The Four Last Things
Praised are you, my Lord,
for our sister bodily Death,
from whom no living man can escape.
Woe on those who will die in mortal sin!
Blessed are they who will be found
in your most holy will,
for the second death will not harm them.
St. Francis of Assisi,
Canticle of the Creatures
These words of St. Francis may be somewhat startling. Yet how important were they to the very heart of who he was and what he said and did. We might be most familiar with images of St. Francis holding bird-baths, surrounded by squirrels, but many images of him also show him contemplating a skull, a symbol reminding us that we will one day die.
Memento Mori! Remember that you will die!
Before we get ahead of ourselves, why would we contemplate such a morbid sounding reality? One of the pillars of the Judeo-Christian spiritual life is to remember that this life is not all there is. In fact many of the saints, starting with St. Paul on down through the centuries, exhorted Christians to meditate with regularity on what have come to be called the ‘Four Last Things’ – Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell.
November is traditionally the month to contemplate these things in a more intentional way.
But why would we do this? Aren’t there more pleasant things to think about? Mercy and forgiveness? Love of God and neighbor?
“We do not want you to be like those who have no hope.” – 1 Thessalonians 4:13
As a priest, I regularly visit people at the end of their life. I also am privileged to be with their families before and after their death. Further, I’ve had conversations with funeral directors about their experiences with grieving families and friends.
The constant drum beat is this: For those without faith, death is terrifying and crushing, or there is a cynicism about it. But for those who have faith – understanding and believing what God has revealed to us about this life, its end, and what is next – there can be great sadness, but there is also a peace and a foundation for making sense of things.
What is death?
I’ve had the profound privilege of being at the bedside of someone when he or she died on several occasions. Some I knew, others I didn’t. While there is something natural about this – we expect it in some vague way – there is also something shocking about it. The body still appears very much the same, but the ‘life force’ behind it is now gone. And this mysteriously strikes the heart as something wrong. Scripture confirms that this wasn’t meant to be: “God did not make death, nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living.” Wisdom 1:13. God made us for eternal life! But through sin, death and suffering entered the world (see Romans 5:12-14).
If left there, death would truly be the end. But God, in his mercy, did something remarkable. He sent his Son, Jesus, to become like us in all ways but sin. Out of love for you and me, he willingly took the consequences of sin upon himself, even unto a most shameful and painful death on a Cross! He truly died. And he truly rose from the dead! Jesus shows us he is stronger than death! That it no longer need be the end! And so Christians can say with St. Paul, “O death, where is your victory… where is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:55)
St. Joseph, patron of a happy death, pray for us!
Christ transforms death from an end to a door to eternal life. But, as Jesus reminded us this past Wednesday’s Gospel, we must ‘Strive to enter through the Narrow Gate’. St. Francis speaks of this too in his Canticle. Heaven is not automatic. We have to prepare for it! And this need rightly lends a little urgency to our life: How do I know if, in God’s sight, I am ready?
Much could be said, but I leave you with this: St. Joseph is the patron saint of a prepared, or happy, death. When he died, he had Jesus and Mary by his side. Are you close to the Lord and to Our Lady? If so, then do not worry. If not… why not?
…to be continued…