxiety, with the hope of life in heaven and of resurrection through the power of Jesus who destroyed the power of death by his own dying.
One such prayer says:
I commend you, my dear brother/sister, to almighty God, and entrust you to your Creator.
May you return to him who formed you from the dust of the earth.
May holy Mary, the angels, and all the saints come to meet you as you go forth from this life.
May Christ who was crucified for you bring you freedom and peace.
May Christ, who died for you, admit you into his garden and paradise.
May Christ, the true Shepherd, acknowledge you as one of his flock.
May he forgive all your sins, and set you among those he has chosen.
May you see your Redeemer face to face, and enjoy the vision of God for ever. Amen.
Pope Francis says: “What will my passing away be like? All of us will experience sundown, all of us! Do we look at it with hope? Do we look with that joy at being welcomed by the Lord? This is a Christian message that gives us hope.” Praying for the living and the dead is one of the spiritual Works of Mercy.
The Pope also asks us: “Where is my heart anchored? Are our lives anchored in the hope of mercy that comes with the Resurrection? Re-anchor your life in Christ if you have found that you have been drifting away.”
I want to tell you about a woman in her 50s, who was a Religious Education Coordinator in one of our schools, who died of cancer last year. This woman prepared beautifully for her death. She was so inspiring. She treated her coming death as a celebration. People who visited her found it comfortable to pray with her and talk about her dying. She planned her funeral with the help of her teaching colleagues as carefully as she would have prepared a school liturgy. She left her family, her relations, and her school colleagues with such positive memories of her ending. Her inspiring faith and courage ensured she is remembered with pride and affection and prayed for by all who loved her. Death is no barrier to prayer.
There is a medieval hymn, Dies Irae, that speaks about death and the final judgement. It has been chanted at funerals down the ages. It has a powerfully solemn melody that evokes the feelings of awe and trembling at the thought of our personal day of judgement when we stand alone before the Lord of all.
Yet this ancient text also gives voice to our hope in Jesus crucified and risen and it balances our fear with a greater sense of how the merciful Lord will take our part. One verse says, “Recall, dear Jesus, for my sake you did our suffering nature take, then do not now my soul forsake.”
As I said if we have cultivated a relationship with the Lord Jesus during our life, at death we are meeting a familiar friend.
Remembering our loved ones today at this Mass for the dead, lighting candles and visiting graves in November, we do so in the certain hope of their everlasting joy in heaven.
Heavenly Father, Lord of all, hear our prayers today for all the faithful departed. In your justice purify us of our sins and in your mercy and loving kindness receive us, with them, into your heavenly kingdom, through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Most Rev Peter W Ingham DD
Bishop of Wollongong
5 November 2016